By Ken Neubeck
Originally printed in the Register Guard
Late one night, Katherine finally fled her husband’s constant emotional and physical abuse, equipped with nothing but a blanket and clothes in a backpack. Having no money, Katherine slept in a downtown park only to be awakened by police, who gave her a $150 citation for prohibited camping and told her to move on. From this point Katherine plummeted into chronic homelessness.
“Criminalization” of homelessness occurs when people who lack housing or safe and legal shelter are forced to engage in natural, life-sustaining behaviors in public spaces and then are punished for doing so. Such behaviors include resting, sleeping and eating. Cities in the United States have increasingly been adopting ordinances, policies and informal practices that punish such behaviors with citations, fines, arrests and jail time.
The city of Eugene is no exception, with its ordinances and policies prohibiting camping on public property, sleeping in vehicles on city streets, and numerous “No Trespassing” signs posted in city parks, under bridges and on vacant city properties. Businesses have obtained city-issued sidewalk use permits that turn public sidewalks into private property. Many have signed “trespass letters of consent” that allow police to charge people who seek nighttime shelter in their doorways with trespassing, a criminal offense.
Sadly, Eugene has a higher percentage of unsheltered homeless people than most U.S. cities its size, all vulnerable to being punished for being unhoused.
Lee fought in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine. He returned home to Eugene with post-traumatic stress disorder and found it necessary to live away from people and confined spaces. One night police cited him for criminal trespassing in the second degree, with a $280 fine. Lee was held for a few days in the Lane County Jail where the inmates, noise and sense of confinement triggered flashbacks of horrific war experiences. Lee now has a criminal record.
Numerous studies have demonstrated that criminalization does not reduce homelessness. Police time, processing in the courts and operating jail beds are all significant public expenses. Criminalization diverts police from responding to and investigating more serious crimes and gives people who are homeless police records for minor offenses that create additional barriers to securing housing or employment, and sometimes securing custody of their children.
A growing body of evidence shows that providing housing — along with social services and case management support that people who are homeless often need (the “Housing First” model) — costs about one third as much as taking a law enforcement approach to homelessness as we do in Eugene.
Eugene officials now find themselves confronted by a variety of forces that demand an end to criminalization of homelessness. United Nations human rights bodies have, over the last few years, begun to speak out strongly against criminalizing laws and practices as a violation of human rights and have called for an end to criminalization. In the words of Sir Nigel Rodley, chairman of the U.N. Human Rights Committee, “I’m simply baffled by the idea that people can be without shelter in a country, and then be treated as criminals because they are without shelter.”
Roger uses a wheelchair, and his Social Security benefits could no longer keep up with rising rents. He cannot stay at the Mission in Eugene because he needs help caring for himself. Roger is living in a protest camp that is striving to raise awareness of the need to end criminalization of homelessness. The campers there help take care of him and protect him. These campers are regularly made to move under threat of citation or worse. In one recent rousting, Oregon State Police gave each camper, including Roger, a citation of $1,000 for trespassing.
Finally, the Obama Administration is responding. The U.S. Department of Justice has issued a “statement of interest” in a lawsuit against a camping ban in Boise, Idaho. The statement calls bans on camping in public when insufficient numbers of shelter beds are available a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which bans “cruel and unusual punishment.”
A similar lawsuit directed at Eugene would involve expensive litigation. A ruling against Eugene would mean the courts, not Eugene officials, would decide how Eugene must remedy the rights violations. Court-mandated remedies could impose enormous costs on the city and on taxpayers.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has also condemned the criminalization of homelessness and has begun to use its funding to provide incentives for de-criminalization. For example, HUD’s nearly $2 billion Continuum of Care Program may soon penalize localities that do not show they have ended or are ending criminalization.
The Lane County Poverty and Homelessness Board is reviewing a $3.2 million COC grant request for housing-related programs benefiting low-income or homeless people in Eugene and Springfield.
Other HUD funding programs on which Eugene relies, such as Community Development Block Grants, are said to be under discussion for de-criminalization incentives.
Federal agencies like HUD and the Department of Justice are sending a message to local communities like Eugene that criminalization will no longer be tolerated.
City officials have obstinately resisted requests to end criminalization by organizations such as the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the Eugene Human Rights Commission, and numerous local advocates for the homeless. But the pressures to do so are building and will continue to build until change occurs.
The situation in Eugene has many parallels to local officials’ resistance to ending school desegregation in Southern and border states in the 1950s and ’60s. At the time, the U.S. government used lawsuits against this resistance and then passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, denying federal funds to local school systems that resisted desegregation. Criminalization of homelessness is a civil and human rights issue to which City officials must drop its resistance or suffer the legal and financial consequences.
As Pope Francis said at New York City’s St. Patrick Church on Sept. 24, “We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing.”
Affordable, permanent housing is the only answer to homelessness. As stopgap measures, city officials should immediately undertake the following:
1) Officially declare homelessness in Eugene to be an emergency, following the lead of Los Angeles and Portland.
2) End the camping ban.
3) End the ban on sleeping in vehicles and work with neighborhood associations to open designated streets for temporary stays.
4) Provide funding for and increase the number of “rest stops” and sanctioned camps, including some that meet specific needs, such as a camp for women, and one readily accessible to people with disabilities.
5) Identify empty buildings and warehouses where people can be sheltered throughout the year.
6) Open one or more day centers where people can go for services and links to day labor.
7) Consider using the first floors of city parking garages for overnight emergency shelter.
8) Fund the crisis intervention services of CAHOOTS around the clock.
The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty is presenting an on-line webinar about why criminalization is not only unconstitutional, but is poor public and fiscal policy, at 11 a.m. Tuesday at the Eugene Public Library. The event is free, but seating is limited.
Ken Neubeck, a volunteer at the Egan Warming Centers and Occupy Medical, serves on the Eugene Human Rights Commission. He wrote this essay with Jennifer Frenzer, who serves on the Human Rights Commission and is on the steering committee of the Nightingale Health Sanctuary; retired Rev. Wayne Martin, who serves on the Nightingale steering committee and on the Human Rights Commission’s Homelessness Work Group, and Michael Carrigan, program director for the Community Alliance of Lane County and a member of the Opportunity Village Eugene board. The views expressed here are their own.