President Obama Acts To Stop the Unconstitutional Criminalizing of Homelessness

A homeless man is a criminal for sleeping under an American Flag blanket on a park bench.
A homeless man is a criminal for sleeping under an American Flag blanket on a park bench.

Over the course of the period since Republicans crashed the economy and imposed vicious austerity on the nation that adversely affected the poor primarily, the rest of the world took notice of America’s “cruel and inhumane’ treatment” of the homeless. What caught the attention of human rights observers in particular was the increasing practice of criminalizing homelessness. Now, after a year of waiting for Congress to take action, it was left to President Obama to correct a very inhumane and humiliating practice.

It has been exactly a year since the U.N. Human Rights Committee (HRC) condemned what Republicans claim is a “very exceptional” country for its hateful practice of criminalizing homelessness. The HRC labeled America’s treatment of its homeless, millions whom are veterans, “cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment,” as well as “a violation of America’s obligation to adhere to international human rights treaties.” Along with the condemnation, the HRC-conducted review drove the international organization to demand that America comply with a treaty on human rights that it ratified 1992, and to take corrective action to be in compliance.

This week, the Obama White House took a giant step toward corrective action to force communities to halt the “cruel, inhumane, and degrading” treatment of people who do not have shelter. Last month the Obama Administration argued that these vile local ordinances that criminalize American citizens for being too poor to afford shelter was unconstitutional. The Administration filed a brief in federal court arguing that criminalization violates the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

The Administration’s only recourse to force compliance with the Eighth Amendment and international human rights treaties is “tying federal funding to whether municipalities are making robust efforts to stop measures that criminalize homelessness.” Appealing to many Americans’ consciences is futile primarily because if they have a conscience, or an ounce of humanity, they never extend to the most vulnerable citizens; so it is wise to appeal to their greed.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) gives out $1.9 billion in grants annually to local Continuums of Care, and public-church partnerships that are supposed to address homelessness in a specific area, but the neediest Americans are often turned away for “church” reasons. The federal grants are awarded in a competitive process where applicants fill out a questionnaire about how they intend to use the taxpayer money, as well as their current policies, and now they will have to do a bit more to get free government money meant for the homeless.

Now though, due to the President’s attempt to correct the cruel and inhumane treatment of the homeless, HUD announced that applicants must explain what steps they are taking to put an end to making homelessness a crime.  The new rule requires grant recipients to demonstrate that they are working with local governments and law enforcement to put a quick end to the idea that being too poor to afford shelter is being a criminal. The Administration’s effort is taking particular aim at “anti-vagrancy” and “quality of life” laws that include making it a crime for a homeless person to sit on the sidewalk or a park bench, ask for spare change, or dog forbid dare to fall asleep in a public place.

Besides applicants being required to demonstrate they are engaged with local leaders to stop criminalizing homelessness, they have to introduce and implement new community plans ensuring being homeless is not a crime. Failing to comply with the new rules to defeat “anti-vagrancy and quality of life” laws will seriously jeopardize a “Continuum of Care or public-religious partnership’s” chances of being awarded more taxpayer money.

The new measure was welcomed by the Executive Director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, Maria Foscarinis, who “welcomed the federal government’s direction of tax limited dollars to the places that will most effectively use that money to address homelessness,” Foscarinis also noted that HUD is giving sufficient weight to criminalization policies that “in many cases could be the difference between receiving funding and not.”

President Obama has often connected a group receiving federal funding to desired local outcomes in localities whether it was tying education achievement or hospital’s effectively avoiding preventable infections and patient re-admissions. Since the Administration’s practice of tying federal money to  a specific outcome has worked better than expected, homeless advocates are very hopeful that connecting HUD funding to the fight against homeless criminalization will provide similar results. The measures are desperately needed because policies making homelessness a crime have exploded over the last decade.

A Berkeley Law school study released earlier this year identified more than 500 anti-homeless laws in 58 California cities, and Seattle University School of Law found that in Washington state criminalization ordinances rose by well over 50 percent in the past ten years. As noted in a new report from the California homeless Youth Project, there are more problems arising from making homelessness a crime than just violating the Constitution and international human rights treaties.

