Cities Crack Down on Homeless

Activists say recent bans on sleeping on public property fail to address causes of problem

IN the biting winter twilight, 20 men who live along Chicago's Lower Columbus Drive huddled together as they often do whenever they most feel the need for a home.

The men hoped to hold off the winter's first razor slash of arctic air by gathering inside a grimy nest of blankets and cardboard boxes piled against a skyscraper's air vents.

Though the homeless men fended off the night's lethal blast, a sudden sweep by police overwhelmed them. Responding to a request by city street cleaners, police disregarded Chicago's policy of ``friendly persuasion'' toward the homeless and, by shoving, pushing, and arm-twisting, hustled the men from their streetside niche into a shelter.

The controversial Jan. 4 push by police was an anomaly for a city government that usually gets fair grades for treatment of the homeless, even from outspoken advocates for the needy.

Still, the incident typifies the ways in which officials in cities across the United States are making life more difficult for many of the millions of Americans without homes, say supporters of the homeless.

``In a growing number of cities, local governments are showing increasing hostility toward their most needy citizens,'' said a recent report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty in Washington. ``Instead of attacking the problem of homelessness, some cities are now attacking homeless people themselves.''

At least 18 cities nationwide have ``criminalized'' homelessness in the past several months, the report says. These cities have enacted or strictly enforced ordinances barring people from staying or sleeping on public property. Lawbreakers risk arrest, fines, and even jail time.

Seattle recently prohibited sitting or lying on a sidewalk in the business district during daytime working hours. Seven municipalities in southern California ban sleeping on public property, according to the National Law Center.

San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan, who is the city's former police chief, has led the harshest effort to outlaw homelessness with a campaign called ``quality of life enforcement.'' Since last August, San Francisco police have upheld a sweeping package of ordinances against obstructing sidewalks, sleeping in parks, and other ``quality of life offenses.''

The Matrix Program, as it is called, makes a person without a dwelling a lawbreaker by definition, critics charge.

``When criminal activity is defined as sleeping outdoors, every homeless person then becomes a criminal,'' says Greg Winter of the National Coalition for the Homeless in San Francisco.

Many supporters of the homeless acknowledge the right of taxpayers to enjoy public property unhindered by the needy. Still, they say that city officials who remove the homeless from public view are shirking the more difficult task of finding lasting solutions to homelessness by creating housing and jobs and treating mental illness, alcoholism, and drug abuse.

Advocates for the homeless say city officials use strong-arm laws to hide the needy and mollify voters' feelings of shame, revulsion, and pity. These feelings, although sometimes jarring and unpleasant, can help compel solutions to homelessness, advocates argue.

Two recent polls show that most Americans would not necessarily endorse the crackdown against street people. Some 81 percent of Americans would pay higher taxes for government programs to curtail homelessness, according to a Harris poll commissioned by Business Week magazine last year.

Eighty-two percent of the 2,503 people surveyed last July in a Parade magazine poll said governments should not bar the homeless from libraries, parks, mass transit, and other public places.

``Politicians are making a big mistake because people are not frustrated with homeless people, they are frustrated with politicians who refuse to deal with the problem,'' says John Donahue, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

``The homeless are an easy target for officials who want to be seen by the public as doing something about social disorder,'' says Joan Alker, assistant director for the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington.

AS city officials try to make homelessness a criminal rather than an economic or social issue, they are increasingly calling out the police to handle street people. But many police officers are insufficiently trained as social workers, advocates say.

The Jan. 4 police sweep in Chicago underscored how law-enforcement officials should defer to social-welfare officers in matters involving the homeless, social workers say.

According to Chicago policy, the police ``don't have anything to do with the homeless,'' says Daniel Alvarez, commissioner for the department of human services in Chicago. ``We have people who are trained to deal with the homeless.''

In San Francisco, police have handed out 5,500 citations under the Matrix Program. From January until July of last year, police arrested six people for sleeping in the park. In August, the first month under the new program, the police arrested 81 people.

While San Francisco funds a crackdown on park slumberers, it provides only 1,500 beds for at least 6,000 homeless people. The city's homeless must compete for city-funded beds by lottery.

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