Living on the streets or in public spaces means constantly being vulnerable. This includes being susceptible to natural disasters, to illness, and to the system and people we have in place to ideally protect us: law enforcement and our criminal justice system. Cities are responding to growing frustrations towards homelessness from the public with a new tactic; legislation designed to hide the homeless rather than help them.
Being homeless is not explicitly illegal in the United States, but currently there are civil and criminal laws which make the behaviors of homeless people illegal. “Law enforcement threatens or punishes homeless people for doing things in public that every person has to do. This includes activities such as sleeping, sheltering oneself, asking for donations, or simply existing in public places.” It also includes arbitrarily enforcing other laws, and the practice of sweeps, which displaces homeless people from outdoor public spaces through harassment, threats, and evictions from living in camps. These activities make it very difficult for homeless people to exist without committing a crime.
A report from the National Homelessness Law Center tracked the upwards trend of criminalizing homelessness in 187 cities and found that it actually has an adverse effect. In these cities, the practices of camping in public increased by 92%, begging increased by 103%, and loitering increased by 35%. These trends happen for many reasons, but partially because certain periods of incarceration under laws criminalizing homelessness directly harms a person’s ability to maintain or access public housing. Furthermore, when a homeless person has been arrested for unavoidable behavior, they now have a criminal record and will often miss work for an extended period of time. This creates barriers that lessen the likelihood of employment or losing a pre existing job.
Also, court costs associated with resolving or appealing a case can amount to hundreds, or even thousands of dollars. Individuals who do not have the resources to pay are then subject to additional jail time, once again interrupting any chance at maintaining employment. In these ways, an arrest or conviction can lead to lifelong barriers. The consequences of civil penalties are similar, as unpaid tickets lead to bad credit scores which can easily bar a person from housing access. Unpaid tickets can also lead to the suspension of one’s driver’s license or repossession of a vehicle, which drastically limits the prospects of work for that person.
The 2019 federal court case Martin v. City of Boise, involved 6 residents of the city who had experienced homelessness and were arrested or cited due to violating a city ordinance that made it a misdemeanor to use “any of the streets, sidewalks, parks, or public places as a camping place at any time.” The plaintiffs claimed this was a violation of their 8th amendment Constitutional rights, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The court ruled that cities can not arrest or punish people for sleeping on public property unless they provide adequate and accessible indoor accommodations. While this ruling acknowledged the fact that it is unfair to criminalize individuals for behaviors that are unavoidable, and presumed they had a choice in the matter, there are still too many people in local governments who think the right answer to homelessness is arresting people.
The majority of cities have too few shelter beds, this shortage has been made worse since federal funding was scaled back in 2012. Our system gravitates towards the easiest and quickest solution to homelessness, which is arresting people and getting them out of sight; however, this is far from an adequate solution, as whether people are in jail or on the streets, they nevertheless remain homeless. This “solution” is an attempt to avoid the core issues of homelessness and does not offer people the necessary resources to alleviate the barriers that cause homelessness in the first place.
By Zeff Worley
It’s no secret that climate change is here to stay. This past June was the country’s hottest in 127 years. A record-shattering heat wave in the Pacific Northwest brought Portland to 116 °F and killed at least one billion sea creatures on the coast. The United Nations’ most recent published study on the effects of climate change puts it in stark terms: “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.” If intergovernmental policy does not adequately limit greenhouse gas emissions sooner rather than later, then the world will continue to heat up at an unprecedented rate.
By Meghna Phalke
As voting is one of the most fundamental rights of our democracy, its absence removes an American citizen’s agency and voice in a way that very little else can. Although every state is obligated, under the law, to make accommodations for people experiencing homelessness, these people remain hindered by bureaucratic red tape. There is very little data collected regarding this issue, but in 2008, only one in three people experiencing homelessness registered to vote, and in 2012, only about 10% actually voted (Vertenten 2020).
By Kimberly King
Homelessness is a complicated issue our society is plagued by. A result of a system-wide problem that has been perpetuated for decades; it has been a challenge to envision a society where homelessness can be eradicated. Strides towards this possibility are hindered by stigma, stereotypes and myths associated with homelessness. The types, common causes, intersections, and experiences of individuals facing homelessness are often overlooked. Although our society has taken steps to tackle this issue, such as through rapid rehousing programs, there is still much work to be done. A 2020 study by Barbara Duffield looks at reimagining how children and families can benefit from homeless assistance. This study piqued my interest in how our society can re-envisage the future of eradicating homelessness by taking a deeper look at the current responses and re-evaluating new ways to reshape for better solutions.
By Benedicta Bonsu
Reading the articles, “Social Factors and Ending Homelessness Around the World,” by Atlanta Mission, and “Dismantling the Harmful, False Narrative that Homelessness Is a Choice” by Urban Wire inspired me to share awareness of what can be done as a society at large, to effectively resolve the homelessness crisis. Both articles leverage social connectedness as a helpful solution to shaping social justice for the present and future. To dismantle the crisis, it is equally important to recognize that homelessness is rooted in a lack of stability in a person’s life foundation and affordable housing.
By Alex Kirchner
Poverty comes at a cost. Some of these costs may be familiar, like housing that’s unaffordable when earning minimum wage, or healthcare emergencies that can quickly overwhelm uninsured families. For families living below the poverty line, these costs make up a disproportionate amount of their income and can also lead to poor public health and weaken the overall economy. Nowhere is this more true than when considering one expense that is easy to overlook, but that no family can live without: electricity.
By Hannah Miller
This week, the Biden Administration is preparing to distribute a $1.9 trillion economic relief bill to qualifying Americans, the third round of stimulus packages which arrives one year after the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a global pandemic. Notably, a substantial portion of the bill is directed towards individuals, 54% to be exact, compared to the previous packages under the Trump administration which placed a larger emphasis on business directed assistance (Long, Flowers & Van Dam, 2021). The economic impact of the pandemic has been vast, unmeasurable even, weighing most heavily on vulnerable populations, including folks experiencing poverty and homelessness.
By Francess Dunbar
Millions of Americans take advantage of their local food bank every year, and that number has only grown during the pandemic (1). Cook County alone has almost 800,000 food insecure residents, a more than fifty percent increase since 2018 (2). But difficulties with distribution and social distancing have created new lines and delays at pantries even as rising unemployment has increased demand, and the older volunteer base which often sustains food distribution organizations has been forced inside indefinitely. The public transportation systems which patrons of food pantries often depend on have become vectors of transmission.
by Alex Galván
Outreach and Family Engagement Administrator at Chicago HOPES for Kids
What is Mutual Aid?
Mutual aid is “cooperation for the sake of common good” – to put it simply. It is not charity, nor is it a way to “save” people, but instead an acknowledgement that, as people, our survival is dependent on one another, and it serves as a way to bring people together to meet each other’s needs.
During 2020, as government support for citizens remained scarce, communities across Chicago bound, and continue to bind, together to support one another. From providing cash assistance to those in the service industry through the Service Worker’s Support Fund, to delivering care packages for seniors through My Block, My Hood, My City, Chicagoans have shown dedication to showing up for one another.
By Tanisha Shelton
Mental health is a serious topic in the world these days as more Americans than ever before are suffering from mental and emotional stress (MacMillan, 2017). One population of people lacking recognition and treatment for those disorders are people experiencing homelessness – a group that is often overlooked by those with stable housing and basic necessities. Due to the trauma of homelessness, coupled with the lack of accessible mental health resources, people experiencing homelessness are at increased risk of experiencing mental health issues, thereby putting them at increased risk for suicide.