Jerome Murdough, a fifty-six-year-old ex-Marine, was looking for a safe place to sleep in 2013, when he was arrested and charged with trespassing. He was fined over two thousand dollars and, due to his insufficient funds, was sent to Rikers Island—where he met his end. Murdough was in the suicide watch section of the prison due to a history of mental illnesses and was supposed to be periodically checked every fifteen minutes. Autopsies show that he likely died of heatstroke or severe dehydration, which conveys that he was not checked according to protocol (Pearson 1).
Jerome Murdough’s death provides dismal insight into the future of the homeless if we continue to make their life-sustaining actions, such as finding a safe place to sleep, illegal and offer no real help to solve the rapidly growing homeless population. Cities around America have started taking action against ending the homeless problem in their area. Their solution, make it illegal. Due to the recent bans on homelessness in thirty-three cities, homeless people are finding it increasingly difficult to survive; not only are they having to worry about finding food and shelter, but now they are also having to worry about becoming criminals.
The simple actions homeless people take in order to survive, like sleeping on the streets or in cars, are now becoming persecuted by law. The results of breaking these laws are fines or jail time, which results in a criminal record. These laws are being made in an effort to ban homelessness, not to solve it. The only thing the bans are accomplishing is increasing the number of criminals in America’s jail system. Though advocates argue that it is more beneficial for the city and is what the citizens are asking for, banning homelessness does not solve the growing population because it akes finding work and housing difficult, ignores a federal act against the practice, and breaks the Constitution. Since the government has created bans such as no sleeping or setting up encampments on public property, no panhandling, no sitting on public property between certain hours, no public urination or defecation, and no sleeping in vehicles, the homeless are finding it harder and harder to locate safe places to rest and sleep (Michael Maskin 1).
Courtney Davis from the Athens Area Homeless Shelter remarks on the dangers she feels may arise with the bans in her area, “It would make homeless people less visible instead of solving the homeless problem” (“A Dream Denied” 1). The idea that Davis voices is one of the main concerns anti ban activists have about the practice of banning homelessness. This along with the fact that bans are implemented without any actual solution being offered results in many homeless people being criminally charged for trying to find a safe place to stay in cities that are not giving them anywhere to go.
Not only are the homeless having to spend time in jail for situations they cannot change, they also leave with a criminal record. Being arrested because of being homeless goes on a person’s record like every other crime and, therefore, makes it harder for a homeless person to get a job and to rent a house (Michael Maskin 1). The Mckinney-Vento Act was created as a federal response to the homeless problem in America. States that are placing bans on homelessness instead of accepting the grants that could be given to them by this act are completely ignoring a solution that would cost them far less than placing people in jail.
The Mckinney-Vento Act was created to give federal funds to local, regional, and state homeless assistance programs and in the year of 2015 nearly $2. 14 billion was available (“McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants. ” 1). Due to this act being in place, banning homelessness to try and solve the problem shouldn’t even have to be considered. The use of bans completely ignores a viable solution to the homeless problem. It’s clear that Congress felt homelessness is a big enough problem to make a federal act for it and city government that disregard this act in an attempt to “solve” the problem themselves are making a big mistake.
Admittedly, it is a city’s choice to use or not use the government funding available to them. Though this previous statement is true, recent ruling has proven that banning homelessness is out of a city’s jurisdiction. Idaho has enforced the same rules many cities who are fighting homelessness have: no sleeping in public places, no sitting in public places, no sleeping in vehicles (Kimball 1). The Department of Justice (DOJ) believes that these activities are fundamental to humans, and if a person has no other place to do these then they should not be penalized for it.
Because of these conclusions, the DOJ recently released a statement claiming that the homeless bans taking place in Boise, Idaho are breaking the 8th amendment, which states that the federal government can not enforce excessive fines or cruel or unusual punishment (U. S. Constitution amendment 8). The DOJ is also arguing against the people who claim that homelessness would be too expensive to fix any other way, by explaining that the cost of ticketing the homeless is greater than the cost of other solutions (Badger 1).
If the only crime these people are committing is trying to find a safe place to sleep when they lack another area to do so then prosecuting them breaks their constitutional rights. There is also debate on whether fines being given to the homeless are breaking the law against excessive fines. Some people feel that the fines are a reasonable price since they are the same fines any person would receive. These beliefs can be seen in the countless number of trials taking place in different states, where state governments are suing homeless people for not paying fines.
When the homeless people say that they can’t pay the fines because they don’t have the money, the state/city officials claim that it is a standard fine (“A Dream Denied” 1). Although it is true the fines are standard and equal, to a person who typically has nothing but the change in his or her pocket, any fine can be seen as excessive. If the homeless people had the money to pay for these fines, they wouldn’t be on the street in the first place.
Additionally, if a homeless person is somehow capable of paying the fines that they have been charged with, that takes away money that they could potentially have used for rent, only adding to the cycle of homelessness. In summation, enforcing the bans on homelessness may be a topic of debate, but it is clear that it is unconstitutional. Government officials enforcing these bans are saying that they are doing it for the betterment of the city. Most cities that are placing these bans see their actions as a response to the complaints of the citizens.
This situation is exactly what happened in Burlington, Washington when, in response to complaints from business owners, an ordinance was passed to outlaw camping on public or private property. When city officials begin to try to “cure” homelessness in order to please the citizens who are somehow bothered by the homeless people, criminal records began to be handed out to the homeless like candy. Officials either don’t care that this affects that homeless person’s ability to find a job or housing, or they aren’t realizing the negative impact they are having (“A Dream Denied” 1).
What these people believe to be a solution is actually making the problem worse. Although it is clear officials and citizens alike believe it is an employer and landlord’s right to know of a criminal background, the problem lies within the fact that there is no way to differentiate what a crime is. Apartment managers often do not specify what truly constitutes a criminal record, as Eric Tars, a senior for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, explains: “You have to check those [criminal] boxes on the application forms,” Tars says. And they don’t say ‘were you arrested because you were trying to simply survive on the streets? ‘ They say ‘if you have an arrest record, we’re not going to rent to you” (Badger 1). This increases the difficulty of finding a home or a job for homeless people with arrest records. Congress did pass an act to try to decrease the number of homeless without arresting them but these government officials, who claim to have the citizens in mind when arresting people for trying to survive, have conveniently ignored this act.
Outlawing homelessness is not solving the problem of homelessness and is only moving it out of the eyesight of people. The bans being implemented are controversial and are being faced with backlash. The results of these bans are harming homeless people’s potential of getting jobs and housing. They also ignore a federal act that was made specifically to help solve the homeless problem in a humane way. Regardless of the results though, this “solution” to homelessness would be unconstitutional even if it did reduce the number of homeless.