By Holly Williams
Elm Staff Writer
“Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed to me.” The language on the Statue of Liberty is beautiful but increasingly undemonstrated in the wake of our treatment of one of the most marginalized groups in our society.
In September, the city of Denver terminated a pilot program to provide storage units for the homeless because they had started to sleep in the four by six foot lockers. Additionally, there was vandalism and allegations of other crimes occurring. The locker program appeared after a federal judge recognized the legitimacy of a class action lawsuit against the city. The suit challenges Denver’s police strategy of destroying or confiscating homeless property if they refused to pack it up, allegedly violating the victim’s fourth and 14th amendment rights.
The decision to end the program was met with backlash from homeless advocates, and a rhetoric of fiscal wastefulness and nativity from those opposed. Indeed, it is an oversight of those who implemented the program to assume that homeless individuals would not make use of any potential shelter afforded to them. This incident is indicative of a larger issue, where making the homeless invisible and unwanted in public is prioritized over housing them. The homeless population in Denver has quadrupled in the past for years, and in 2017 crimes against them had risen 42 percent. Denver is only one city in the landscape of criminalization and dehumanization of the homeless.
Local laws and urban architecture across America are designed with hostility towards such populations by targeting their most essential needs: to rest, eat, and sleep. Spikes on underpasses and armrests on benches are perhaps the most visually apparent examples of anti-homeless objectives.
When we alter the design of public property because of a certain social class using it in a way we didn’t intend, the property no longer becomes public. It excludes the poor and the desperate. It’s also just an issue of a community’s outward appearance rather than a genuine solution. A person who can’t sleep in a storage locker anymore will just end up sleeping somewhere else.
Other ordinances take up a policy against “camping,” defined by the city of Denver’s code as “to reside or dwell temporarily in a place, with shelter” or living in vehicles. For homeless who live in places where the population far exceeds the available beds in shelters, they are left with no other options. Even if there is room in shelters, some homeless still choose the streets. Issues of sobriety, mental health, and unsanitary conditions can drive out potential clients from staying in shelters. Eliminating their ability to rest in public won’t eliminate the conditions of their homelessness.
Beyond just shelter, they face the issue of food. Seventy cities ban feeding the homeless for free. One of the reasons commonly cited for such bans is the inability to make sure the food is “prepared safely.” I’d argue that when choosing between no food at all or food donated by volunteers, the latter is the lesser evil.
In 2017, there were 31,095 homeless in Maryland. After a law was vetoed to allow the expungement of non-violent “nuisance” crimes from record, many homeless still face the risk of citations while practicing activities like panhandling, which are inherent to their condition. Such records are likely to bar them from achieving housing, employment, or other opportunities to better their lives.
People who are disgusted when the homeless population is visible or inconvenient should be more disgusted by the fact homelessness exists in the first place. We should work to end these conditions, not criminalize the means people use for survival.