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Stop punishing the homeless

New York Mayor Giuliani's policy of arresting homeless people reflects a recent negative trend. As growing numbers of ragged, destitute, often ill people populate public places, US cities have enacted punitive measures that "criminalize" homeless people's public presence.

While there is a growing awareness in some cities of the futility of this approach and the need for constructive responses, Mr. Giuliani is turning the punishment of his poorest constituents into a political crusade.

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For two decades, American cities have been struggling to get their homeless residents off the street. Ironically, instead of finding solutions to help homeless people become self-sufficient, many cities have simply criminalized activities associated with homelessness - an effort to "sweep" the problem away.

For example, in Dallas it's a crime to "sleep or doze" in a public place. In Tucson, it's a crime to lie or sit on public sidewalks. The city even considered privatizing its sidewalks to allow business owners to enforce this restriction. In Chicago, where the police regularly "sweep" areas of homeless people, the city has built fences around public areas and issued permits to businesses to use them.

In one major court challenge to laws like these, a federal judge in Miami invalidated that city's policy of arresting people for sleeping in public places. With at least 6,000 homeless people in Miami and fewer than 700 shelter beds, the judge said that it is unconstitutional to punish people for the necessary, otherwise innocent act of sleeping simply because it is done in public - if there is nowhere else to go. The absence of an alternative is the crucial, often overlooked, point. We're not advocating a "right" to sleep in public.

Certainly human beings should not be living in public places. What some cities have lost sight of is that the logical, humane, constitutional, and effective way to stop the use of public places as living spaces is to ensure there are indoor alternatives. Yet by the cities' own estimates, the resources available are woefully inadequate. Nationally, according to the US Conference of Mayors, cities surveyed must turn away 26 percent of requests for emergency shelter because of lack of space. The shortage of permanent affordable housing is even more severe. Nationally, according to government data, three extremely poor households compete for every unit of affordable housing. The shortage of mental health and substance-abuse treatment is severe too.

In the Conference of Mayors survey of 30 large cities, 19 identified the lack of substance abuse treatment and 17 identified the lack of mental health services as major causes of homelessness.

Jailing the ill and addicted isn't just cruel, it perpetuates and deepens their problems. And while most homeless people risk only their own safety, untreated mental illness or addiction may also pose dangers to the public.

In New York, where Giuliani is making a crusade of punishing homeless people, there are up to 81,000 people without homes and just 27,000 spaces in shelters and temporary housing. The waiting list for federal housing assistance is as long as eight years. What's more, the city has cut back its own production of housing for homeless people by 87 percent.

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More recently, however, some cities have begun to realize this approach isn't only inhumane and potentially unconstitutional, but it's also senseless and ineffective. Punishing people for living in public when they have no other place to go simply won't work. Creating solutions to the reasons people are on the streets will. Now, some cities are adopting more constructive, pragmatic approaches.

In Miami, the county government has adopted a 1 percent meal tax to fund shelter, housing, mental-health care, and job training; neighboring Broward County is considering a similar gas tax. In Portland, Ore., police work with social-service groups to help homeless people move into housing. In Memphis, a specially trained police unit works with social workers to provide outreach and aid.

Some business groups are joining in. Tellingly, in New York, the Times Square business district provides outreach, shelter, and housing referral services. While all these efforts are small steps, they are at least steps in the right direction. They should be built upon and expanded.

Humane, pragmatic, and forward-looking policies to address homelessness exist and are now being implemented. Political leadership is needed to move forward constructively. It's imperative that the mayor of New York get with the program.

*Maria Foscarinis, a lawyer, is executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, in Washington, D.C.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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