From Homelessness to Criminality in Easy Steps

PETER SABONIS

July 08, 1992|By PETER SABONIS

Homelessness is illegal. That may come as a surprise to most of us, but it's something America's municipalities have known for decades and have been waiting for the right time to enforce.

That time seems to have come. Through the enforcement of various archaic ordinances and statutes outlawing everything from panhandling to sleeping in public, passed long before the homeless became a normal part of the urban landscape, Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, Dallas, New York and a host of other cities have found a simple answer to a complex dilemma: sweep the homeless from the street into jail.

The strategy has led a number of cities into court. The American Civil Liberties Union challenged Miami's pre-Orange Bowl parade sweeps and the Nevada Supreme Court is currently considering the constitutionality of Las Vegas' anti-loitering law, which allegedly was used to arrest the homeless and a church group that was serving them.

Baltimore now stands poised to begin its assault. Recently, the City Council created a Downtown Management District Authority, which, through a property-tax surtax on certain residents in this district, will employ its own security force to assist the police in ridding the downtown area of ''crime and grime'' in order to attract business, promote sales and increase property values.

Needless to say, it's not unsightly graffiti that keeps people away. Despite statistics showing Baltimore's downtown to be safer than other city areas, businesses say visitors are apprehensive. Why? Because of the homeless, or, as an Authority task force called them, ''persons causing anxiety.''

This anxiety-causing behavior is illegal under state and local law. Baltimore still has an anti-vagrancy law, despite the questionable constitutionality of such laws. Urinating and defecating in public can be subject to 30 days imprisonment. Sleeping in parks is prohibited, as is panhandling without a license.

State laws prohibit aggressive panhandling in shopping centers or public places, and almost any homeless person can be considered a ''rogue and vagabond'' and be arrested. Public drunkenness is prohibited under both state and city law.

Baltimore's precarious fiscal situation makes its mayor more reliant on the revenue the urban business community generates and the purse strings the business operators hold. Historically, such a situation means an increase in business' political clout. No doubt city police, who have been sensitive to the homeless to date, will be under increasing pressure to begin treating this social problem as a criminal one.

That pressure will increase when another authority, the one that manages the Orioles' place of business at Camden Yards, hosts Major League Baseball's prestigious All-Star game next summer.

And so the homeless will disappear for a while. And that will be just fine with most of us. And then they'll surface again after the pressure eases. And that will be just fine with most of us as well.

For while the existence of homeless persons might sometimes disturb us, their presence through the years has been opportune as well.

Feeling guilt about replacing your old wardrobe or ordering too much food from the caterers? No problem, just drop it off at your local homeless shelter. Losing the Christmas spirit, or in need of a touching story for a news program? Not to worry, just spend some time at your local soup kitchen.

Without a community-work service placement for a criminal? Don't fret, call Bea Gaddy. On second thought, no need to call.

This is not to mock genuine expressions of caring and love. But it seems that the proliferation of charities, ministries, non-profit organizations, including my employer, and various fund-raisers for the homeless, not to mention the countless visits to shelters by social workers and scientists, physicians, nurses, lawyers, first ladies and students of everything from religion to anthropology, would have led to more than just an increase in sandwiches, clothes and blankets.

Perhaps it's because our actions ''for'' the homeless are done more to placate our own personal need to ''help,'' than to change the economic and political policies that have combined to produce this mess.

The time has come to stop treating the homeless as props in our ploys to squeeze through the eye of the needle. As Dostoyevsky wrote in ''The Brothers Karamazov,'' ''Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams . . . (which) is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed, and in the sight of all . . . as on a stage.''

And it's time to stop treating the homeless with contempt when they interfere with our personal and professional lives. The homeless are public mirrors of ourselves, reflecting our own weaknesses, powerlessness and desperation. They are us naked, disrobed of the familial ties, social support and economic power that usually eases the journey through life and its attendant sufferings.

But homelessness did not exist in its present form and scale 20 years ago. It is not simply the story of human frailty; it is that frailty mixed with misguided public policy. The homeless are still with us today because our charity deals only with the former and ignores the latter.

Let's commit ourselves to addressing both, or else admit we've grown accustomed to homelessness and that it actually serves some of our needs. But let's not pretend it's illegal.

Peter Sabonis is an attorney with the Homeless Persons Representation Project, a Baltimore-based not-for-profit group providing legal services to the homeless.

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