No Safe Place: How Cities Are Making It Illegal to be Homeless

Tonight, thousands of homeless people in the United States will face the possibility of arrest because they do not have a safe place to sleep. Thousands more could be arraigned for sitting or standing in the wrong place. While they must sleep rest their legs, homeless people live in cities where these and other life sustaining activities are against the law, even though shelters face a critical shortage of beds.

Criminalization laws can take many forms.  Most commonly, they outlaw sitting, sleeping in vehicles or outdoors, lying down, “hanging out,” sharing food, and camping. What makes them even more insidious is that they can be difficult to detect. Curfews on public parks are often explained by municipalities as a way to deter drug-related crimes.  In reality, they are frequently a way to ensure that homeless people don’t use park benches as beds. By not having enough safe sleeping spaces, cities are forcing their homeless persons to live on the streets with virtually no other options, and then arresting them for doing so. These laws represent a gross violation of human rights, and have received a large amount of criticism from civil rights advocates around the country and the world.

In March, criminalization laws led to a man’s death. 56-year-old Jerome Murdough, a homeless veteran, was without shelter in New York City on a cold night. Searching for a safe place to sleep, he took refuge in an enclosed stairwell in a Harlem public housing building. He was discovered and arrested for trespassing. Since he didn’t have $2,500 to post bail, he was sent to Riker’s Island Prison, where he was placed in a hot cell and ignored for hours by prison staff. According to a city official, Murdough “basically baked to death” in the cell, and was found dead on the floor. His disturbing saga highlights the dangers of criminalization laws; instead of receiving needed assistance, Murdough was treated like a criminal, and ultimately lost his life by trying to protect it.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty recently released a report entitled, No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities. The report details the alarming upward trend of these inhumane and ineffective statutes that criminalize homelessness—with specific examples from around the country—and highlights how the laws are both ineffective and also violations of human rights.

While Murdough’s death represents the most extreme effect of criminalization laws, countless other homeless people face situations every day that put their lives in danger. In No Safe Place, the Law Center recounts the story of Lawrence Lee Smith, a man in Boise, Idaho who became homeless after a degenerative joint disease made him unable to continue to work construction.

“He lived in a camper van for years until it was towed. He couldn’t afford to retrieve it, leaving him with nowhere to reside but in public places…due to frequent overcrowding of area homeless shelters. Mr. Smith was cited for illegal camping and was jailed for a total of 100 days. Due to the arrest, he lost his tent, his stove, and the fishing equipment he relied upon to live.”

In addition to a loss of property, many homeless people who are cited for sleeping in public also must pay fines that they can’t afford, which often results in jail time. A homeless woman, Sandy, tells her story in the report:

“I just basically wanted to get in a little bit safer situation so I hid . . . in this church. And they gave me a ticket and now I can’t pay for this ticket; it’s four-hundred bucks! You know, I can’t pay $80 dollars. I have no income whatsoever.”

In some cities, it is illegal to share food with homeless people. The report details the case of Birmingham, Alabama Pastor Rick Wood, who was ordered by police to stop serving hotdogs and bottled water to homeless people in a city park.

“‘This makes me so mad,’ Wood told a local news station. ‘These people are hungry, they’re starving. They need help from people. They can’t afford to buy something from a food truck.’”

Bans on food-sharing exist in 17 of the cities studied by the Law Center and are based on the wrong assumption that free food services will bring an influx of homeless persons to the area. In reality, the bans simply force people to search for food in less safe places like dumpsters and trash cans.

There has been a nationwide increase in criminalization laws since 2011, despite mounting evidence that criminalization is the most expensive and least effective way to deal with homelessness. As cities increasingly opt for these bad policies, there will eventually be no safe place left for homeless people. Instead, communities should focus on constructive alternatives to criminalization that actually work; policies like the “housing first” strategy that provides housing and supportive services to homeless people and is also much less costly than the price of jail stays and emergency room visits.

