Mean streets

By Michelle Chen Jul 17, 2009

In neighborhoods across the country, the swelling of the homeless population has been met not with social services, housing, or even sympathy—but with handcuffs. The National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty report that as more people find themselves without housing, cities getting the homeless off the street by turning them into criminals. According to their survey of 235 cities:

• 33% prohibit “camping” in particular public places in the city and 17% have citywide prohibitions on “camping.”
• 30% prohibit sitting/lying in certain public places.
• 47% prohibit loitering in particular public areas and 19% prohibit loitering citywide.
• 47% prohibit begging in particular public places; 49% prohibit aggressive panhandling and 23% have citywide prohibitions on begging. The trend of criminalizing homelessness continues to grow. Based on information gathered about the 224 cities that were included in our prohibited conduct charts in both our 2006 report and this report: • There has been a 7% increase in laws prohibiting “camping” in particular public places. • There has been an 11% increase in laws prohibiting loitering in particular public places. • There has been a 6% increase in laws prohibiting begging in particular public places and a 5% increase in laws prohibiting aggressive panhandling.

The resulting legal penalties compound other barriers, say the report’s authors, since a criminal record makes it even harder for a homeless person to reemerge from destitution. As more formerly working- and middle-class families spiral toward homelessness, the irony of these “quality of life” ordinances grows starker. But the criminalization of the homeless, who happen to be disproportionately people of color, isn’t just an unfortunate sign of the times. Perhaps one of the ugliest illustrations of the intersection of race, class and the law is on L.A.’s Skid Row, where a disproportionately Black population has not only been denied the dignity of shelter, but further displaced by the hand of the state. Loitering and vagrancy laws have also been used to crack down other marginalized groups who seem to threaten to the dominant social order, like immigrant laborers and youth suspected of “gang” activity. Even on school grounds, urban students of color strain to learn under an intense police presence. In any setting, criminalization is about asserting control—over the physical environment and the norms by which society judges individuals. The same paradigm sculpts the racial segregation of neighborhoods, entrenched in exclusionary zoning laws and the concentration of poverty. The history of this low-grade territorial warfare extends back to the Jim Crow era. Seton Hall law professor Rachel Godsil explains that for generations, the government covertly enforced social divides by manipulating community space:

Beginning in the Jim Crow era and continuing into the late twentieth century, local officials have used their authority to eliminate public nuisances to enact various race-neutral vagrancy, anti-loitering, and most recently, antigang statutes that have had a vastly disproportionate impact upon people of color…. these ostensibly race-neutral statutes have often been focused upon criminalizing and excluding blacks from public spaces.

In a climate of economic anxiety, in which living spaces are being uprooted and class divisions collapsing, it’s not surprising that lawmakers would race to draw deeper lines between “decent” residents and “nuisances.” The sight of the homeless on the streets reminds more privileged citizens of just how precarious the social hierarchy has become. Rather than confront that reality, it’s easier just to make them disappear. Image: Skid Row (mattlogelin via Flickr)