Gallery C

The Invisible People
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City Officials Want The Homeless To Go Away

By James Donahue

Homelessness has become a national problem in America. But instead of trying to do something about it, some city officials, worried that people sitting and sleeping on public streets will hurt business, are passing laws designed to force the homeless to just go away.

The callousness of this kind of thinking boggles the mind.

During the years I spent covering city governments and city elections I became aware that most of the people who sit on these high seats of government are the people who own and operate the downtown business places. Thus it is easy to understand their motives for passing the kinds of ordinances they have put on the books.

And to be fair, some towns have opened homeless shelters and places for the poor and homeless to get at least one hot meal a day.
But other cities have performed shamelessly in their efforts to clear their streets of the poor and downtrodden. Some of their arguments sound valid. They say that the poor and homeless not only camp in public places, but they leave their personal belongings laying around, they beg for money from downtown shoppers, and they use public toilet facilities for daily cosmetics. Some even resort to crimes.

Thus out of pure frustration, some councils have gone so far as to make homelessness illegal. The laws make it illegal to camp on streets or public places without a permit, make it illegal to cover yourself with a blanket in a public place, use public restrooms for washing the face, and panhandling.
The council in Columbia City, South Carolina, approved an ordinance making homelessness illegal in parts of the city. The ordinance forces anyone caught sleeping outdoors to be sent to a shelter 15 miles outside of the city. The alternative is to spend time in the city jail.

At least in jail there is a warm bed, food and a roof over the head. But there is no freedom of movement.

Police in Portland, Oregon, have been arresting anyone found sleeping in public. There is a city ordinance against camping anywhere in the city. But in Portland, it is a losing battle. There are an estimated 1,700 homeless people living there alone.

People found camping in public in New York face fines of $76. How the poor and homeless manage to pay such fines seems somewhat of a mystery. The alternative is jail, which the city obviously does not want either.
St. Petersburg, Florida, has established “no panhandling” zones in the downtown shopping areas, within 15 feet of sidewalk cafes, an ATM or bank entrance, at bus stops and on private property. Panhandlers are prohibited between sunset and sunrise.

As if these laws aren’t bad enough, USA Today recently reported that at least 50 large cities in the United States have passed laws prohibiting anyone from feeding a poor person.

What would be the legal reasoning for prohibiting the feeding of poor people in homeless shelters? They say it’s because the city can’t assess the salt, fat and fiber content of the food. Also some city ordinances prohibit feeding the public prepared in kitchens lacking state health inspection standards.

These old ordinances are being used to allow city councils and police to issue harsh treatment of the people that desperately need the help.