Cities crack down on homeless people across the United States

Published: Monday, June 18 2012 10:39 a.m. MDT

An increasing number of cities across the country are embracing ordinances that criminalize sleeping in public places and panhandling.

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Life for the homeless is getting even more difficult as an increasing number of cities across the country embrace ordinances criminalizing things like sleeping in public places and panhandling.

More than 50 cities, including Atlanta and San Diego, have adopted some kind of anti-camping or anti-food-sharing laws, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. In a recent survey of 234 American cities, the nonprofit found 40 percent prohibit sleeping, 33 percent prohibit sitting and 53 percent prohibit begging in public places.

Some cities are also tightening restrictions on those who help the poor, the Los Angles Times reported. Do-gooders in Dallas and Philadelphia are now prohibited from feeding the homeless without a permit. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently outlawed food donations to homeless shelters because the city can't assess salt, fat and fiber content.

Cities say the laws are designed to better serve the homeless and protect public safety. Advocates for the poor, though, argue the laws hurt, rather than help the homeless.

After Philadelphia passed a law banning feeding the homeless outdoors, a spokesman for the city's mayor, Michael Nutter, told USA Today the law was designed to protect the poor's dignity.

"This is about an activity on city park land that the mayor thinks is better suited elsewhere," said Mark McDonald, press secretary. "We think it's a much more dignified place to be in an indoor sit-down restaurant. … The overarching policy goal of the mayor is based on a belief that hungry people deserve something more than getting a ham sandwich out on the side of the street."

Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania argued, though, "These regulations are directed at the homeless, and no one else."

Earlier this month, the ACLU sued the city on behalf of a group of churches and religious leaders who wish to continue feeding the homeless in public parks.

"The city clearly values its public image over our clients' constitutional right to practice their religion and the needs of the homeless," Shuford said.

In a 2012 policy report, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness urged cities to look for "constructive alternatives" to homelessness rather than passing laws to get people off the street. The report, which called criminalization policy "costly," suggested pulling together government officials, philanthropists, businesses and community members to create a seamless system of care for the homeless.

"Instead of helping people experiencing homelessness move off the streets for good, these ordinances just force them into different neighborhoods. We are not ending homelessness, we are rearranging it," wrote Joel John Roberts, CEO of PATH Partners, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to providing support services to the homeless, in a editorial for the Huffington Post. "The battle to end homelessness can only be won when more permanent affordable housing linked with intensive services is created to house those living on our streets."

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