The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.” Anatole France, 1894
At a time when the price of housing is racing ahead of wages many cities have moved aggressively against people who don’t have homes. This aggression is not to solve the problem. It is to hide it. 71 cities across the country have passed or tried to pass ordinances that criminalize feeding the homeless, according to Michael Stoops, director of community organizing at the National Coalition for the Homeless.
Often called “sit/lie” laws, they bar sitting or lying down on any street, sidewalk, entrance to a store, alley or other public place. Over the last several years there has been exponential growth in the number of cities with ordinances that effectively prohibit life-sustaining activities.
- 64 cities ban sleeping/camping in public places, a 62% increase since 2011
- 81 cities ban sleeping in cars
- 200 now ban sitting or lying in public places
- 71 have banned or proposed a ban on feeding the homeless
- 76 percent of cities prohibit begging in particular public places, an increase of 20 percent since 2011
These ordinances include criminal penalties for violations. People who do not have enough money for adequate shelter are fined for sleeping outside. Just sitting on a bench in a public park can lead to arrest or a fine.
Cities even impose fines on good Samaritans who take food to homeless people and hand it out publicly.
Daytona Beach police cited Debbie and Chico Jimenez and four friends more than $2,000 for cooking and serving hot meals to homeless people in a public park. The police cited them for violating a local ordinance that prohibits such public feedings.
Homelessness happens for a reason.
Many homeless people work or want to work. These “sit/lie” laws are punishing people because they do not earn enough money to afford housing. Adding criminal offenses to their records won’t make it easier to find work or move into better paying jobs.
People with mental illness need treatment, not jail. Easier access to quality services and affordable housing will reduce homelessness. It is actually cheaper to provide a home than a jail bed.
Investments in prevention and treatment are the logical solution for people who become homeless due to drug dependencies. In fact, many homeless people with drug addictions started out as patients in need of legitimate pain medication. Despite public perception more people are addicted to prescription medicines than to any street drug. Opiate painkillers like Vicodin and Percoset have taken many people hostage when used improperly or for too long.
It is irrational to use sit/lie laws to address homelessness. We have research and experience on how to solve its root causes. If we shift money from the costs of the justice system to housing and treatment, we will save money on jail costs and improve our communities at the same time. Moreover, our law enforcement community can spend their time pursuing criminals who are actually violent or destructive.
Once cities have created these laws they cannot pick and choose when to enforce them. Otherwise, they are leaving themselves open to lawsuits for civil rights violations. Cities that do enforce their bans fairly will round up far more people than the homeless.
Before you take a seat on a park bench make sure you do not live in one of the 200 cities where it is banned. Do not expose your compassion for others by providing food to the needy. And do not let yourself fall asleep on a public beach even if you go there to relax. Going to jail for sleeping in public would be a hell of a way to spend your vacation.