With A Series Of Small Bans, Cities Turn Homelessness Into A Crime By prohibiting acts like loitering and sleeping in public, cities hope to make streets safer. But advocates for the homeless say this type of legislation can be counterproductive.
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With A Series Of Small Bans, Cities Turn Homelessness Into A Crime

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With A Series Of Small Bans, Cities Turn Homelessness Into A Crime

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With A Series Of Small Bans, Cities Turn Homelessness Into A Crime

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The number of laws that make homelessness a crime are increasing across the country. That's according to a new report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. The laws prohibit everything from sleeping in public to loitering to sharing food. Advocates for the homeless say the laws are only making the problem worse. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Twice a week Susan St. Amour stands on a median strip at an intersection in downtown Portland, Maine asking passerby's for cash. She says she needs the money to get by.

SUSAN ST. AMOUR: For some reason I don't get a bed at the shelter and I have nowhere to stay. That means I can't eat that night unless I have a few dollars in my pocket or it might be because I need to take the bus to the other side of town. I might have a doctor appointment or I just need to get over the other resource center.

FESSLER: But last year the city passed a law that banned loitering on median strips. A federal judge has since declared it unconstitutional but the city plans to appeal. Council member Ed Suslovic says the goal of the law was not to hurt the homeless, just the opposite.

ED SUSLOVIC: This was a public safety threat mainly to the folks in the median strip but also to motorists going by as well.

FESSLER: But Maria Foscarinis of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty says such measures, as well-meaning as they might be, are counterproductive, especially if they subject individuals to jail time or fines that they can't afford to pay.

MARIA FOSCARINIS: It's really hard to get a job when you're homeless anyway, or to get housing. You have no place to bathe, no place to dress, no money for transportation. But then if you also have an arrest record, it's even more challenging.

FESSLER: Still her group says that such laws are on the rise. It found that local bans on sleeping in vehicles had increased almost 120 percent over the past three years. Citywide bans on camping have grown 60 percent and laws against begging have increased 25 percent - all at a time when the government estimates that more than 610,000 people are homeless on a given night.

FOSCARINIS: I mean, it would be nice if you could solve the problem of homelessness simply by outlawing it. But in reality, resources - it takes resources to really end homelessness.

FESSLER: But resources are often difficult for cities to come by, even though numerous studies have shown that housing the homeless is more cost-effective in the long run. Less money is needed for emergency services like hospitals and police. Still, many cities are doing a lot for the homeless even as they pass laws making it more difficult to live outside. Back in Portland, Maine, Ed Suslovic says his city's working aggressively to house homeless residents. And the National Law Center applauds other efforts such as a homeless outreach team at the Houston Police Department.

SUSLOVIC: We tried to eliminate the problems associated with people living on the streets by helping them get off the streets.

FESSLER: Sergeant Steve Wick runs the Houston program. He says officers and a caseworker guide the city's homeless residents through an often confusing bureaucracy to get them the services they need. He says many have mental health and substance abuse problems.

STEVE WICK: You can't tell a person that's been living on the street for a long time you need to do this, this, this and this in order to get off the street 'cause they can't do it. They can do this maybe. If you don't kind of help them through the whole process, they're just kind of stuck. They're stuck on the streets.

FESSLER: He says officers still need to enforce laws against things like urinating in public but that programs like his offer an alternative, more permanent solution. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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