With about two million people experiencing homelessness at some point in a given year, it has become a national crisis in America. Instead of addressing the root causes of homelessness, cities across the nation have adopted legislation to make it harder for homeless and low income individuals to survive. This includes banning panhandling, food sharing, camping in public, and more in attempt to punish the homeless for carrying out daily necessary activities. This absurd approach to the issue which is essentially outlawing the way individuals without housing live to survive, offers no real solution and normalizes hatred. The enforcement of this legislation that incriminates homeless individuals creates further barriers for them to receive housing and perpetuates a negative stigma about them by undermining the challenges of homelessness.
Even though the Supreme Court considers bans or restrictions on begging a violation of the First Amendment, many cities are still enforcing laws that do so. As of January 2018, the ban on panhandling in Virginia Beach was lifted; however, the city is late to repeal the ordinances allowing it. (Skelton, 2018). In 2015 the decision of Reed et al. v. Town of Gilbert (2015) has set a general rule when regulating speech is based on its contents. It surprisingly was not a case involving panhandling, but it was revolutionary to the movement against anti-vagrancy laws.
Although the case of Reed et al. v. Town of Gilbert (2015) was about an ordinance banning a church from putting up signs about their services, it marked a victory for civil liberty groups and other proponents who advocate for the rights of homeless individuals. This case set a precedent for regulating free speech that requires any ordinance attempting to do so to serve some interest of the government. The ordinance is unconstitutional if the purpose of it can be accomplished by any other means other than a content-based restriction on speech (Lauriello, n.d.). This has strengthened arguments saying that panhandling bans are a violation of the First Amendment and discriminatory towards the homeless as they usually are passed due to a business complaining that beggars scare their customers away which is not valid.
Allowing people afraid of addressing poverty and homelessness to feel comfortable does not really qualify as a compelling government interest. City councils continue to masquerade blatant attacks at the homeless community as being another way to protect people from harm. There are laws in place to protect people from violence, threats, and disorderly conduct however cities continue to justify panhandling bans as a way to further help people feel safe. Out of 128 cities in the U.S. approximately 70 percent still have laws that ban begging in specified public places usually including places where businesses are prevalent such as commercial and tourist districts (Wogan, 2017).
There are many myths and motivations that have been circulating regarding homelessness and food sharing. These myths lead to conceptions generally agreed upon by society which inhibits laws that restrict or prohibit food sharing to be passed. Narrow minded perspectives have painted the picture that sharing food with the homeless enables them to remain homeless. This perspective and other myths have led to 31 cities nationwide taking steps to reduce or ban the act of food sharing.
Since 2013 more and more cities have turned to banning food sharing, hurting food insecure insecure and homeless individuals. In spite of these discriminatory legislation brave people have been taking a stand and are continuing to share with those in need. Back in January of this year 12 individuals volunteering in El Cajon, California were charged with misdemeanors for serving food to the homeless in the park. (Guarnieri, 2018) Similar occurrences have been happening across the country, especially with the organization Food not Bombs, an anti-war organization that serves free vegetarian and vegan meals and promotes peace. In August of this year they played a huge role in making strides towards getting rid of food sharing bans in the United States.
In 2015 Food not Bombs sued the city of Fort Lauderdale, Florida after it enacted an ordinance that banned food sharing in public unless organizations follow a lengthy list of requirements. The organization claimed that the ordinance and park was unconstitutionally vague, and a violation of the first amendment. Federal court dismissed their case because it was supposedly not in the sphere of the First Amendment and there was no particularized message. A major fallacy in our legal system today is that homeless individuals are being punished for sleeping in the streets when shelter is not accessible to them. NOT DONE
A report by the Seattle University School of Law found that ordinances that punish the homeless can be traced back to the beginnings of our country. In the original thirteen colonies of the United States many of the laws were based off of those made by english parliament. This includes anti-vagrancy laws. The State of Labourers written by English Parliament in the 14th century under King Edward III greatly influenced the colonies to enforce laws that punish vagrants. Vagrants during this time were considered to be people who travelled from one city to the next and did not have money or a job. Laws during this time were tailored to purposefully discriminate against these people and empower local authorities to push vagrants out to avoid economic instability.
This type of discriminatory legislation persists throughout history: from Jim Crows laws that suppressed Black Americans, the prohibition of migrant workers moving from plain states to Washington or California, and the punishment of disabled americans for appearing in public places in the United States. The report also found that Before the Civil Rights Movement there were anti-vagrancy laws that specifically were targeted at “vagrants” or those “neglected by their employment” but were eventually struck down by courts for violating the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments along with other exclusion laws. Cities tried getting around this by using different, more ambiguous terms that still gave them to ability to remove unwanted people.
These laws, however, were struck down again after the conclusion of the Civil Rights Movement for giving officers too much leeway in determining who actually was violating the laws. Following this cities then came to use the terms “panhandling,” “food sharing,” and “camping” to avoid being deemed unconstitutional due to ambiguity. The ordinances moved away from describing the appearance of the person but the conduct and behaviour in violation instead. Although this new statutory language does restrict laws from being used as a broad tool for law enforcement, it still allows them to evade due process .
Patterns and mentalities stemming from society’s response. This section will explore why homeless people are treated so poorly in America. A question raised is why are people with the least social power treated as if they are a threat to society? Professor Amster, co-director of the program on Justice and Peace from the University of Georgetown, presents following theory: society sees homeless individuals as a part of “deviant subculture” due to mainstream media depicting them that way. This places them under stereotypes of danger, disease, and criminal behavior. The homeless and others who fall under this construct are seen “as inferior, inhuman, unsympathetic, deserving of their fate, and perhaps even requiring punitive measures.” Basically society believes these people are subhuman individuals who deserve to be treated poorly and don’t deserve compassion. All of this is based on perception and not fact which confirms how strong the power of human emotions and collective conscience is. Despite.
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