“Torture and Apartheid: The Criminalization of Homelessness and The War against Beggars, Tramps and Panhandlers in American Cities”
By David William.
There is a nationwide war that has been raging for several years against the homeless people in the cities of America. It is a war to harass and run them out of towns and cities across the nation. The homeless end up shuttling from city to city to avoid being terrorized as cities compete for the most draconian laws against them. Many city politicians have decided that the best way to solve homelessness in their jurisdiction is just to make it illegal. They would like to tar and feather the bums and run them out of town on a rail. They might as well because the pandemic of cities criminalizing the life sustaining activities of the homeless and efforts to make the homeless invisible rises to the level of torture and apartheid.
The Great Recession and the more authoritarian mean mood of the country have intensified the war against the homeless people. There has been a surge in the war in the last few years. Mayors, city councils, local politicians and civic organizations are busy struggling with shrinking revenues, a struggling middle class, angry citizens, crazy tea-partiers and class warfare against the “47% who pay no income taxes and are free loaders, parasites and people who feel an entitlement to food, shelter and medical care” , to paraphrase Mitt Romney.
The authoritarian austerity hawks have been trying to balance budgets by firing teachers, police, and firefighters and cutting essential government services to the needy to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy. Government programs for the unemployed, the sick, the children, the old and the poor have been slashed. With the middle-class hurting from home foreclosures, increased costs at the gas pump and grocery store, and high unemployment; few people give a dime about the homeless. Many just want the “beggars, tramps and panhandlers” to go away quietly, become completely invisible and just die quietly.
The homeless have instead become more visible during the Great Recession, although reliable statistics are hard to come by. All the statistics are suspect because of the potential bias of the reporting organizations. The very nature of the problem makes it hard to count homeless people no matter who does the counting anyway. Some homelessness is transitional, changing on a daily basis as people find temporary places to live while others find themselves out on the street. It is difficult to distinguish between people living in extreme poverty and those that are homeless. Yet those that are involved with the problem of homelessness; the politicians, schools, government agencies, police, charities and the general public mostly agree that the problem is staggering. Many estimates run in the millions of people who are essentially homeless.
Not all homeless people are single men or women. Many of the homeless are families, single parents with children and abandoned and run away children. As many as one million school children “house hop” because they do not have a permanent place to live. Many of the homeless are the veterans that the country sent off to fight foreign wars. Many are senior citizens who cannot make it on the small amount of Social Security payment that they receive. Ironically, many homeless people cannot get Social Security or other benefits because they have no fixed address and lack the means, mental skills and ability to apply for benefits.
Others are homeless because they are mentally ill, alcoholics and drug addicts that have no place to go. And yes some people are homeless just by choice and are professional panhandlers, as so many politicians love to opine. Still it is hard to imagine that many sane people would want to sleep in the bush and eat out of trash cans, but even if some people do so by choice…so what? America is supposed to be a free country with the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and freedom of speech and all the other high ideals of the Founding Fathers.
Many mayors and city councils disagree with the Founding Fathers. City after cities have passed ingenious laws to try to get around those ideals, the Constitution and the First Amendment right of free speech for homeless people to ask for money in their pursuit of…well just getting by. Many cities have gone way too far and have passed laws that are not just unconstitutional but also violate civil rights, human rights and international treaties to which the United States has agreed.
Some of the measures that cities take to get rid of the homeless are just down- right mean, such as welding public bathroom doors shut, turning off public water fountains and removing park benches. Others are silly, such as making it illegal to have an open umbrella in a public place when it is not raining.
Then there are laws against camping in public places, sleeping in a parked car, sleeping in public places, sitting on a street curb, being horizontal on a park bench, bathing or shaving in a public restroom, washing clothes in a river or lake, storing personal belongings in a public place, loitering, asking for money, asking for money without a proper identification badge, restricted begging zones, begging for money on mass transit, telling a lie while asking for money, begging in groups, begging in the street without wearing a reflective vest and aggressive begging.
There are even laws against concerned private citizens helping the homeless. Some cities have laws against giving money to the homeless. Cities have banning people voluntarily helping or feeding people in public places. In many cities people who had been routinely taking blankets, sandwiches, soup and hot coffee to homeless people on cold winter nights have been banned from doing so. Let the bums freeze to death. So, next time you are about to give a panhandler a buck be careful, look up and down the street for a policeman first because you may be breaking the law and find yourself paying a big fine or even winding up in jail yourself.
Individual police officers are given very wide discretion on the enforcement of these laws so that they can target the homeless and undesirables. Respectable people need not worry about arrest for carrying an open umbrella to keep the sun off of their fair skin when it is not raining. Clean-cut picnickers are safe eating in a public park and handing out hot dogs to the kids. But if a person has not bathed in a month, wears dirty clothes that smell bad and has that homeless glassy stare in their eyes, then they better watch out for the cops before drinking that leftover Slurpee they just found in a trash can. And you better not give them a hot dog either.
Cities really do not want to put the homeless in jail. It costs too much to house, feed and provide medical care for a homeless person in jail. They just want to terrorize them and run them out of town. Some of the meanest cities are in Florida and include Bradenton, Clearwater, Ft. Lauderdale, Gainesville, Miami, Orlando, St. Petersburg and Tampa. Other mean cities across the nation are Atlanta, Berkeley, Colorado Springs, Dallas, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Reno, San Francisco and Seattle. The list is growing too fast to keep up with. It is a race to the bottom.
