Criminalising homelessness

In 2016, Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara will be hosting the 50th Super Bowl, an event that will no doubt stir up a great deal of excitement. San Francisco is already preparing for a week of events leading up to the big day, and one of the moves it’s making is an attempt to disappear the homeless community — just as other cities around the world have done in advance of sports events, from Rio to London to Beijing. In all cases, the goal isn’t to help the homeless community, to address social inequality, to provide people with the outreach and services they need to build better lives. It is, very specifically, to get gross icky homeless people off the streets so they don’t upset anyone.

San Francisco in particular has experienced a significant uptick in homeless, for a variety of reasons. Skyrocketing costs of living are putting pressure on people, as are evictions designed to clear the way for more development. The tech industry is creating an influx of newcomers, and with the rise of SoMa firms, most of them want to live in San Francisco rather than points surrounding, and they want nice housing as well as streets that don’t remind them of social inequality on a daily basis.

The city’s shelters and transitional housing are filling faster than the city can build more, leaving many people without resources. The reasonably temperate climate can create a draw for people fleeing harsh weather and the risk of death from exposure — although that doesn’t stop such deaths — and the City by the Bay has become a place where homeless encampments loom under freeway overpasses directly across from the heart of the tech industry, where homeless people seek out places to camp in sidewalks and parks, where people struggle to survive in a hostile environment.

Because even as the homeless community grows, so too does the outcry from citizens distressed not so much with the homelessness, but by being confronted with it. Over the summer in particular, complaints about urine and feces were constant, with people declaring that downtown San Francisco smelled like a sewer. As garbage and clutter accumulated because people had nowhere to put it, people spoke sharply about ‘the homeless problem,’ treating human beings as an epic issue to be swept aside, rather than as individuals with a variety of unique needs.

Homelessness is not something that happens overnight. Many homeless people have untreated mental illness because they couldn’t afford to seek treatment or didn’t access interventions in time. Some of those same mentally ill people self medicate with alcohol and drugs in an attempt to manage their mental health conditions and make them more bearable — and substance abuse can be a contributor to homelessness as well. Others have lost jobs or homes, and cannot recover in a rough economic climate. Some are veterans — and I’ll be discussing this at greater length tomorrow — who have been failed by the VA and their country, left out to rot instead of being supported as they reintegrate into the civilian world and recover from the complexities of war.

Regardless as to how it happens, homelessness is not something people should be blamed or criticised for. It’s usually not the fault of people who experience it — and yes, some people do choose homelessness, and not just irritating hipsters who write thinkpieces about their bohemian lifestyles. It’s a fact of life for some people, and our society’s response to it is to treat homeless people like criminals, to go a step further and criminalise homelessness itself, even though neither move actually benefits the homeless community in any way or addresses the underlying issues that contribute to homelessness.

A growing number of regions are passing sit/lie laws, which prohibit people from resting on the sidewalks and near the streets. These laws are spun in all kinds of ways, but fundamentally they are about punishing the homeless community and creating an excuse for police harassment. In regions without such laws, sitting on the sidewalk is not illegal, no matter how much people complain about it. Cities that pass them, however, can harass homeless people who are resting, panhandling, or engaging in other stationary activities on the sidewalk.

Many cities are also using police to conduct sweeps designed to squeeze homeless people out of encampments and their own communities. They’re destroying communities built by homeless people to protect themselves and each other — safety in numbers is a very real need for vulnerable members of society. They’re pushing people to the fringes, shuffling them around rather than actually getting them into housing or treatment, sometimes even providing them with one-way transit out of town, in a haste to get rid of them.

Hostile architecture has become key to such efforts, as cities install unfriendly benches, lights that repeatedly flash during the night so people can’t sleep, and other measures. Such architecture is deliberately designed to make an environment impossible to sleep or rest in for people who have no space to call home — rather than investing in shelters and support, cities opt instead to persecute their vulnerable residents.

And in San Francisco, Mayor Ed Lee announced, homeless people would need to ‘go away’ in time for the Super Bowl. He didn’t really explain how in his sweeping dismissal of the city’s close to 7,000 human beings in need of housing, but he definitely meant that they couldn’t stay in San Francisco. He called it a public safety issue, but we all know the truth: The issue was that he didn’t want people seeing San Francisco exposed, that he wanted people looking at cable cars and not women wrapped in sleeping bags in the labyrinth of the Civic Center BART station. His reputation as mayor is more important than that of the people who live in the city he oversees.

This is a world that we live in, one where gussying up for sports events is more important than helping people.

Image: Homeless Life in Santa Cruz, Franco Folini, Flickr