Which country do you think does more to help its poor and hungry, the United States or Ghana? While a few cities in the US have made strides towards helping their homeless, most have gone the opposite direction and passed legislation that essentially criminalizes indigence. On the other hand, Ghana may reach their goal of halving hunger and poverty from 1990 to 2015, and that’s in spite of the horrible drought, small harvests, and increasing poverty levels Ghana faced during the mid-1980s. Already between 1990 and 2004, Ghana reduced hunger alone by 75%.
In the US laws against the homeless typically prohibit eating, sleeping, sitting, and begging in public spaces, or selectively enforcing more neutral laws that prohibit loitering, jaywalking, or open containers. Sweeps of areas where homeless people live often lead to the destruction of their personal property, including important documents and necessary medication.
Orlando, Florida has been the recent focus of headlines for its actions against the homeless. Back in 2006, the Orlando City Council passed a law prohibiting groups from sharing food with 25 or more people in downtown parks without a permit, and a group is only eligible to receive two permits per year. The group Food Not Bombs fought the law, but the injunction against it was lifted this past April. Now, in the last week, 12 members of Food Not Bombs have been arrested for feeding the homeless. According to the Palm Beach Post, the homeless and about two dozen activists stood chanting “Food is a right, not a priviledge” as the Food Not Bombs members were handcuffed and led into police vans.
But Orlando is hardly the only city guilty of strict legislation against the homeless. The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless released a report called “Homes Not Handcuffs” that documents the “mean cities” – cities that “stand out as some of the worst examples of cities’ inhumane treatment of homeless and poor people.”
In 2007, Los Angeles spent $6 million for 50 extra police officers to crack down on crime in the Skid Row area. At the same time, the city only budgeted $5.7 million for homeless services. Yet a study by UCLA found that during an 11-month period, 24 people alone were arrested 201 times, costing the city an estimated $3.6 million for use of police, prosecutors, public defenders, the courts, and the jail system. That same amount of money could have been spent far more productively providing supportive housing for 225 people (compared to arresting those 24 over and over again). Many of the citations issued by that enlarged police force in the Skid Row area were to homeless people for jaywalking and loitering. Furthermore, when homeless people are arrested and charged, they may end up with a criminal record that only makes it harder to find employment and housing.
Some people have had luck challenging the laws in court. For instance, plaintiffs challenged the Los Angeles ordinance making it a crime to sit, sleep, or lie down in public spaces since they showed that LA county has only 30,000 available shelter beds but a homeless population of 80,000. That leaves 50,000 people with no choice but to sleep on the street. Thus the Ninth Circuit Court ruled that the LA ordinance violated the Eighth Amendment. But that same argument failed in Orlando since the court found at least one shelter in the city never reached its maximum capacity and never turned people away, so the homeless did have the option to comply with the anti-camping law. And when Las Vegas passed a law similar to Orlando’s against feeding the homeless, the plaintiffs won an injunction in court saying that the ordinance violated “the rights to free speech… to freely exercise religion, the right to freely assemble, equal protection rights, and due process rights.”
Fortunately, some cities in the US have found constructive ways to help the homeless. A coalition of service providers, business groups, and the City of Daytona Beach created a program to give homeless participants jobs and housing, including jobs that help the city like cleaning up downtown Daytona Beach. In Cleveland, Ohio, the city works with the Northeast Ohio Coaliton for the Homeless to coordinate outreach agencies and food sharing groups. Instead of outlawing groups from sharing food with the homless, this approach creates a more orderly food sharing system and even provides an indoor food sharing site that groups can choose to use. And Portland, Oregon placed 936 individuals in 451 households from 2005 through the spring of 2009 through its “A Key Not a Card” program.
Obviously, having volunteered in Ghana myself, I’m all for helping the developing world. The poverty I saw there is on an entirely different level than anything I’ve seen in the US or Europe. But we do have an obligation to help the citizens in our own countries too. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a letter while sitting in a Birmingham jail cell stating: “…an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.” That’s the path the members of Food Not Bombs have chosen to follow in Orlando.
I’m certainly not suggesting anyone go out, break laws, and get arrested. But there are lots of little things people can do. If you regularly pass homeless people on your daily commute, bring along a sandwich or two. Donate old toys, clothing, and household items. And there are hundreds of organizations that need volunteers from soup kitchens to homeless shelters, battered women’s shelters, and even tutoring homeless children. Or, if you have limited time and/or resources, take a few minutes to write your government representative. If they get enough letters, they do sit up and take notice.
I’m as guilty as the next person for getting involved in my own life and not taking the time to help others, but if everyone did just a little bit more maybe we could make a real difference.