As a result, there are thousands of programs dedicated to ‘ending homelessness’, and billions of dollars spent every year by government agencies, faith communities and private non-profits, all in the hopes of putting homelessness to bed. But sadly, most of these programs are ineffective and homelessness doesn’t seem to be going away.
So why Tiny Homes? Was it a lack of tiny homes that caused our current homeless epidemic? Are Tiny Homes the solution?
In short, no. Tiny Homes are not THE answer. Tiny Homes are only one approach to address homeless issues, and they are not the answer for everyone. But they are a solution that works for some. And for those who Tiny Homes are able to help, they provide life-saving shelter in a cost effective way, often with more dignity and choices than a traditional emergency shelter model.
WHAT WE DO KNOW: Study after study has shown that it is cheaper to house people and then offer them supportive services, than it is to leave people on the streets and continue to let the public pay the bill for emergency shelter services and endless trips to the hospital and jail caused by a hard life on the streets.
We also know that there is not enough truly affordable housing available to people, nor are there adequate services to support people who lack adequate housing.
We know that there is a broken system, because we experience it every day.
The Official Homeless Conversation:
Official conversations around Homeless Policy are often framed as if homeless people themselves are “the problem” in need of fixing. They are the ones who made bad choices, and thus, they are the ones in need of treatment and caseworkers- hence, the majority of homeless programs are focused on ‘behavioral and mental’ health and job training programs.
Today’s homeless policies are designed to help individuals fit into a broken system. Hardly are homeless policies designed to bring about change so that the system actually fits the needs of the people using it.
It is important to note that these programs which government leaders claim homeless people need so badly, are hardly ever funded by the government itself. The majority of emergency services available to homeless people are dependent on private funding – from Rescue Missions dependent on faith communities, to non-profit service provider organizations that rely on private sector funding. Consequently, due to the lack of public investment, most of these services are extremely underfunded and inadequate.
The Metro Denver Homelessness Initiative (MDHI) counted 5,812 individuals experiencing homelessness in Denver during their annual “Point In Time” survey in 2014. MDHI recognizes this to be an under-count due to multiple factors. For one, the survey’s findings are dependent on how many volunteers MDHI is able to get on a given day, and how many people those limited volunteers are able to find within one given day. (As if they knew where every homeless person hung out.) And further, they are confined to using the definition of homelessness offered by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) – which excludes the majority of homeless people. (Under said definition, an entire family staying on the basement floor of someone else’s house temporarily is not considered homeless.) Regardless, this count sheds light on the deficiency of Denver’s Emergency Services.
For the 5,812 individuals counted, there are only roughly 1,000 shelter beds available to them. That means, officially, there are nearly 6 times as many homeless people in Denver as there are beds available.
In 2012, Denver’s Road Home paid for an assessment to be done of Denver’s Shelter System by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Among it’s findings, the assessment stated;
“The shelter system in Denver has less public investment and less overall investment than in many other communities, resulting in lower quality than in some other cities… For example, Philadelphia’s Office of Supportive Housing invests $28 million annually in its emergency shelter system, compared to approximately $2 million invested by the City and County of Denver.”
Ultimately the report recommends a change of focus: Denver should focus on rapid rehousing, not temporary emergency services.
Today, Denver’s Road Home is pushing their new plan for a ‘Solutions Center’ – a 24 hour shelter focusing on behavioral and mental health services. In order to be accepted into the shelter, however, a person needs to be referred to the center by a police officer or other referring agency.
As one citizen commented at the city council’s public hearing over public funds being allocated for this project –
“We’re glad to see that the city is finally putting some money behind the services they are asking for. However, calling this a ‘Solutions Center’ is offensive because it leads people to believe that what homeless people in Denver in need is more cops and case workers, instead of housing and decent wages.”
During the Great Depression, there were over 1.5 million Americans experiencing homelessness. But this was viewed as a societal issue, a structural problem – not as if 1.5 million people all made bad decisions and needed treatment to cure their “homelessness”.
And, surprise, surprise, somehow it worked (Mostly). While the housing programs didn’t help everyone (example: there was still state sanctioned racist policies that meant many people of color weren’t eligible for housing programs) – the New Deal did exemplify how a federal program can effectively address poverty with systemic response. By 1940 – only 3 years later – the official count of homeless individuals went from 1.5 Million to less than 100,000. (This is certainly an under count, but very telling of the programs effectiveness).
