The Problem With Criminalizing Homelessness

CREDIT: Andres Lopez Youtube account

Franklin, a 53 year old homeless veteran in south Florida, has been repeatedly fined for asking people for money.

Franklin, a 53 year old homeless veteran in south Florida, has been repeatedly fined for asking people for money.

Franklin, a 53-year-old homeless veteran in south Florida, has been repeatedly fined for asking people for money.

CREDIT: Andres Lopez Youtube account

“I’m probably gonna wind up in jail,” Franklin said one June afternoon off a highway in south Florida, a statement made only more chilling by the fact that it was clear he’s had to say those same words in the past.

The 53-year-old doesn’t exactly fit the notion of someone who “deserves” to be homeless. He served in the nation’s armed forces when he was younger. He wants to work, spending every morning putting in applications at local businesses. “I put in an application right there, Home Depot right here, they said don’t even bother, man,” he told filmmaker Andres Lopez.

Despite attempts by some to argue that poor people actually live pampered lives on the dole, Franklin’s is anything but glamorous. He lives in the woods off the highway. He spends his mornings fruitlessly applying for jobs, his afternoons asking people for spare change. On a good day, he gets $10 from drivers off I-95.

Which is where he found himself facing possible jailtime earlier this summer after being ticketed by the Florida Highway Patrol for violating a state law that prohibits pedestrians from walking on highway exit ramps. Franklin was going car to car to ask for money, a violation that earned him a $64.50 citation.

“This is the fourth one I’ve gotten,” he explained. He’d managed to pay off the others, successfully begging for enough money to cover them then catching a bus downtown to physically hand over the cash. But he wasn’t optimistic this time. “It’s either that or go to jail.”

He didn’t regret violating Florida statute 316.130 §18 — “I got no choice. I’ve gotta survive somehow.” — but with an expensive ticket hanging over his head, his life was made even harder. “Every time I try to do anything, I get kicked in my ass,” he told Lopez. “I guess I’m just stupid, I don’t know.”

Watch the full interview:

Franklin’s experience is not an isolated incident. This year, cities as diverse as Columbia, Palo Alto, Miami, Raleigh and Tampa have joined a multitude of other localities in passing measures that make it virtually impossible for local homeless people to stay on the right side of the law. These “acts of living” laws range from making it illegal to ask passersby for change to outlawing sleeping, sitting, or even eating in public areas. As the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness notes, these ordinances target “people who do not have a permanent place to call home, and by their very nature criminalize homelessness.”

Criminalization of homelessness doesn’t just raise moral questions about the way our society deals with those living in poverty; it raises practical and financial issues as well.

Because Florida made asking for money from cars on an exit ramp illegal, people like Franklin face fines for simply trying to survive. He doesn’t have $64.50 lying around to pay off tickets that would be a mere inconvenience for a middle-class individual, so he’s forced to either break the law again by approaching drivers for money to pay the fine — $64.50 that Franklin will not be able to use to buy food or clothes or shelter — or not pay the fine and get sent to jail.

In short, society is asking the neediest to write a check. Begging from beggars.

This malevolent cycle of criminalizing homelessness doesn’t just make it harder for people to get off the streets; it’s also a waste for taxpayers. In a seminal 2006 New Yorker article, Malcolm Gladwell recounts the story of “Million-Dollar Murray Barr”, a homeless alcoholic man in Reno who was frequently getting arrested, hospitalized, or both. In his years on the streets, officials estimated that he had cost taxpayers more than one million dollars in bills that he couldn’t pay.

Had local and state officials instead focused on providing housing and supportive care for Barr, not only would his life outcomes be markedly improved, but so too would taxpayers likely have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars. When you consider all the associated costs of criminalizing homelessness — court fees, judges’ time, officers’ time, money spent jailing people, not to mention all the associated medical costs of keeping people on the streets — it makes little financial sense for cities to continue passing these types of ordinances.

Now, officials in a number of cities that have already passed measures criminalizing homelessness are trying a new approach. In Tampa, where the city council passed a new ordinance in July allowing officers to arrest anyone they find sleeping or storing personal property in public, a local judge has created a new avenue to direct homeless people towards services, rather than simply throwing them in jail. As ABC Action News noted, Hillsborough County Judge James Dominguez, “tired of throwing the same people in jail, over and over again,” has begun holding court every second Wednesday of the month for people facing minor offenses like panhandling. Dominguez offers homeless people social services including counseling through local homeless advocates as an alternative to a fine or jail.

Similarly, in Columbia, where a torrent of outrage erupted after the city council passed a new measure last month effectively exiling homeless people from the downtown area, Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine is pushing for a new homeless court system that would connect people with services instead of saddling them with fines or jails.

Homeless courts are not a new invention. They began in San Diego in the late 1980s and have spread to a number of other cities since, including Houston, Tucson, Los Angeles, and others.

Still, the advent of homeless courts in some communities is spreading too slowly to help people like Franklin who risk jail just to survive. “I just want off the streets so bad,” he said towards the end of the interview. But, he echoed words spoken by far too many people on the streets, “I’ve got no choice. Nowhere to go.”