Imagine if sleeping were to get you thrown in jail. Or sitting and lying down in public. Or camping. Or snoozing in your car.
In cities across the country, that is exactly what is happening to homeless people who engage in these activities. In an effort to clean up their cities and make residents and visitors more comfortable, lawmakers have taken an inhumane approach to homelessness and made all these actions illegal.
So in addition to having no place to live and not enough to eat, homeless people also end up locked up and saddled with criminal records and legal fines that push them further into an endless cycle of poverty.
Civil liberties advocates have challenged these laws arguing arguing they violate the 8th Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment. This month, they were handed a victory from the Supreme Court, which declined to review a lower court ruling that allowed people to sleep in public when shelters are full. The justices made their decision with no comment or dissent in the case, which stemmed from a lawsuit filed by homeless people in Boise, Idaho, who were ticketed for sleeping outside.
We hope the high court’s decision will make other cities think twice about adopting such laws, which punishes people for their predicament. A study released last week by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty found the number of cities with such regulations is growing rapidly. In 2019, 83% of 187 cities had at least one law that restricted begging in public. Fifty-five percent of these cities have one or more laws prohibiting sitting or lying down in public and 51% had at least one law restricting sleeping in public. Currently, 72% of the cities have at least one law restricting camping in public. There are even laws that prohibit people from sleeping in their cars.
In Baltimore, laws exist that prohibit sitting and lying and public, loitering and loafing, begging in public and sharing food, according to the national law center data. Many of the laws are not enforced, and homeless people are often seen asking for money at some of the city’s busiest intersections.
We see the need for some restrictions to protect the homeless — but without a criminal or monetary penalty. It’s just not safe for people to sleep on the streets with cars whizzing by. Especially in the dark of night. Just last month, a 78-year-old homeless man died after being run over by an MTA Mobility bus while lying on top of a manhole cover in the 100 block of E. Saratoga Street. The bus driver told police they never even knew anyone was hit, and police believe the steam and man’s dark clothing hid him from view. We should have sympathy for someone who becomes so desperate they take the risk of lying across a manhole with warm steam seeping out on a freezing cold night.
Widespread sleeping and loitering bans are cruel when homeless people have no choice but to sleep outside. If cities don’t have enough shelters they can’t get mad when people find whatever patch of grass or sidewalk that is available. Otherwise, where exactly are people supposed to sleep? Should the 2,500 people in Baltimore who may have no place to lay their head from night to night doze in the waters of the Inner Harbor? Or perhaps floating in midair or in a tree? Or maybe they should never sleep at all? We didn’t think so.
These laws that criminalize the homeless only mask the problem — and do nothing to help people. They are more about making an uncomfortable problem invisible to those who don’t want to admit it exists. On top of that, in many cities it just overburdens the jails and courts to have to process people for such trivial indiscretions. Law enforcement resources should be spent on other priorities, such as carjackings, burglaries and solving homicides.
Some city officials have argued that shelters are dangerous and overcrowded. Hopefully, the Supreme Court’s decision will force cities into finally increasing their affordable housing stock — whether it is through tiny house programs or affordable apartment buildings.
Let’s put people in real homes and not jail houses.
In some editions of Monday’s Baltimore Sun, the second editorial, a political cartoon, did not print properly and appeared as a solid, black box. The Sun regrets the error.