And as the national population grew over the next 40 years, the Federal Housing Budget remained well funded, and consequently, the general homeless population remained at all time low – 100,000 people.
In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, however, there was a change afoot in Washington. Political leaders decided it was time to divest from America’s social safety net and housing programs across the country lost the majority of their funding. Between 1978 and 1983, HUD’s low-income housing budget was slashed 78% from $83 Billion to a mere $13 billion (in 2004 constant USD).
The consequences of those actions have been felt ever since. Between 1980 and 1989, homelessness would triple in size – only to double in size again throughout the 1990’s. And in response, more emergency shelters and soup kitchens opened during the 80’s than any other decade.
Meanwhile, Building Codes, which were developed primarily by construction companies (meaning the people who make money off of bigger buildings) became more elaborate and stringent each year, meaning that new construction meant bigger homes and the demolishing of older smaller dwelling units – including Single Room Occupancy Hotels (SRO’s).
What this meant was that for the first time in US history, hundreds of thousands of Americans found themselves not only homeless (as in not having a stable place to live) but also unsheltered in the 1980’s. Remember that in the days of the Great Depression, many people could still find a cheap hotel or simply build their own structure.
Today, the Federal Low Income Housing Budget is still roughly 1/2 of what it was in 1978 – $45 Billion (compared to $83 Billion) – and homelessness has exploded. There are at least 3.5 Million Americans experiencing homelessness each year, and over 1.1 Million of those are children.
But rather than fix the low-income housing budget, and rather than make it more affordable to build low income housing – cities have decided to take on the new stance of “We refuse to pay for poor people to be housed. We would rather pay to keep them in jail.”
The Criminalization of Homelessness in American Cities
In November of 2014, The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) went to Geneva, Switzerland to present to the United Nations’s Committee Against Torture the findings from their newest report: “No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities”.
Denver Homeless Out Loud’s “The Denver Camping Ban: A Report From The Street” was included in the Law Center’s presentation as a shadow report.
Laws that segregate, make criminals of people based on their status rather than their behavior, or prohibit certain people’s right to be in public spaces are not just sad relics from the past.
Today, numerous laws infringe on poor people’s ability to exist in public space or obtain basic needs such as housing, employment, and equal protection under the law.
Our Homeless Bill of Rights (HBR) Campaign stands on the shoulders of social justice campaigns of the past to alleviate poverty and homelessness while protecting homeless and poor people from unjust laws and ensuring all people’s right to exist in public spaces.
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A (not the) Solution: Tiny Homes :
Criminalization of Homelessness–
Violation of Human and Constitutional Rights
1. US Interagency Council on Homelessness
from Searching Out Solutions: Constructive Alternatives to Criminalization, 2012 Report
“These [criminalization] law enforcement measures do not solve the underlying causes of the problem. These measures punish people who currently live on the street and do nothing to reduce the factors contributing to homelessness. Rather than helping people to regain housing, obtain employment, or access needed treatment and services, criminalization creates a costly revolving door that circulates individuals experiencing homelessness from the street to the criminal justice system and back. Sweeps can also result in the destruction of the personal property of people experiencing homelessness, including identification documents and medication. It can be much more difficult to secure employment, benefits, and housing with a criminal record. Many of these measures include criminal penalties for their violation; therefore, they actually exacerbate the problem by adding additional obstacles to overcoming homelessness. In addition, these measures are costly, using critical public resources for law enforcement activities.”
2. U.N. Human Rights Committee Calls U.S. Criminalization of Homelessness “Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading”
from a blog by Jeremy Rosen, National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty
“In Geneva, I pressed the Human Rights Committee to find that criminalization of homelessness in the U.S. violates Article VII of the Covenant, which prohibits cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment….The Concluding Observations [of the Committee] recognized criminalization as cruel, inhuman and degrading, and noted concern that the practice is still routine. It also called on the U.S. to ‘engage with state and local authorities to: (a) abolish criminalization of homelessness laws and policies at state and local levels; (b) ensure close cooperation between all relevant stakeholders including social, health, law enforcement and justice professionals at all levels to intensify efforts to find solutions for the homeless in accordance with human rights standards; and (c) offer incentives for decriminalization and implementation of such solutions, including providing continued financial support to local authorities implementing alternatives to criminalization, and withdrawing funding for local authorities criminalizing the homeless.’….Well, I’ll tell you just why this matters. First, the language is strong. In international law, “cruel, inhuman and degrading” is language typically used to describe torture. By using that language to describe homelessness, the U.N. has made a bold statement about just how poorly homeless people are treated in this country.”
