These are the words of one man who lost everything when city police in Akron, Ohio took apart a homeless encampment and confiscated the campers’ belongings. In 2013 Patrick Moe lost his military service papers and pictures of his late wife in this “homeless sweep”.
In October 2014 Akron police once again removed virtually everything from another homeless camp. It was the latest in several the City has done since 2011. Students and professors from the Case Western School of Law have stepped in on behalf of 11 people who lost everything they owned because the police took their belongings and disposed of them. In essence confiscations imply homeless people don’t even have the right to own things.
These sweeps are part of a growing trend to criminalize people for following their survival instincts. Beyond the citations for sitting on the sidewalk or sleeping in a park the cities that claim they don’t know what else to do are disingenuous. Even police policy resources such as the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing provides guidance on how to address homeless encampments without creating even more hardship.
The Center’s advice speaks to the issue of reducing the police departments’ exposure to lawsuits about infringement on civil rights and loss of personal property. They describe processes about notification, researching whether the property is legally protected from trespassing and more. This only makes sense for a resource for law enforcement organizations. This does not make its guidance any less valuable to achieve better ways to resolve the issues fairly, without making a lot of arrests or taking property.
The report even educates its readers about the “Housing First” approach. This strategy provides supportive housing for disabled people who have long histories of homelessness. Housing First is just what the name says – the person in need obtains a safe and secure place to live so they can focus on solving the problems that led to their homelessness.
An excerpt from a chart on the Center’s web site shows the work it has done to create a useful policy and procedure template.
Interestingly, the Center’s report is consistent with the experience of dozens of cities trying to reduce the visibility of homelessness by imposing penalties on people for following their survival instincts. It relies on the myth that people are choosing homelessness and its misery. If we punish them enough they will suddenly have the means to gain a home.
In reality criminalization of homelessness and destruction of homeless camps are fools’ errands that only increases social and economic costs. Solutions to homelessness restore people to better health, gives them more opportunity for successful employment and reduces hospital and jail costs.
Ordinances penalizing people who have to live in tents instead of houses; who have to walk endlessly to find bathrooms open to them; and who have no better place to sit in the rain than near buildings with overhangs ignore the realities of homelessness. We can do more to solve the problem and save their lives and dignity.
Instead of solutions we are going backwards. It’s one thing to ban people from sleeping in public. Are we really going to take their cherished pictures or their only pair of boots, too?