Homelessness, that sad, often tragic constant in America's most successful cities, is forcing tough choices on many municipal governments.
In Los Angeles, which, along with New York City, tops the country's census of homeless families and individuals, the city council is considering a ban on distributing food to homeless people in public places.
The move is necessary, some residents insist, because lineups of homeless people waiting for meals pose a neighborhood hazard. "If you give out free food on the street with no other services to deal with the collateral damage, you get hundreds of people beginning to squat,” one resident, Alexander Polinsky, told The New York Times.
An actor who lives two blocks from the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition, he told the paper: "They are living in my bushes and they are living in my next door neighbor’s crawl spaces. We have a neighborhood which now seems like a mental ward.”
Similar situations have erupted in other US cities. Neighbors of a church in Ventura, California, claim that an inundation of homeless people in response to church outreach has put their property and even their families at risk. "There's been a whole slew of things that our children shouldn't be exposed to, it's putting them in reckless endangerment," one citizen told a local TV news program, as shown in this video.
Ventura as a city has a longstanding homeless problem, as shown in the following video:
The city of Ventura eventually denied the church a permit to operate the homeless outreach program, citing a host of problems, including an increase of calls to police in the area and potential reductions in property value.
In September 2013, the pastor of a church in Omaha ran into trouble with his neighbors when he allowed two homeless men to camp near his church. Neighbors complained the men became vagrants in the neighborhood, camping out in a garage and causing disturbances.
While the cities in each of these instances claimed to be intent on fairly weighing residents' concerns against the needs of the homeless, at least one organization says legislation that prohibits homeless people from appearing in public, either to be fed or simply to sit, is nothing short of an effort to "criminalize" homelessness. Here's how the National Coalition for the Homeless describes the situation on its website:
Unfortunately, over the past 25 years, cities across the country have penalized people who are forced to carry out out life-sustaining activities on the street and in public spaces; despite the fact these communities lack adequate affordable housing and shelter space. Ultimately, many of these measures are designed to move homeless persons out of [sight], and at times out of a given city.
The need to address homelessness effectively is more urgent than ever. While the recently released "2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress" from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) cites much improvement, New York City, Los Angeles, and other big cities nationwide continue to have tremendous populations of homeless -- as shown in the table below. In LA, the situation has even worsened over the last year despite improved nationwide statistics.
Table 1: Top Homeless Cities in the US
|| Total homeless
|New York City, NY
|Los Angeles City & County, CA
|Seattle/King County, WA
|San Jose/Santa Clara City & County, CA
|Las Vegas/Clark County, NV
|San Francisco, CA
|District of Columbia
|City of Houston, Harris County, TX
|Metropolitan Denver, CO
The problem of legislating the homeless out of city areas isn't unique to US cities. In Budapest, a recent ordinance bans the homeless from living in many public areas. In Abbotsford, BC, the city spread chicken manure over an area frequented by homeless people, in an apparent effort to get them out.
There are no easy answers. Homelessness has many causes, which vary from unemployment and foreclosure to escaping domestic violence, or falling victim to mental illness and/or addiction. Children and teens are often caught up in homelessness because their families are, or because they have nowhere else to go. Disabled veterans with trauma disorders find themselves falling through the holes in the social fabric they fought to keep intact.
These problems aren't easily solved. But prohibiting the homeless from gathering where food or help is offered is nothing more than sweeping a painful set of urban problems under the rug. Cities, and their homeless residents, deserve better.
What do you think? Let us know on the message board below; and don't forget to weigh in on our latest poll, "Hiding the Homeless."
— Mary Jander , Managing Editor, UBM's Future Cities