They loiter, they sit, even sprawl on the sidewalk. Often we avert our eyes to their condition. Police see the homeless as a nuisance and they are soon scattered under the guise of “public safety.” Meanwhile, the non-homeless often loiter, and they congregate too, but are never turned away by the cops. They aren’t considered a threat.
A struggling class of working poor living in urban areas with high housing prices, combined with an increasing lack of low-income rents and long-term solutions, ensure the poor have nowhere else to go. Those who can, move outside the urban limits. Those who can’t, stay behind, oftentimes on the streets, closer to shelters and other free services.
But now officials in cities across the country want to make these people “illegal” in hopes they will move along, to wherever that may be. In a class action lawsuit filed in August, plaintiffs are claiming the city of Indianapolis is unconstitutionally targeting homeless people with their sidewalk ordinances. Homeless people and activists believe the law, which prohibits congregating or lying on certain public sidewalks, is being applied unequally, and by all accounts it is.
On August 4, in what reports say was a joint effort with the Department of Homeland Security, notices were posted at several homeless encampments that they would be cleared within a few days, and that “an emergency” had been declared. According to the Indianapolis Star the city claimed:
Congestion and cluttering of the area from personal belongings or people in the public right of way inhibits safe passage by pedestrians and emergency first responders, blocks evacuation routes and allows for concealment of threats targeting pedestrians and first responders.
On August 8, city officials kept their word. According to Maurice Young, a homeless man mentioned in the lawsuit, police officers have made it clear to the homeless that they cannot sit, stop, loiter, or lie down in the cleared areas—but non-homeless people have not been treated the same way or even approached with such reminders.
“At the time Mr. Young visited the areas there were no events taking place at any nearby stadiums or other event venues and there were not a large number of non-homeless pedestrians traversing the areas,” reads the lawsuit—so it’s clear there was no massive obstruction of sidewalks, or obvious issue with the conduct of the homeless in the area. Plaintiffs are also challenging the vague use of the term “emergency,” arguing it violates residents’ due process rights and needs to be clarified.
These cruel regulatory tendencies too often go unnoticed and harm the most vulnerable people. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, plaintiffs are arguing that these ordinances are being used to discriminatorily target the needy. Simply put, they violate the constitutional rights to due process and equal protection under the law. It’s crucial that the city remedy this. In addition, an injunction to lift the ban has been requested to prevent future issues.
It makes sense for lawmakers to ensure sidewalks aren’t blocked to pedestrians, but it doesn’t make sense for city officials to deny the homeless the ability to rest their feet, talk to one another, or stop for a moment to catch their breath. For too long, ordinances such as these have been passed quietly, city by city, with little to no public objection. Now, homeless people must navigate a complex patchwork of laws that slowly deprive them of their humanity and criminalize daily activity, without ever giving their input to legislators.
Of course, laws designed to target homeless people are nothing new.
In 33 of 100 total U.S. cities studied, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found that it’s illegal to publicly camp. About 32 percent of cities studied had anti-loitering ordinances city-wide. And these laws aren’t limited to specific states: from 2012 to 2015, the Dallas Police issued about 323 citations a month for sleeping in public. In 2014, Honolulu enacted a law banning sitting and lying down in public places, which has resulted in more than 16,000 warnings given predominantly to homeless people. In California alone, there are hundreds of separate ordinances all targeting the homeless—in fact, researchers at Berkeley found that each California city has, on average, nine separate anti-homeless laws. Government overreach that hurts vulnerable people isn’t limited to a specific state, region, or jurisdiction—it’s unfortunately all over.
In some ways, Indianapolis’s methods of dealing with homelessness are ahead of the curve. Faith-based missions provide shelter for a large percentage of the homeless population, and Indianapolis “serves as a national model for government-FBO collaborations” according to a study done by the Baylor Institute that measured the impact of faith-based organizations in public policy initiatives. These private-public partnerships also lessen the amount incurred by taxpayers—organizations like Wheeler Mission Ministries save taxpayers about $3 million per year. For small government advocates, this is a clear win and an impressive feat.
But in order to fully approach homelessness with compassion, Indianapolis city government and law enforcement will need to not only rethink their current laws, but also how they’re being used. Many states are slowly passing laws against housing status discrimination, such as Right to Rest Acts and efforts to make the homeless a protected class—but still, cities all across the country regularly violate the rights of those who need them most. Instead of using public funds and the threat of jail time to corral the homeless into submission, we should rethink our onerous laws and discern whether they’re actually designed to help the homeless get back on their feet. In most places, they aren’t.
Liz Wolfe is managing editor of Young Voices. She writes on criminal justice and libertarianism from Austin, Texas. You should follow her on Twitter.