Thanksgiving is a time to remember the less fortunate, donate food and host community turkey dinners. But when it comes to coping with unsheltered homeless people, some cities are running low on patience.
The pushback against the homeless comes as President Donald Trump is believed to be readying a tougher approach.Earlier this year, he singled out California, saying “cities are going to hell” due to homelessness and encampments that violate environmental rules.
Homeless advocates say they worry that some public officials are edging back toward policies that could lock up people for camping in cities when they have nowhere else to go.
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“What we call the ‘criminalization of homelessness’ is a big problem,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “I think the problem is getting worse because the housing crisis is getting worse.”
Objections to street camping by hordes of bedraggled people are taking different forms depending on the city:
• Las Vegas: The city council, defying protesters who called it a “war on the poor,” passed a measure this month banning sleeping on the streets if shelter beds are available. Mayor Carolyn Goodman, in a statement, supported the move in hopes it will push more into addiction and mental health treatment “and help break the cycle of homelessness.”
• Austin, Texas: Gov. Greg Abbott had homeless encampments removed under state highway underpasses after Texas’ liberal capital city decided to allow camping on its streets. Saying the city’s policy isn’t working, Abbott ordered the creation of a 5-acre area, complete with toilets, on state land on the edge of downtown, where the homeless can pitch their tents.
• Bakersfield, California: The Kern County sheriff and district attorney’s offices are contemplating jailing repeat misdemeanor offenders, rather than issuing them citations. Many are addicted to drugs and are homeless. Authorities complain many ignore the tickets, skip their court dates and thus never face penalties for less serious crimes. “It’s not about homelessness,” said Deputy District Attorney Joseph Kinzel. “It’s about unaddressed criminality.”
• Spokane, Washington: Voters elected a new mayor, former TV anchorwoman Nadine Woodward, who made homelessness one of her top issues. During the campaign, Woodward said she wanted to reduce the number of homeless people on the streets by getting people with addictions or mental illnesses into treatment — and if they resisted treatment, and had warrants out for drug use or property crime, jail them.
• Phoenix: Homeless people are being forced out of encampments and their personal belongings are being confiscated, said advocates who picketed outside City Hall this month.
The moves come as soaring rents and home costs have elevated the issue of homelessness in many cities. Many lower-income people have been pushed out of housing markets, forcing them to couch surf or live in cars, tents or out in the open.
A federal appeals court found it was unconstitutional to arrest unsheltered people who sleep on sidewalks when no beds in shelters are available. The city of Boise, Idaho, is seeking review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
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Until then, cities and states are trying to cope, especially in California.
The latest homeless count puts the number of unsheltered people in Los Angeles County alone at 44,214, up from 39,396 in 2018.
Homeless people have pitched tents in encampments on bridges and underpasses, in bushy canyons, riverbeds, railroad sidings or simply in front of businesses. Encampments are spread far from Skid Row in the city’s downtown, the traditional home to the city’s down and out.
With few bathrooms nearby, encampments have created public health issues. Complaints to San Francisco’s city services hotline about human or animal excrement on sidewalks rose 35% in 2018, according to an analysis by Renthop.com, an apartment search site.
For the first time, the issue of homelessness joined the economy as top concerns among Californians in a September survey by the Public Policy Institute of California. In tandem with homelessness, rising housing costs also placed high in a survey.
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“People are just feeling anxious and more worried about what’s going on,” PPIC President Mark Baldassare said.
In Los Angeles, nearly two-thirds of voters polled said homelessness is now an “emergency situation” that requires nontraditional solutions, a survey by the Los Angeles Business Council Institute and Los Angeles Times found. The city has embarked on a program to build shelters and permanent housing with a $1.2 billion bond issue, but the rollout has been painfully slow and eye-poppingly expensive.
The Trump administration dismissed the head of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, a move that some believe could result in a new, tougher agenda when it comes to dealing with the homeless. When Trump blasted California over its homeless problem in September, the White House Council of Economic Advisers issued its own prescription for solving the crisis. The recommendations included deregulation to spur construction and lower rents, plus less tolerance for people sleeping on streets.
Some California officials, meanwhile, are proposing their own solutions.
Darrell Steinberg, mayor of Sacramento, the state’s capital, and Mark Ridley-Thomas, a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, have jointly called for a “right to housing.” The state would be obligated to put a roof over the head of anyone who needs it and the poor would be expected to accept it.
The idea is being bounced around and no price has been formally put against it.
“People are very anxious for action,” Ridley-Thomas said. “(It’s) time for a second bill of rights, and one right should be the right to housing.”
He said he has no doubt people who are currently homeless would accept housing if it was offered to them. His message to them: “Come on in. The water’s fine.”
Steinberg said the only way to help the underlying problems of the homeless is to first get them into housing.
“We are getting hundreds off the street,” he said. “But we need to translate hundreds into thousands.”