Last week, the City Council of Columbia, South Carolina approved the urgently titled “Emergency Homeless Response” plan. The "emergency" being addressed is the existence of homeless people in downtown Columbia, who city officials blame for slowing recent economic growth in the capital (to be fair, the Palmetto State has been hurting since the Department of Defense made big cuts in the state's funding). The solution developed by Councilman Cameron Runyan is simple: ban homeless people from the city.
The new legislation, which has been described by one advocate for the homeless as the most comprehensive anti-homeless measure passed in 30 years, would force the homeless in Columbia to either check in at a remote shelter outside the city, leave town, or be thrown in jail. To make the plan stick, law enforcement officers will be stationed near the shelter to prevent homeless individuals from returning to the city, and bolstered police patrols will sweep the city to arrest and relocate any homeless person committing minor violations. A hotline will be set up so residents can report any homeless people who escaped the dragnet.
The plan lacks empathy. But that’s not the most frustrating part. The plan is repeating a policy prescription that has failed for the past two decades in cities and states across the country.
According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, approximately 3.5 million people experience homelessness each year. It’s a systemic problem rooted in complex societal issues that require comprehensive, service-oriented responses. Punitive measures like selective enforcement of open-container laws and loitering do not address it. They are typically shortsighted and lack any semblance of long-term planning. The lack of oversight in Columbia’s case is mind-boggling — the homeless population of the city is roughly 1,500, but the designated shelter only holds 240 beds.
Columbia is one among hundreds of U.S. cities implementing ineffective (and cruel) policies. Last week city officials in Raleigh, N.C. enforced a city ordinance that effectively prohibits people from feeding the homeless. This same policy was enacted in Philadelphia last year. This ordinance is impossible to enforce among individuals, but it does cut off important food aid from religious and philanthropic organizations. It’s hard to argue that this isn’t a policy designed to starve the homeless out of cities. After he outlawed food donations to homeless shelters in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg claimed it was because the city couldn’t monitor the salt, fat, and fiber content of donated food.
Punitive measures are sometimes based on extraordinarily petty reasoning. An ordinance passed in Palo Alto this year criminalized living in a car. The justification behind this law was that people living out of cars affect the quality of life in the unofficial capital of Silicon Valley. This law will affect approximately 50 people. As a result, they will be forced to leave Palo Alto or face fines and/or imprisonment.
Widespread resistance to punitive policies has made implementing them a nightmare for politicians. Federal judges routinely protect begging as a constitutional right. A homeless man named Steve Ray Evans successfully sued several cities in Utah in federal court over panhandling citations on the grounds that it violated his constitutional right to freedom of expression. Federal judges have also ruled that searching or destroying a homeless person’s belongings is a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Finally, they have ruled that preventing a homeless person from sleeping in a public space constitutes as cruel and unusual punishment.
Solutions to homelessness exist. Miami developed one of the first successful progressive programs in the 1990s. Instead of arresting homeless individuals and putting the burden of social services on the criminal justice system, law enforcement officers directed the city’s homeless to shelters and organizations that found them resources like subsidized housing, food stamps, and Supplemental Security Income. As a result, between 1998 and 2013 Miami’s homeless population dropped from roughly 6,000 to 350. It also significantly reduced the burden on law enforcement by reducing needless incarcerations.
Banning the homeless is a foolish daydream for politicians short on imagination and decency. Treating them as members of a community requires patience and coordination between policy architects, law enforcement officials, service providers and business leaders. But from a moral as well as practical standpoint, it is the right thing to do.