Could you survive if there were no place you were allowed to fall asleep, store your belongings, or stand still?  There are far better policy choices than criminalization and making it illegal for people to simply try to survive; policies that are better for homeless people, and better for the character of our nation.



What We’re Reading

Welcome back to What We’re Reading, where we share must-read articles about poverty in America that grapple with critical issues, inspire us to action, challenge us, and push us to see both problems and solutions from new angles.

Black, Asian Residents Unite to Save Low-Income Building Near Chinatown, by Robert Samuels (Washington Post)

Saving their D.C. apartment building seemed impossible, but the tenants association president resolved that he would try. So Kevin Rogers and fellow board member Vera Watson set out on a Saturday to knock on every door in the egg-yolk-colored halls of Museum Square. The problem: More than 70 percent of their neighbors were Chinese. Most were elderly and spoke little English. Rogers and Watson needed to convey the urgency of the matter, a complicated confluence of community development, tenant rights and city law.

It’s a disturbingly common tale: neighborhoods revitalize, only to push out the lower income residents who stuck with them through the rough times. Washington, D.C. is no exception to growing displacement, but it does have a unique tool to fight it. The Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act gives tenants the first right to make an offer when their building goes up for sale. So far the policy has preserved at least 1,500 affordable units across D.C. But what happens when a building owner sets the price impossibly out of reach? That’s exactly what is unfolding in Chinatown, where over 200 low-income residents have banded together in attempt to save their home. The added complication? The majority are elderly Chinese immigrants who will face extreme challenges living anywhere else. So far, the tenants have secured one more year in their building, but the story is far from over.

A New Report Argues Inequality is Causing Slower Growth. Here’s Why It Matters. By Neil Irwin (New York Times)

The fact that S.&P., an apolitical organization that aims to produce reliable research for bond investors and others, is raising alarms about the risks that emerge from income inequality is a small but important sign of how a debate that has been largely confined to the academic world and left-of-center political circles is becoming more mainstream.

If you do not believe low income people or progressive advocates when they say that rising income inequality is bad for the economy, maybe you’ll believe your forecasting firm. S&P recently released a report stating that “the current level of income inequality in the U.S. is dampening GDP growth.” To explain why this is so groundbreaking, Irwin situates S&P in the world of economics research. The firm does not aim to advance political ideology or social policy; they simply aim to give practical business advice. Thus, their report could signal a paradigm shift in the way that the business community views income inequality and increase the imperative to address it.

Minnesota Café Charges 35 Cent ‘Fee’ To Protest Minimum Wage Hike, by Alexander C. Kaufman (Huffington Post)

Minnesota raised its minimum wage by 75 cents to $8 last week — the first increase in the state since 2009. An owner of the café claimed the 35-cent fee was a way of “thumbing my nose at the law change,” according to CBS-affiliate WCCO. “Shame on your protest over a small increase in pay required by law,” wrote Facebook user Terry Edgar in a one-star review. “Hopefully customers will not continue to patronize your cheapskate establishment.”

If you find yourself at the Oasis Café in Stillwater, MN, your huevos rancheros are going to cost a bit extra. The management believes an extra “minimum wage” fee is a clever way to protest the state’s new $8 minimum wage. The customers think differently and have stormed social media in protest. Even more appalling, another local chain, Blue Plate Co., actually pledged to start taking back money from servers’ tips.

Rich Kid, Poor Kid: For 30 Years, Baltimore Study Tracked Who Gets Ahead, by Juana Summers (NPR)

Monica Jaundoo didn’t have an easy life growing up in Baltimore in the early ’80s. “I remember being so immune to death, so immune to shootings, killings. I just remember wanting them to rush, like, get the body out the way so we can get back to playing hopscotch or dodgeball,” she says […] And so her story raises a question: How can a child with the deck stacked against her get out and get ahead?

