A Dream Denied:
The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities
Narratives of the Meanest Cities
#1 Sarasota, FL
In February 2005, the City Commission unanimously approved an ordinance prohibiting “lodging out of doors.” The previous “no-camping” rule was ruled unconstitutional by a state court last year because it was too vague and punished innocent conduct. The new rule prohibited using any public or private property for “lodging” outdoors without permission from the property owner. While not completely mitigating the negative impact of the law, the city took a more positive approach to the issue in this law by including a requirement that police officers, once a year, offer people who violate the law a ride to the shelter, instead of jail. The commissioners said that the ordinance would protect public safety and property while helping homeless people find shelter. Although the city was confident that this ordinance would stand up in court, critics said that it was still too vague. It was not clear how many “lodging” activities, such as making a fire, laying down blankets or a sleeping bag, and putting up a tent, would have to be happening in order for a person to be arrested. Moreover, the police were not required to give a person a ride to the shelter if the person was intoxicated, using drugs, or did not have proper identification.
Like its predecessor, this ordinance was short-lived. In June 2005, a state court found the “no lodging law” unconstitutional. County Judge David L. Denkin said the ordinance gave police officers too much discretion in deciding who is a threat to public health and safety, and who is just taking a nap on the beach. The judge, however, recognized the “good intention” of the city commissioners. The city claims it is important to the city’s residents. City commissioners have long insisted that the ordinances are about protecting people, but the ordinance has been used to arrest homeless persons. Assistant Public Defender Chris Cosden believes the city should give up: “The city has tried twice, and failed twice [with its ordinances]. The city has to step back and realize there are some things you just can’t do.” On a positive note, Fredd Atkins, a Sarasota City Commissioner, agreed that the city has “spent enough money trying to do the wrong thing right,” suggesting the money be committed to solving the root causes of homelessness.
Nonetheless, in August 2005, the city commissioners passed yet another ordinance, strangely similar to the previous two that were ruled unconstitutional. The new ordinance makes it a crime to sleep without permission on city or private property, either in a tent or makeshift shelter, or while “atop or covered by materials.” The city commissioners invented a list of criteria to determine if a person violates the new law. One or more of the following five features must be observed in order to make an arrest: “numerous items of personal belongings are present; the person is engaged in cooking activities, the person has built or is maintaining a fire, the person has engaged in digging or earth-breaking activities, or the person is asleep and when awakened states that he or she has no other place to live.”
Advocates are shocked that the ordinance actually includes being homeless, or having “no other place to live” as itself a criterion for arrest. Advocates argue that this ordinance, like its predecessors, targets homeless people.
The new law has been challenged in state court by defendants who were charged under the law. The court upheld the law, finding it constitutional.
#2 Lawrence, KS
Downtown street merchants complained to city officials in December 2004 that homeless people were intimidating customers with “aggressive panhandling,” and that groups of people regularly spent the night camping on the rooftops of their...
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