Growing numbers of American cities are approving ordinances that restrict the movement of homeless people and reduce services to help them, a new study by an advocacy group for the homeless has found.
A review of legal actions in 49 cities by the National Law Center on Homeless and Poverty, which was made public here last week, shows that 62 percent of the cities have passed or enforced measures against panhandling in the past year. More than a quarter have passed or enforced ordinances that restrict access to public places and almost 1 in 4 have conducted police sweeps of homeless people.The study was more anecdotal than scientific, with information drawn from newspaper accounts, computer networks, telephone calls and letters. But it reflected what Maria Foscarinis, director of the law center, called "clearly, a national trend of negative actions against homeless people that only makes it harder to escape from homelessness."
Many city officials have taken a harder line on the homeless in recent years in response to growing objections from citizens and businesses who regard the panhandling, public urination, sleeping and other behavior that accompanies concentrations of homeless people as detrimental to the quality of life.
Robert Richardson, the mayor pro tem of Santa Ana, Calif., cited in the study as one of the "meanest" cities, defended the actions there.
"We're not willing to turn our downtown civic center into a giant campground," he said. "We see our role as trying to come up with a balanced approach, one which respects the rights of the homeless as well as the rights of ordinary citizens to be left alone."
While the study criticized all the cities, it singled out four in additional to Santa Ana-- San Francisco, Santa Monica, Calif.; Cleveland and Seattle-- as having "the meanest streets."
Other cities, including New York, were praised for devising alternatives to criminalizing homelessness. These included voucher programs instead of ordinances against panhandling, special training for police officers who work with the homeless, and new programs to assist homeless people, like one in Durham, N.C., to help them find jobs. Those efforts, Foscarinis said at a news conference, could serve as guidance for other cities.
Santa Monica, a coastal city west of downtown Los Angeles with ocean-view parks that have been a haven for homeless people for years, was cited in the report for passing ordinances that combined to force homeless people out of town. One new ordinance extended the hours that parks are closed at night and banned camping in public places.
Another required that private agencies feeding the homeless comply with the Los Angeles County health and safety code. This requirement, the study said, is intended to discourage charitiable groups from helping the homeless.
The report criticized San Francisco for a city program known as Matrix, which has resulted in neighborhood sweeps of homeless people, increased enforcement of nuisance laws and stepped-up efforts to help the homeless by community groups like Food Not Bombs.
"What frightens me," said Keith McHenry, co-founder of the organization, "is that if we lose here in our effort to defeat homelessness, if this most liberal city in the country can treat the homeless this way, then the future is bleak."