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Don't punish Dundalk church

Baltimore County, buddy, can you spare a $12,000 citation?

Baltimore County's efforts to coerce a church in Dundalk to forcibly evict homeless people sleeping on private church property by levying a $12,000 fine is not just shameful ("Dundalk church faces fine for hosting homeless," Dec. 12), it is contrary to federal policy and best practices and infringes on civil liberties.

"Housing Not Handcuffs," a recent report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, found that criminalization of homelessness by local governments — imposing civil or criminal penalties against homeless individuals for engaging in life-sustaining activities like sleeping — has dramatically increased over the past 10 years. This increase is true despite overwhelming evidence that such efforts are the least effective strategy to end homelessness. Instead, these strategies interfere with service provider relationships, create distrust between homeless people and the government, waste taxpayer dollars and do not end homelessness.

Due to the devastating effects of encampment evictions on homeless people, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness issued guidance to local communities in 2015 emphasizing that forced dispersal of an encampment is never an appropriate solution. Instead, communities should provide people with clear, low-barrier pathways for obtaining permanent housing.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires local governments competing for federal homeless program dollars to set forth in their funding application specific strategies to ensure homelessness is not criminalized. By engaging in criminalization tactics like the action against the church in Dundalk, Baltimore County is putting itself at a disadvantage for the very funding it needs to provide shelter and housing to its homeless citizens.

The county's actions also raise serious constitutional questions. Criminalization efforts targeted at homeless individuals and faith-based organizations serving homeless people can violate numerous civil liberties, including prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment, and protections of due process, free speech and the free exercise of religion.

Baltimore County should immediately withdraw its citation against the church and instead commit its time and limited resources to the real solution to ending homelessness: the creation of affordable rental housing.

Carolyn Johnson, Baltimore

The writer is managing attorney at the Homeless Persons Representation Project

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