This language will also help us seek policy change. While criminalization measures are implemented at the local level, HUD has significant influence on cities across the country – thanks to all the money it doles out. We’re currently working with HUD to find ways to ensure that communities making the morally right and cost effective choice to provide housing are rewarded, while communities adopting criminalization ordinances risk the loss of certain federal funds. We’re also working with the Department of Justice, which can investigate systematic criminalization as discrimination based on race or disability….That U.N. language will backstop legal arguments opposing criminalization.”
3. National Coalition on Homelessness
from A DREAM DENIED: THE CRIMINALIZATION OF HOMELESSNESS IN U.S. CITIES
“As successful litigation has shown, many of the practices and policies that punish the public performance of life-sustaining activities by homeless persons violate the constitutional rights of homeless persons.
I. Anti-Panhandling Ordinances
One way that cities have targeted poor and homeless individuals is by passing laws that prohibit panhandling, solicitation, or begging. Depending on the scope of the ordinance, these types of laws can infringe on the right to free speech under the First Amendment. Courts have found begging to be protected speech. Laws that restrict speech too much, target speech based on its content, and do not allow for alternative channels of communication can violate the First Amendment…
II. Anti-Camping or Anti-Sleeping Measures
As many cities do not have adequate shelter space, homeless persons are often left with no alternative but to sleep and live in public spaces, such as sidewalks and parks. Even while cities are not dedicating enough resources to give homeless persons access to housing or shelters, some cities have enacted laws that impose criminal penalties upon people for sleeping outside. For example, in Atlanta, the law prohibits what is called “Urban Camping.”
These punishments for sleeping outside have been challenged in courts for violating homeless persons’ civil rights. Some courts have found that arresting homeless people for sleeping outside when no shelter space exists violates their Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.
Advocates also have contended that arresting people for sleeping outside violates the fundamental right to travel. If people are arrested for sleeping in public in a city or certain areas of a city, those arrests have the effect of preventing homeless people from moving within a city or coming to a city, thereby interfering with their right to travel.
III. Loitering Measures
Another tool that cities have used to target people who live outside and on the streets are laws that prohibit loitering. Due to the broad scope of prohibited behavior under loitering laws, cities have used these to target homeless people in public spaces. Fortunately, cities have found these laws less useful, as the Supreme Court has overturned several loitering laws for being unconstitutionally vague.
In several cases, the Supreme Court has found vagrancy and loitering ordinances unconstitutional due to vagueness, in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. A statute is unconstitutionally vague if it does not give a person notice of prohibited conduct and encourages arbitrary police enforcement. Since many loitering laws have similarly broad and vague language, homeless persons and advocates have a strong argument that such laws violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Cities also target people experiencing homelessness by conducting sweeps of areas where a person or several persons are living outside. Sometimes, police or local government employees will go through an area where people are living and confiscate and destroy people’s belongings in an attempt to “clean up” an area. While city workers may have the right to clean public areas, they must take certain measures to avoid violating people’s right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment.
A seizure of property violates the Fourth Amendment when a governmental action unreasonably interferes with a person or his/her property. Courts have found that police practices of seizing and destroying personal property of homeless people violate these constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment. In addition, some courts have also affirmed homeless persons’ right to be free from unreasonable searches even if their belongings are stored in public spaces.
V. Curfew Laws
Some cities have passed laws that impose curfews on minors. These laws can pose problems for unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness. Courts have overturned some of these laws for violating minors’ right to free expression, right to freely move, and equal protection rights. In still other cities, many parks impose curfews.
VI. Restrictions on Feedings
Cities also have indirectly targeted homeless people by restricting service providers’ feeding programs. Historically, cities have attempted to restrict feedings on providers’ property through zoning laws. More recently, some cities have passed laws to restrict feedings in public spaces, such as parks. For faith-based or religious groups conducting feedings as an expression of their religious beliefs, courts have found city restrictions on feedings an unconstitutional burden on religious expression.
Litigation can protect the rights of homeless persons and pave the way for better city approaches to homelessness. Homeless persons bringing a civil action can receive damages or obtain injunctive or declaratory relief. In addition, many cases settle and result in policies or protocols that ensure homeless persons’ rights will be protected.