Johns Hopkins researchers recently published the results of a study that tracked about 800 low-income Baltimore children all the way through adulthood. Their goal was to discover which factors truly impact a child’s life chances. The ultimate conclusion is disheartening: they found that, “a child’s fate is in many ways fixed at birth — determined by family strength and the parents’ financial status.” Only 33 subjects moved into the high income bracket after 30 years.  Summers illustrates the findings by profiling two subjects, Monica and John. She also unpacks employment and incarceration rates, underscoring how racial discrimination also plays a huge role in shaping life outcomes.

This is How Rural Poverty is Changing, by Lydia DePillis (Washington Post)

“I think it’s more of a place-based poverty than it is demographic,” says Tracey Farrigan, an economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who is studying how rural poverty has spread. “People are moving to areas where they can afford to live, which are areas with less support for them. It’s kind of a cycle. So the places are poor, and the people are poor.”

Las Animas, Colorado has lost almost a third of its population since the late 1990s, along with many of its factories, farms, restaurants, and hospital jobs. Dairy Queen is the most successful restaurant in town, and the county commissioner believes there wouldn’t be enough demand for another chain like it. What happens to the people who stayed when the economy went south—those who can’t leave, or who don’t want to leave their community? What happens to their children? DePillis provides an in-depth profile of residents, revealing tough realities about the state of rural poverty today.



First Person

Time to Raise the Wage so Nobody Has to Live the Wage

Friday was my final day participating in the “Live the Wage” challenge. Living for a week on minimum wage was exhausting. Money and my budget never left my mind, and I was constantly calculating to ensure that my funds didn’t run out before the end of the week.

It’s not the first time I’ve lived on minimum wage. I’ve held jobs at a temp agency, call center, nursing home, in food service, and on the assembly line—all jobs that paid the minimum or barely above it. But back then, my situation was different. I shared a very small apartment with three friends, I hadn’t started my own family yet, and minimum wage hadn’t lost so much of its value.

That’s why the #LivetheWage challenge was eye-opening for me. Together with members of Congress and thousands of advocates across the country, I lived on a minimum wage budget for a week. Spending just $77 on our food, transportation and all incidental expenses, we hoped to gain just a small understanding of the tough decisions faced by minimum wage workers every day.

I only had to live on this budget for one week. I paid for grocery staples and gas. I couldn’t afford fresh, healthy vegetables. Peanut butter or egg salad was my daily lunch. I kept checking my gas gauge and didn’t drive anywhere but to and from work.  By the end of the week, I worried about whether I’d have enough money even to do that. There was nothing else – no latte, no haircut, no school clothes for my grandkids. I did buy a set of flashcards for my grandson. He needed to practice his multiplication, and school was starting in two weeks. But it meant I had to cut my food and gas expenses even more.

To say the “Challenge” was a challenge is an understatement, and I didn’t have to support my family on that amount.  However countless other working women continue to struggle on poverty wages. People like 9to5 member Crystal Whetstone; she works at a discount retailer in Dayton, Ohio and her highest raise in the last seven years was 25 cents. Crystal lives with her parents because she can’t afford to live alone. She can’t pay off her student debt. She can’t get ahead. Or Barbara Gertz, who has had days when she can’t even afford transportation to her job at Walmart.

It’s been five years since Congress last raised the minimum wage, and the tipped minimum wage hasn’t budged since 1991. It’s past time for jobs that pay decent wages – wages that boost the lives of women and families, and help our communities thrive. Women are now the primary or co-breadwinners in two-thirds of American households – when women do well, our economy does well.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen to those struggling day in and day out to make ends meet.

“Raising the minimum wage would give my household a needed boost. I could contribute more to my household for groceries and bills and maybe even buy myself something nice every once in a while,” says Peggy Jackson, a 9to5 member from Atlanta, Ga. “Those of us earning minimum wage are trapped in a cycle of poverty because we’ll never be able to save enough money to get ahead.”

Peggy is right, and those of us who took the Challenge have a better appreciation of just how right she is.  It’s time to #RaiseTheWage now!





Beyond the Minimum Wage: What’s Really Keeping Hourly Workers in Poverty?

