Is South Carolina at War with the Homeless?

EQUALITY OF THE LAW OUGHT TO MEAN SOMETHING

South Carolina has a homeless problem. That’s especially true in Columbia. The problem isn’t that the state and city are overwhelmed by an enormous homeless population – although the numbers in both cases are significant. The problem, rather, is that both the state and city have passed or promoted policies that harm their homeless populations while providing little or no benefit to anyone else. These policies, whether intentional or not, establish a precedent of second class citizenry for the homeless and in some cases are directly counterproductive to alleviating homelessness in the long term.

Clearly, municipal governments are justified in protecting citizens from harassment and ensuring that public areas remain free from nuisances, and it’s not always easy to know what policies will ensure those ends without infringing on the rights of citizens. But there are already laws prohibiting loitering, harassment, public urination, etc., and singling out a class of citizen because people in that class are apparently more likely to fall afoul of these laws is both wrong and unconstitutional. Policies that target some certain groups of citizens, however “effective” in the short term, encourage public officials to target disfavored classes in other ways.

These discriminatory policies aren’t simply relics that legislators and city council members lack the political will to dismantle. Legislators and Columbia City Council members have passed or promoted punitive and counterproductive policies in the past, and many exhibit a continued zeal for these policies.

One recent example is a proposal before the Columbia City Council that would make public parks either fully or partially off-limits to people over age 12 who are not supervising a child. If passed, the ordinance would simply add one more place that is off-limits to the homeless, increasing the day-to-day difficulties they face. This proposal violates the idea of a public park, an area that should be open to all – a principle implicitly recognized even by the federal government, which refuses to provide funds for parks that exclude members of the public.

Less than a year ago the City Council tried and failed to pass a measure that would have restricted the movement of the homeless population even further than the park proposal. The “Columbia Cares” plan would have ramped up enforcement of “public nuisance” laws (such as loitering) targeted at non-violent individuals in the downtown area. Those found by police to be violating these laws would have been given the option of leaving town, moving to a designated shelter 10 to 15 miles outside of town, or going to jail. In public statements, the plan’s proponents seemed far more concerned with downtown business interests than the well-being of the homeless.

On the state level, the House of Representatives returned for a one-day session August 27 for the purpose of addressing two bills vetoed by the governor and subsequently overridden by the Senate. One of the bills considered will criminalize the entering of a public library after being warned by library staff not to return, provided the staff member issues the warning in the presence of a police officer. The House overrode the governor’s veto by a vote of 75-36 without a word of debate.

As Governor Haley pointed out in her veto message, the bill – now a law – is ripe for abuse. It permits the banishment from supposedly public libraries for mere allegations of misconduct. Further, sending or designating police officers to act as witnesses to warnings by library staff hardly seems an appropriate use of law enforcement resources.

The state legislature has also just passed a measure restricting the rights of the mentally ill, a group that has a significant overlap with the homeless. Act 22, passed in 2013, bars “mental defectives” from possessing or purchasing firearms, despite the negligible contribution of the mentally ill to the overall level of violence in America.

Some of the state’s laws most destructive to homeless recovery are far longer standing. South Carolina is one of 14 states where conviction of any sexual offense requires a lifetime presence on the sex offender registry. This is especially relevant for the homeless because certain crimes that can’t rationally be considered sexual in nature, and are likely to be committed by the homeless, qualify as sexual offenses in South Carolina. For example: conviction of public urination in South Carolina is a sufficient condition for lifetime registration as a sex offender. Once on the registry, an individual must comply with a number of requirements – regular check-ins with law enforcement, etc. – and failure to meet these requirements can lead to further arrests and jail time. The fact that such a minor infraction can lead to lifelong consequences – branding a person as a sex offender and preventing him from living within a certain distance from a school – strongly suggests an improper use of the law.

Most significantly for the homeless, federal law prohibits anyone subject to a lifetime sex offender registration requirement from being admitted to any federally-assisted housing. In South Carolina, then, the unfortunate necessities of homeless life can easily lead to a person being prohibited from using resources intended to help the homeless.

In short: South Carolina public officials should seek to decouple public nuisance crimes from the penalties associated with much more serious offenses. They should also resist imposing further punitive measures on the homeless for simply exercising the right of movement that other citizens take for granted. South Carolina can and ought to be the freest state in the nation – for all its citizens.

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