There is no end to the creativity employed by cities and counties in dealing with the problem of homelessness. Unfortunately, much of that creativity is focused on making the lives of our most miserable souls even more miserable.
The city of Manteca (pop. 71,067), south of Stockton in the San Joaquin Valley, took a two-pronged approach to ridding the community of homeless people last week by denying them any kind of habitat, including a hammock, on public or private property, and augmenting state bans on public urination and defecation with a local one of their own.
The first of two ordinances broadly defines transient shelter materials and includes cardboard, corrugated tin, a mattress or a tarp. It also empowers the police to snatch homeless belongings and dismantle their encampments even if the property owner has not complained. Manteca does not have a homeless shelter. According to the Homeless Shelter Directory, the closest shelter to Manteca is in Stockton 10.82 miles away.
The second ordinance, an outdoor bathroom ban, will be particularly effective in policing the homeless, coming shortly after the city closed public restrooms in Library Park, the only ones available to them. The park is a favored gathering spot for homeless folks. The ordinances take effect December 4.
Manteca is obviously not the first city to try and cure a problem with the homeless by driving them into someone else’s backyard. A report from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty earlier this year found that half (53%) of the 187 U.S. cities it monitored have ordinances against people sitting on the sidewalk.
Thirty-four percent of the cities have laws against camping in public anywhere, while 57% target specific sites. Twenty-four percent prohibit begging citywide while 76% ban it in certain areas. Thirty-three percent prohibit “loitering, loafing and vagrancy” citywide, while 65% limit the ban to particular spots. Forty-three percent prohibit sleeping in vehicles and 9% refuse to allow food sharing with homeless people.
Bans on food sharing cut to the chase on whether ordinances restricting homeless activities are meant to protect the public from specific bad behavior, like defecating in public, or punish the homeless with the intent of driving them away. Not feeding people tends to point to the latter.
A report (pdf) from the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) last month identified at least 31 cities nationwide that restrict or ban sharing food with the homeless. A 90-year-old chef, Arnold P. Abbott, was arrested last week in Fort Lauderdale for violating the city’s restriction on public feeding of the homeless and faces two months in jail. He has been feeding the homeless since 1979 and started a foundation in 1991 to support his charitable work.
The National Law Center’s report points out that cities often criminalize homeless behavior while instituting policies that inevitably lead to it. Santa Cruz offers no shelter or housing options to 83% of its homeless population, but has made it unlawful to sleep in vehicles or sit down on public sidewalks. Fifty-two percent of El Cajon’s homeless are without shelter access, but the city bans public begging and sleeping in vehicles or on the street.
Manteca has experience conjuring up restrictions for street people and made the NCH’s “Top 10 List of the Most Ridiculous Anti-Homeless Laws from 2010 through June 2011” three years ago. Manteca changed its water sprinkler time schedule in 2010 for Library Park, a favorite gathering spot for the homeless, to hours shortly after dusk.
The city also cut off electricity to the park’s gazebo at night so the homeless couldn’t recharge their cellphones.