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.

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.

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