Laws that criminalize homelessness are on the rise across the country, according to a new report by an advocacy group. The laws prohibit everything from sleeping in public to loitering and begging. Advocates for the homeless say the laws are making the problem worse.
Susan St. Amour is among those who could be affected by the new restrictions. Twice a week, she stands on a median strip at an intersection in downtown Portland, Maine, asking passersby for cash. She says she needs the money to get by.
"[If] for some reason I don’t get a bed at the shelter and I have nowhere to stay, it means I can’t eat that night unless I have a few dollars in my pocket," she says. "Or it may be because I need to take the bus to the other side of town. I might have a doctor’s appointment."
Last year, though, the city passed a law that banned loitering on median strips. A federal judge has since declared the law unconstitutional, but the city plans to appeal. Council member Ed Suslovic says the goal of the legislation was not to hurt the homeless — just the opposite, in fact.
"This was a public safety threat, mainly to the folks in the median strip, but also to motorists going by as well," Suslovic says.
To Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, such measures are counterproductive — as well-meaning as they might be. Especially if they subject individuals to jail time or fines they can’t afford to pay.
"It’s really hard to get a job when you’re homeless anyway, or to get housing," Foscarinis says. "You have no place to bathe, no place to dress, no money for transportation. But then, if you also have an arrest record, it’s even more challenging."
Still, her group says such laws are on the rise. The National Law Center found that local bans on sleeping in vehicles have increased almost 120 percent over the past three years. Citywide bans on camping have grown 60 percent, and laws against begging have increased 25 percent. This all comes at a time when the U.S. government estimates that more than 610,000 people are homeless on any given night.