In the debate about poverty and rising economic inequality, we need to think beyond the minimum wage.

When we talk about poverty it’s difficult to track—and give voice to—all of the different ideas around causes and solutions that need attention. Multiply those competing demands exponentially and you may get a feel for what working people in some of the fastest growing job sectors in our economy face every day.

Shift workers—especially those in the retail sector—are subject to unpredictable and erratic scheduling practices that make it nearly impossible to plan their lives and earn a stable income. An increasing number of these workers simply aren’t able to get the hours they need in order to support their families. They are essentially trapped in a cycle of poverty, with little time or resources to make any progress toward escaping it.

These are workers who aren’t living paycheck to paycheck; they’re living hour to hour.

By giving workers the right to request a predictable or flexible schedule, this legislation would increase job quality in our country.

How can people working under these conditions set a budget?  How do they schedule medical appointments or arrange care for their children?  In addition to dealing with their erratic schedules, retail workers are often required to be on call—making sure they are available without any guarantee of a shift.

So while increasing the minimum wage is indeed a critical step in the fight against poverty, it is just one piece of a much larger, broken system in the low-wage sector.

That’s why the Schedules That Work Act—introduced last month by Representatives George Miller (D-CA) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), along with Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)—is so critical. It would allow every worker to have a say in their schedules—whether someone is experiencing erratic shifts, or too many hours, or needs a schedule accommodation in order to meet an obligation. By giving workers the right to request a predictable or flexible schedule, this legislation would increase job quality in our country.

At the local level, city and state governments are also demanding that the largest, most profitable retail corporations do right by their workers.

Last week, Jobs With Justice San Francisco led a coalition of labor, community, advocacy and small-business groups in introducing a groundbreaking Retail Workers Bill of Rights ordinance. The measure, authored by San Francisco Board of Supervisors members Eric Mar and David Chiu, would create new protections for retail workers who are burdened with on-call scheduling and diminished hours. The ordinance would only apply to profitable, large chain retailers—banks, fast food and restaurant chains, department stores—companies that clearly have the means to improve labor standards. If adopted, the bill would require fair scheduling practices like advance notice, adequate on-call pay, and more opportunities for part-time workers to transition to full time-employment. It would also require employers to offer more hours to current part-time employees prior to hiring additional part-time staff.

Without these kinds of reforms to scheduling and hours in the low-wage sector, we will continue to have too many people working two and three jobs but stuck below the poverty line. Nationwide, nearly eight million people are involuntarily working part-time hours. That leaves them vulnerable to poverty—nearly one in four involuntarily part-time workers lives in poverty, compared to one in 20 full-time workers. These low-quality jobs also impact the broader community because employers shift costs—particularly for health care for their workers—to our already overburdened public systems.

We need 21st century policies to address the new 21st-century workplace. Efforts like the Schedules That Work Act and the Retail Workers Bill of Rights are more than just commonsense bills; they are innovative ways to address poverty and inequality in our communities.




Breaking Barriers to Employment: The Pivotal Role of Legal Services

For the last four years, Paul has faced significant obstacles in securing steady employment, despite having a high school diploma and a year of college education under his belt. Paul applied to positions at Walmart, McDonalds, different security companies – any opening he learned of during his frequent visits to a local career center. Time and again, Paul was turned down and told he wasn’t qualified.

To change all that, Paul completed a construction apprenticeship program. Less than two weeks after he graduated, Paul had strong prospects with a construction company and a major utility company. Amidst all this good news, however, Paul received a letter that brought his forward momentum to a halt.

A “Notice of Proposed Revocation” informed Paul that his driver’s license could be revoked because of overdue child support payments. Paul had known about the child support order, but it simply wasn’t something he could afford to pay. The amount was based on his salary at a job he had lost more than a year before the order was set. Paul made cash payments directly to the child’s mother whenever he could, not realizing that those payments “didn’t count” because he was supposed to make them through the District government. After months without income he ran out of money to make any payments. But if Paul lost his license, none of the positions for which he now qualified would be available to him, and he’d be right back where he started – unable to pay his child support. Now what?

