In an important step for the rights of the homeless, the Obama administration has announced that federal funding to combat homelessness will be tied to municipalities cracking down on criminalization of the homeless. The move comes after the administration argued last month in federal court that local ordinances criminalizing homelessness – an pressing issue given the recent uptick in homelessness in many cities – are a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The change in policy comes at a time when inhumane laws criminalizing the homeless have proliferated at an astounding rate. A recent report by UC Berkeley, for example, identified more than 500 such laws on the books in only 58 cities in California, where the homeless population has reached epidemic proportions and efforts to address it have generally ranged from the misguided to the totally inhumane. Such laws, typically shrouded in language identifying them as “quality-of-life,” or – without any irony regarding the similarity to Reconstruction-era Black Codes – “anti-vagrancy” laws, make it illegal to do things like sit down on a sidewalk, panhandle, or sleep in public places. Given the shameful inadequacy of most cities’ shelter programs and their often-inhumane conditions, these new laws have left the homeless, many of whom are working, with very few options to live a law-abiding existence.
The administration’s move applies specifically to almost $2 billion of Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grants that are provided to localities annually to combat homelessness in public-private partnerships. Under the Fed’s new rules, in order to qualify for the grants cities must describe the efforts they are making to combat the criminalization of the homeless through working with law enforcement and promoting new, more humane ordinances. Homeless advocates hope the policy will have a similar effect to an earlier Obama administration initiative, Race to the Top, that tied the provision of federal education funding to local districts raising their standards. Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, praised the move, saying: “We welcome the federal government’s direction of tax limited dollars to the places that will most effectively use that money to address homelessness.
Besides the obvious human rights benefit of directing sparse homelessness funding to beneficial rather than combative initiatives, the new policy will save money for both taxpayers and municipalities given that criminalization initiatives have been found to be counterproductive and leaving the homeless on the streets – as criminalization without funding for support ensures – costs more than three times as much as providing basic housing and services to the homeless population. The Obama administration deserves to be commended for its efforts to support the homeless, who often seem to exist in a marginalized and disadvantaged world outside the aegis of the rights and freedoms that most of us take for granted.
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.