The researchers noted that “saddling a young person with a criminal history impedes their efforts to obtain a job, housing, safety net resources, and education, including both secondary and post-secondary education.” Criminalizing homelessness also affects taxpayers when law enforcement and emergency health care costs are figured in the equation. Several studies found that leaving the destitute on the streets without shelter ends up “costing taxpayers over three times as much as providing free year-round housing and supportive services.”

It is a travesty that in the richest nation on the planet, one Republicans claim is devoutly following Jesus Christ, the President of the United States has to appeal to these Continuum of Care and public-religious partnership’s greed instead of common decency and any sense of humanity; likely because they have neither and the international community knows it.

Last year when the Human Rights Commission condemned America’s inhumane treatment of its homeless, the Committee’s chairman, Sir Nigel Rodley, released a statement at the end of the review saying that,

I’m just simply baffled by the idea that people can be without shelter in a country, and then be treated as criminals for being without shelter. The idea of criminalizing people who don’t have shelter is something that my colleagues find as difficult as I do to even begin to comprehend.”

Sir Nigel has certainly not spent much time in and around America, or kept up with the Republicans’ incorporation of “cruel, inhumane, and degrading” into their permanent party platform as their distinguishing brand. Thankfully for Americans with a shred of humanity, President Barack Obama is taking the necessary steps to comply with the Constitution and human rights treaties to correct yet another Republican human rights violation; a task that has kept the President busy throughout his tenure in the White House.

24 Replies to “President Obama Acts To Stop the Unconstitutional Criminalizing of Homelessness”

  1. …I’ve been homeless before…lots o’ us every year are put on the streets…and NONE o’ us asked to be there!!!
    …what these self-righteous bastids and beeyotches are doing is WORSE than reprehensible…
    …thank God for President Barack Obama…

  2. If repugs could have their way, not only would being
    homeless land a citizen in jail, he wouldn’t be allowed
    to vote either. There was a time in our past when
    suffrage was for land owners only. Thanks, PBO for standing up for the poor. Sad to add that many are vets.

  3. sorry kids, but you all need to come down to skid row and downtown LA, and see what unfettered and hands off of the ‘untouchables’ is having. even when there are ways to help these types, they cant or wont avail themselves of it, for various reasons. this isnt good for them or for commerce and tax payers.

    today, is soylent green day.

  4. Ted Cruz Campaign Speech: Minus mention of the Least Among Us.
    Teddy’s in heaven with the adulation.

    (Remember, Cruz was anointed to Lead)
    All his plans for leadership are horrific!

    Lots of Women in audience, which is amazing.

    One Comment:
    “I’m from Australia but I wish I could vote against this guy. Please don’t let this nut win. I fear for you, America”

  5. Sponge, you are correct that some of the homeless do not want to be helped. They really want to stay on the streets.

    However..this is where I think that mental health issues and treatment comes in as well. It would be a huge undertaking I know, but many of the homeless have mental illnesses that prevent them from seeing clearly. For example, the paranoid schizophrenic, would rather stay on the streets he knows, rather than go someone unfamiliar.

    At the very LEAST, communities should ensure safety of the homeless, and always make sure there is enough food to sustain them.

    Not all of them choose it, believe me.

  6. THANK YOU PRESIDENT OBAMA FOR HELPING “THE LEAST OF THESE…. Matthew 25:35-40 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

  7. Some people prefer the streets because they fear theft in shelters, being caged like animals, or being forced to take medication that has unwanted side effects. Not all are mentally ill, some are drug addicts, and many are Vets. Some have experienced hard luck and job loss. Many are victims of abuse, natural disaster, or the recession. There are also those that don’t want to lose their children. Nobody really chooses to live in the elements. They just need assistance. Being homeless shouldn’t mean losing your freedom. I know a very prominent local shelter that turns people away, because they won’t subscribe to the particular religion endorsed by that shelter. That isn’t right. If people seek help, then they should be helped, without bias. These organizations should have to account for their grant monies. Most homeless aren’t criminals. Many working Americans are only a paycheck or two from losing it all.

