Arresting the Homeless Doesn’t Help Them
Over the past year, Nashville has seen a 6 percent increase in homelessness and a 13 percent increase in emergency food assistance requests. At the same time, however, there has been a 38 percent decrease in the total budget for emergency food purchases, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors Hunger and Homelessness Survey.
As the homeless population increases and shelters reach maximum capacity, many have no option but to live on the streets. Nashville, like many other cities, has seen the emergence of “tent cities” — where homeless people camp together to pool resources, to establish a sense of community and for safety reasons.
In Nashville and around the nation, overwhelmed law enforcement officials are turning to citations and arrests to manage the homeless population. This is a revolving-door solution as the same individuals end up back in the streets just a few days later.
The American Bar Association opposes punishing people who are homeless for eating, sitting, sleeping, camping or conducting other non-criminal, life-sustaining acts in public spaces when no alternative private spaces are available.
The ABA’s Commission on Homelessness and Poverty encourages lawyers to offer free legal services to people who are homeless, and it supports innovative responses such as homeless courts. Through this system, a case can be dismissed in recognition of the individual’s voluntary participation in community-based treatment and services. These approaches help people who are homeless avoid fines and a criminal record when they are trying to get their life back on track.
Approximately 3.5 million people experience homelessness in any given year. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, based on the estimated depths of this recession, an additional 1.5 million Americans could become homeless over the next two years, absent appropriate intervention.
From a policy standpoint, “quality of life” laws that make it difficult for homeless people to sleep or be in downtown city areas force them away from crucial services and outreach.
A warrant or conviction under one of these laws can make it more difficult — and sometimes impossible — to obtain employment or housing, further escalating the problem.
Published in The Tennessean.