What (Not) to Do about the Homeless




You don’t have to go to the shelter, but you can’t stay here. That’s essentially the message the Columbia City Council would send to the city’s homeless population if it were to pass Councilman Cameron Runyan’s  “Columbia Cares” Plan. The City Council has yet to adopt the controversial plan; instead councilors have adopted a plan that would (among other small reforms) lengthen the period a shelter stays open to seven months beginning September 24th. (That shelter is operated by Christ Central Ministries.)

The Columbia Cares plan described by The State would in many ways emulate policies enacted by other municipalities across the country. Significant and controversial provisions of the plan include:

  • Creating a new shelter/service site 10 to 15 miles outside of downtown that would provide comprehensive services to homeless people.
  • Posting police officers in the Main Street business district to patrol the area in three-man shifts, while simultaneously stressing enforcement of existing public nuisance laws, such as those for loitering and public urination.
  • Posting another officer at an access road to the proposed shelter to keep homeless people from walking downtown.
  • Giving homeless people found to be violating the newly emphasized public nuisance laws an option of going to the new shelter, to jail, or leaving town.
  • Creating a phone hotline for residents to call if they see a homeless person downtown.

The most significant of these “reforms” is the crackdown on enforcing public nuisance laws – a measure that has been attempted by many municipalities and is problematic for a number of reasons, among them the generally detrimental effects on homeless populations. The policy of treating homeless people and their non-violent actions as a criminal issues presents a number of practical and legal problems.

Makes it more difficult for homeless persons to improve their situation

Obviously, spending time in jail is not going to be beneficial to an person’s situation, regardless of their current residential status. An arrest and subsequent jail time harms one’s ability to improve one’s situation by closing opportunities and ending some forms of assistance. An arrest for a non-violent crime such as loitering or public camping can show up on a criminal background check prior to an employment opportunity, preventing a homeless person – or a formerly homeless person – from getting a job. The combination of the negative effects on legal employment prospects and the crackdown on other forms of raising income, such as panhandling and/or cleaning windows, can further result – and has resulted in the past – in more serious criminal conduct by homeless populations.

For example: three years after passage of an anti-panhandling/squeegeeing measure in Toronto a study found that participation in drug dealing and prostitution among male youths who had previously gained income panhandling/squeegeeing were up 13 and 3 percent respectively.

Many landlords also conduct criminal background checks and deny housing to anyone with an arrest record, even if the arrest was for a non-violent crime. Federal guidelines from the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) allow Public Housing Authorities to use a one strike policy to deny housing applicants based on a past arrest. Finally, benefits such as Supplemental Security Income are suspended upon incarceration and a request must be made to reinstate them. In cases of extended incarceration, a new application for benefits must be made, which can result in a loss of benefits for several months or longer.

Waste of public and police resources

Put simply, the more resources the Columbia police department uses on combating non-violent crimes such as loitering, the fewer resources it will have to combat more serious crimes. It seems uncontroversial to assert that police should be focused on preventing and responding to violent crime before victimless acts.

Cracking down on offenses most often committed by the homeless will also result in a waste of city resources. Generally speaking, the cost of housing an individual in a shelter for a night is significantly less expensive than keeping them in jail for the same time period. Cost studies from 2004 to 2009 in twelve different states found that on average cities spend $87 a day to jail a person, while the average cost to house a person in a shelter was only $28. While the Columbia Cares plan is intended to give the homeless the choice of a shelter or jail, a crackdown on anti-nuisance law is calculated to increase the number of homeless in jail on a regular basis.

This crackdown may be unconstitutional

Other cities that have attempted to vigorously enforce anti-nuisance laws against the homeless have been met with a number of legal challenges – some of which have been successful. Anti-panhandling laws can be challenged as violating first amendment freedom of speech rights, and anti-loitering laws can be challenged as violating freedom of assembly and the right to travel. Homeless advocates have also challenged anti-camping and loitering laws successfully. In cases such as Pottinger v.s City of Miami and Jones vs. City of Los Angeles, courts have found that laws criminalizing sleeping, sitting, or eating in public were unconstitutional based on the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment: these activities, the Court found, are instances of “involuntary conduct inextricably linked to status.” As the homeless by definition lack private residences, they don’t have a private place to perform such activities. A law which gives homeless individuals the option of jail, a shelter, or leaving town could also be challenged citing precedent such as Dunn vs. Blumstein in which the Supreme Court held that the right to travel ensures the right to “enter and abide.”

More vigorous enforcement not guaranteed to reduce homeless population

According to a story in the Free Times, the Midlands Area Consortium for the Homeless reported from a one-day count in 2013 that there were 1,518 homeless persons living in Richland County, with 817 of them being unsheltered. The total number of homeless was up by roughly a third from two years prior, and unsheltered persons  in particular were up by 341 from two years earlier. This increase in the homeless population has coincided with an increase in arrests of homeless persons; the Columbia Police Department reported an increase in incidents with the homeless from 659 in 2008 to 946 in 2012. While the increased number of incidents/arrests may be due to an increased population rather than increasing enforcement, it would seem to suggest that the homeless are not being deterred from living in Columbia by the current enforcement of existing anti-nuisance laws. Scholarly research has also found that the perceived friendliness or unfriendliness of a municipality is only one factor and not one of the most significant ones in homeless persons’ decisions on where to live. Brenden O’Flaherty found in research in the mid-90s that, despite New York City being perceived as being one of the most friendly cities for the homeless, 70 percent of the homeless population in the city had been living in the city for more than 20 years, and 93 percent had been living in the city for more than five years. In other words, the perceived homeless-friendliness of the city did not result in a large net in-migration. Other research from New Haven, Connecticut and studies of Philadelphia and New York shelter placements had similar findings. Factors such as community ties and familiarity may overwhelm the effects of pro- or anti-homeless laws in determining the size of a city’s homeless population.

There isn’t one clear solution to solving the problem of homelessness, but treating homeless people as criminals isn’t likely to help them or the city in which they reside. While in our view the issue of homelessness can be best tackled through various forms of private charity, some public efforts to address the issue are superior to others. Any serious attempt to help the homeless should be focused on providing resources that can help them get back to their feet and resume productive lives, rather than treating them like a nuisance to be swept away. In this respect, the current plan adopted by the Columbia City Council is superior to the full Columbia Cares plan.

In short: Any time a governmental body defines a person’s existence as by definition criminal, be suspicious.

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