We must break the underlying legal barriers to employment.

The longer these issues persist, the more likely they are to affect job seekers and workers who lack other resources to help them cope with financial stress.

It is no secret that getting and keeping a stable job, let alone a job that pays a living wage, is already a challenge for far too many people living in poverty in D.C. and across the nation. Black workers and young workers were hit particularly hard by the recession, and unemployment rates for several groups of workers remain high today, including those without a college degree. While the overall unemployment level in the District is 7.5%, unemployment levels in Wards 5, 7, and 8 hover in the 15 to 20% range, with poverty rates as high as 25% (Ward 7) and 34% (Ward 8).

D.C. residents and advocates have improved the pathway to jobs with decent wages in part through successful efforts to raise the minimum wage, strengthen wage theft laws, remove criminal history questions from job applications, and develop employment training programs like the construction apprenticeship sought out by Paul. But, as Paul’s story reveals, these efforts aren’t always enough.

Among the legal barriers to employment are: criminal or arrest records, poor or inaccurate credit reports, child support arrears and suspended drivers’ licenses, domestic violence, prior homelessness or lack of stable housing, and other issues that may appear unrelated to employment. These barriers may distract even the most dedicated job seekers from their search, prevent a skill-based assessment of their application, threaten the credentials that make them eligible for sought-after positions, and hinder their ability to keep employment once it is secured.

As Paul’s story shows, overdue child support payments can cause job seekers to lose their driver’s licenses, contribute to negative credit reports, and ultimately can lead to jail time. Prior arrests and convictions may cause employers to reject an applicant without ever assessing whether that conviction is relevant to job performance. Ongoing domestic violence, custody disputes, unstable housing, and financial instability due to debt and predatory lending can all cause significant disruption to job searches and job retention.

For example, how does someone who is homeless or couch surfing receive information from potential employers? Or complete an application form that requires an address? Or maintain appropriate clothing for an interview?  How can a mother whose children are chronically ill from sub-standard housing conditions avoid absenteeism?  The longer these issues persist, the more likely they are to affect job seekers and workers who lack other resources to help them cope with financial stress.  And what happens when these vulnerable workers do not receive the wages they are due or are subject to excessive garnishments?

These concerns do not need to be faced alone. In many cases, civil legal services can help remove these barriers by:

  • Securing the restoration of driver’s licenses
  • Overcoming problems associated with arrest or conviction records, including record sealing, improper employer inquiries, mistaken identities or other inaccuracies
  • Providing information about credit records, correcting inaccuracies, and advising how to respond to prospective employer inquiries
  • Advocating for individuals whose child support payments are set unreasonably high or have become overdue, particularly when the individual is threatened with incarceration or loss of a driver’s license
  • Securing protection or resolving problems associated with domestic violence, child custody disputes, and child support
  • Improving and stabilizing housing and addressing health problems affecting family members, including those caused by dangerous living conditions
  • Recovering unpaid wages and remedying other forms of workplace mistreatment

Not long after Paul received notice that his driver’s license might be revoked, his apprenticeship program hosted attorneys from Neighborhood Legal Services Program (NLSP).  The attorneys informed the trainees about the civil legal underpinnings of common hurdles facing job seekers. After participating in the presentation, Paul sought NLSP help.  An attorney prevented the suspension of Paul’s license and is now helping him secure a child support payment plan that more closely matches the amount he is currently able to pay. Shortly after he found out his license was safe, Paul got the flagger job on a construction crew, his first full-time position since 2011.

Advocating for a living wage and job training is necessary, but is also insufficient for many people who are seeking to enter or stay in the workforce.  That’s one reason why access to civil legal aid is so critical to workforce development and anti-poverty efforts. Working closely with community groups, social service agencies, and job training programs, civil legal aid programs can help job seekers identify and break these legal barriers to employment.