Want to feed the US homeless? Be prepared to pay for the privilege

Tony Gosling tony at cultureshop.org.uk
Fri Nov 14 13:36:54 GMT 2014

Want to feed the homeless? Be prepared to pay the government for the privilege


Cities are enacting politics to keep homeless 
people out of sight and uphold a social order 
riven by racial and economic inequality
Friday 14 November 2014 12.45 GMT
arnold abbott homeless
Arnold P Abbott tangled with law enforcement 
because he was feeding homeless people in public 
on Fort Lauderdale Beach. Photograph: Andrew Innerarity/Reuters

Homeless people, by definition, have nowhere to 
go – but now in many cities, they have even fewer 
options. While real estate developers tout “green 
space” and the economic “revitalisation” of urban 
landscapes, it’s the sidewalks, parks and plazas 
that have become hostile territory for the poor. 
City lawmakers are trying to “clean up” the 
streets by barring homeless people from parks, 
shunting families into overcrowded shelters and, 
in some places, making it a crime even to help the homeless.

Last week, when a 90 year-old activist 
arrested for feeding local homeless people at the 
beach in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, his outrage 
pointed to a nationwide trend of criminalising 
compassion in the United States. 
to the National Coalition for the Homeless, since 
the start of 2013, 21 cities have imposed 
measures to restrict people from sharing food 
with the needy in public. 
downtown Manchester, New Hampshire, for example, 
churchgoers have been prohibited from 
distributing food to homeless people in a local 
park in a residential area. 
Raleigh, North Carolina, local humanitarians have 
reportedly been banned from giving meals to the 
needy in city parks without first getting a 
temporary special permit that costs some $1,600 per weekend.

Meanwhile, local governments have used “quality 
of life” strictures as a pretext for barring 
homeless people’s public presence. About a third 
of the 
by the National Law Center on Homelessness & 
Poverty have sought to destroy homeless dwellings 
by prohibiting “camping” in public – a 60% 
increase since 2011. About the same percentage of 
cities also ban “loitering” and some explicitly 
prohibit sitting or lying down in certain public 
places – presumably just to make sure the homeless don’t get too comfortable.

While a city can profit from the fines, fees, 
tourism revenues and real estate investment 
generated by commodifying public space, the 
ultimate cost is borne by those who can least 
afford it: the impoverished and the homeless. 
These days, even those who reach out with a 
simple act of charity are punished for their “misconduct”.

But these regulations aren’t about maintaining 
“quality of life” for the local community’s 
residents: the laws are simply about colonising 
the commons to make it safe for the rich, 
typically to the exclusion of others. Their 
proponents are using the allure of social harmony 
to paper over the shame of massive inequality.

The anti-homeless crackdown is just the latest 
the long history of the battle for common space. 
Governments have always deployed “nuisance laws” 
to marginalize unruly people whom the affluent 
disdained as an environmental blemish: beggars 
were rousted, vulgar gathering spots like “bawdy 
houses” got busted in “vice raids”. And today, 
low income tenants get policed at every turn, 
while their 
<http://reimaginerpe.org/node/919>communities are 
systematically displaced by development and 
zoning policies that 

The authorities have a point: some elements of 
urban life do make the streets seem disorderly, 
even chaotic. But simply erasing them from the 
landscape degrades the color and vitality of the 
urban social fabric. More dangerously, by 
excluding working-class people from common 
spaces, cities scrub their streets of evidence of 
the real human condition without solving any 
actual social problem – just the appearance of one.

Handing out food to the homeless is certainly not 
a long-term solution to homelessness or chronic 
hunger. But eliminating charity isn’t magically 
going to make homeless people opt for a different 
lifestyle. The choices of the homeless are 
constrained by the absence of social programs, 
healthcare and income support that people need to 
find permanent housing and stability. Policies 
that criminalise the mere sight of homeless 
people uphold a social order riven by racial and 
economic inequality and social alienation, while 
privatising what few shared resources we have left.

As millions struggle with joblessness and 
stagnant wages, many low-income households are 
just one medical emergency or missed rent payment 
away from homelessness. 
to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, 
amid soaring rents, extremely low-income families 
face a deficit in the supply of affordable 
housingof roughly 4.4m affordable units. 
Meanwhile, the supply of subsidised public 
housing has tumbled by about 10,000 units per year.

This widespread instability is the reason why 
than 600,000 people nationwide were without a 
home on a given night in 2013 – a quarter of them 
children. Many could be served by welfare, mental 
health and transitional housing programs, but 
they are isolated from the social service 
infrastructure and now they’re being shut out of 
parks and shoved off the streets.

There is, of course, a more straightforward way 
of eliminating homelessness: providing them with 
Housing First approach runs on the philosophy 
that homelessness is primarily a housing problem, 
and that housing is a human right. The first step 
is to satisfy the immediate need for stable 
shelter, and then supplement that with 
long-term supportive services – from case 
management for someone seeking drug treatment to 
placing someone in job training, or just helping 
someone pay her first security deposit.

Housing-focused programs 
proven successful in significantly alleviating 
homelessness in Phoenix, Salt Lake City and 
Seattle, and Housing First been shown in various 
studies to limit the time that people spend in 
jails, shelters and hospitals. And, under this 
approach, homeless people aren’t arrested or 
banished from sight: they get access to stable 
housing and supportive social services. Taxpayers 
win, too, as long-term solutions eliminate costly 
short-term interventions and emergency room visits.

If this common-sense solution seems absurdly 
obvious, remember why cities resort to exclusion 
and policing in the first place: we’ve grown 
accustomed to seeing walls and fences as the only 
solution. After generations of trying to make 
“undesirable” people vanish from the public’s 
midst, too many privileged people no longer even 
recognise the signs of desperation that surround 
us . We’ve forgotten what our own humanity looks like.
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