Economy

This City Criminalized Homelessness, So The Homeless Are Fighting Back

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A year ago, the city of Manteca, California made it illegal to sleep or set up encampments outside. Another ordinance banned urination and defecation in public. At the time, the city’s police chief, Nick Obligacion, said the ordinance was to “correct the wrong” and “if the correction is [the homeless] leaving Manteca, then that’s their choice.”

Rather than leave, however, four homeless men are now suing the city, saying the policies violate their constitutional rights by making their homelessness a crime, “with the discriminatory purpose of driving the homeless from the city.” The suit claims that after the city banned public urination and defecation, it locked public restrooms. It also said there is no shelter for homeless men where they might sleep instead.

One of the men is Robert Schunknect, who says he has been cited by the police for his encampment. “It’s highly unconstitutional,” he told KCRA. “We are being harassed for being homeless.”

Another is Mario Acosta, who said, “If we are not doing a crime, leave us alone,” adding, “I shouldn’t be arrested and dragged off to county” just for being homeless. The other two men are Justin Lightsey and James Escobar. All four say they have been cited by police for “illegal” campsites.

In response to the lawsuit, Obligacion denied the ordinances were discrimnatory. “The ordinances are not targeting a specific group, say homeless, our concern is safety of the community,” he told KCRA. He argues that the police don’t seek out the homeless, but instead respond to complaints or deal with what they see while on patrol.

But recent events don’t bode well for the city’s defense of its ordinances. In August, the Department of Justice filed a memo in a lawsuit brought against an ordinance that bans sleeping in public in Boise, Idaho, saying that these laws are unconstitutional. In September, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that may withhold federal funding from communities that criminalize their homeless populations. And three federal courts recently found that anti-panhandling ordinances, similarly directed at the homeless, violate the Constitution by infringing on free speech.

The homeless are fighting back in other cities, too. A lawsuit was filed against Sarasota, Florida for a ban on sleeping outside, a city that also doesn’t have any publicly funded homeless shelters.

The backlash is growing in response to the recent trend of cities choosing to criminalize the homeless rather than provide resources. There has been a huge increase in ordinances targeting the homeless all across Schunknect’s home state of California, and a number of cities in the state banded together recently to fight a bill that would grant the homeless a “right to rest” and undo these policies that ban sleeping outside. Similar things are happening across the country: There has been an increase in nearly every kind of ordinance targeting the homeless over the last five years.

Some places are taking a different approach. A number of cities and a couple of states have announced an end to homelessness for certain demographics through outreach and offering them housing. In fact, the country could end mass homelessness if it were to spend enough on affordable housing that it address the huge gap between current need and supply.