  8. That is the basic teaching of Christianity. Thank you for reminding those amongst us who seemed to have forgotten those words.

  9. You aren’t alone on that thought Suga. Many do. Cruz is a very dangerous man, with very dangerous Planted by his Daddy, who claims him to be the choosen.

  10. It’s long past time to dispose of these inhumane laws that further victimize people, who are already victims of circumstance. Most of the homeless in this country aren’t homeless by choice, but by circumstance.

    I live in North eastern Florida, and have met and spoken to a lot of the homeless in the area. Some of them are people that have lost their jobs, and then everything else. some are homeless due to addiction, which is a disease that can be treated. The majority that I’ve met and talked to, are homeless due to things they couldn’t control, or stop. Many were young adults who had been homeless from their teens. Some had left home because of abuse, others were kicked out for being gay or lesbian, with parents who failed them miserably.

    There are laws in some cities criminalizing the act of helping the homeless, which is absurd!

    Laws criminalizing homelessness are inhumane, and Unamerican. They are unchristian to the extreme. and should never be permitted in this country….

  11. …and a lot like me…unemployed, alienated from family, suffering from Depression, totally unaware that the VA would help…living in my car all winter, shoveling sidewalks to make food and gas money…I didn’t wanna live that way!!!

  12. You should familiarize yourself with steps some states have taken to assist homeless citizens. Utah, for instance, has provided housing, and at the same time, services. They have learned that not only does this cost less in dollars, but it has a better outcome than criminalizing people, or forcing them into the shadows. Another city has built tiny houses, with the necessary social service support nearby, within walking distance, for homeless people. I’ve read about this, and would have loved this as a transition model when I was homeless. It was before cellphones…one couldn’t “pretend” to have a home to get a job in those days!

  13. There was an article in the Arizona Republic within the past week about an incident three years ago involving a schizophrenic veteran who traveled to Phoenix and was discovered by police in a disoriented state. The police took him to Carl T Hayden VA Medical Center. Less than three hours later, the veteran had been discharged. The next morning, the police found the man in the middle of Seventh Street, in the fetal position, in a pool of his own blood, with tire tracks across his body. Several surgeries later, the man still has severe traumatic brain injury.

  14. In this country, where certain people can spend billions on elections, NOBODY should be living like that, absolutely no one.

    If you are a vet, vets should be well informed of the services available to them. They have given their lives for us, and to have them living out of their cars or in a cardboard box is absolutely unacceptable. I get very angry over these situations. I volunteered some years ago to feed patients in nursing homes that could not feed themselves. Many were vets. It ripped my heart out, the only thing I could do was volunteer my time to help in any little way I could.

  15. Thanks for the info. That is absolutely great what Utah is doing. Yes, in the long run it is cheaper, and it gives people HOPE. People don’t feel like throw aways. There is enough money in this country, it is just circulated in the wrong areas.

  16. There are actually more homeless people than we know. A lot of homeless women you will not see on the streets, they are afraid for their safety, etc.

    I have a good friend in Manhattan. She buys clean socks, underwear, and depending on the season warm blankets, new toothbrushes, toothpaste, etc. Makes up bags with all these new items, and leaves them in places where she knows the homeless tend to stay. Believe me, that can make someone’s day.

  17. The affluent, white, heterosexual, christian, male right wingers who own the Republican party are embarrassed by the homeless. So, their solution is to commit slow, legal genocide by criminalizing their condition and denying them nutritional, medical, financial and housing assistance. They want them dead.

  18. yes, HUD is under the executive branch but it pretty much works under it’s own authority and isn’t sitting around waiting for Obama to tells it what to do. HUD should be getting the credit for this more than Obama.

  19. I didn’t know homeless people had internet access. If you took time to read the article it clearly states the Obama administration file the legal brief

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