Homelessness is a national problem that needs to be dealt with nationally. Many federal government agencies, such as the Veterans Administration, say they are doing more to reduce homelessness. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness was created in 1987 and comes directly under the President. The USICH coordinates the efforts of various federal, state and local agencies and private entities to work together to reduce homelessness.
The USICH recognizes the problem of criminalization of homelessness and released a report on April 9, 2012: “Constructive Alternatives to the Criminalization of Homelessness”. The report expressed extreme concern over the pandemic of laws criminalizing homelessness and “acts of living”. The report also announced a new initiative called “Searching out Solutionts” with the appropriate accronime “SOS” to develop alternatives to the wave of inhumane state and local laws that torture the victims of homelessness rather than trying to help them.*
Here is what the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty had to say about that USICH report: “Two federal agencies released a groundbreaking report today condemning the criminalization of homelessness, a growing trend in cities across the country designed to “minimize the visibility of homeless people”. Published by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the U.S. Department of Justice, the report warns that such policies “undermine real solutions” and may violate the constitutional and human rights of homeless people, as well as U.S. treaty obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention Against Torture.”**
Torture! If Governor Rick Scott of Florida reads that he may get the idea to start water-boarding the homeless.
A good case study in meanness is what the Tampa Bay area of Florida has been doing over the past year to violate the civil rights and torture the homeless. It illustrates how cities run the homeless ragged from town to town.
In July 2011 the city of St. Petersburg Florida began stricter enforcement of homelessness laws already on their books. The city hired a consultant, Robert Marbut to help St. Petersburg clean up the streets of the homeless people. Mayor Bill Foster announced that anybody who wants to sleep on sidewalks should go to another city. Perhaps in a game of one-upmanship St. Petersburg councilman Karl Nurse pushed for a law that would ban feeding homeless people in city parks. Did it include signs saying: “No feeding the bums”?
The crack-down in St. Petersburg worked and pushed more homeless people into Tampa. That was not good news for Tampa as they prepared for the Republican National Convention in 2012. (In August 2012 the neighboring city of Clearwater passed a law “cracking down on homelessness” to deal with the homeless that were run out of both St. Petersburg and Tampa. Clearwater also hired Robert Marbut as a consultant. His conclusion was that the city was too hospitable to the homeless.) ***
In Tampa in August 2011, with still plenty of lead time to the Republican National Convention, Tampa’s Mayor Bob Buckhorn pushed for a new get-tougher law on the homeless to clean up the city. A new law was editorially backed by the Tampa Tribune in an August 16, 2011 editorial cleverly titled “Curbing Beggars in Tampa” and pushed for a new law against “beggars, tramps and panhandlers”. The Tampa Tribune editorial called for the “city’s legal staff to find a way to discourage panhandlers while allowing…street sales by newspaper vendors”.
The Tampa Tribune was more concerned about their First Amendment right of freedom of the press to hawk its newspaper on street corners; and never mind the
First Amendment right of freedom of speech for the homeless to ask for money. The law passed with the newspaper vendor exception to panhandling. The homeless people soliciting for money on the streets of Tampa now are given three choices by the police: Go to jail, go to a shelter or get out of town. While going to a shelter may seem like the easy choice, it is not. Shelters are not free, they charge the homeless rent, rules are arbitrary, space is limited, the conditions are over-crowded, they do not allow food, offer little privacy and they are often dirty, unsanitary, and unsafe. Often the best choice is to get out of town and many cities such as Ft. Lauderdale and St. Petersburg stooped to giving the homeless a one-way bus ticket to do so.
One person in Tampa who opposed the new law against “beggars, tramps and panhandlers” and was motivated to do something about it was a man by the name of Bill Sharpe. Bill was a Damon Runyon sort of character that was the publisher of a struggling monthly newspaper called the South Tampa Community News.
Bill was well liked and active in the Community of South Tampa. He produced many artistic and community events such as the Tampa Bay Seafood Festival, music festivals for up and coming artists and various Zombie Bar Crawls in the hip Ybor City area of Tampa. The events were fun and attracted hundreds and even thousands of people.
Bill noticed the exception in Tampa’s anti-begging law pertaining to the street peddling of newspapers and started a newspaper for the homeless to sell on the streets of Tampa. He called his newspaper Epoch and every morning at 7:30 A.M. he distributed the Epoch to about 300 homeless people. He gave each of his vendors the first 25 copies of the Epoch for free so they could sell them for $1 each without violating the anti-panhandling law. He gave each of his vendors a blue Epoch t-shirt, the required reflective vest and a pep talk that they were no longer homeless people but small business people now. The vendors could then legally sell the Epoch on street corners of Tampa to make a buck. After vendors sold the first free 25 copies of the Epoch they could buy more copies from Bill for 25 cents each and resell them for $1 each too. Bill had many success stories of vendors being able to make enough money to rent a nice room or even a small inexpensive
apartment so they could get off the street without having to live in a shelter.
If someone wondered why Bill started the Epoch for the homeless it sure wasn’t for the money. With a total circulation of less than 15,000 copies per month at 25 cents per copy and even with the meager advertising revenue, after expenses the Epoch was no money maker. Bill said the reason he did it was because “it was the right thing to do”. He said he was saddened by how much absolute hate and loathing there is for homeless people. There was a lot of hate and loathing for Bill in Tampa too for what he was now doing to help the homeless.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn shapely criticized anyone advertising in the Epoch as “contributing to the denigration of our public spaces.” Other critics started an anti-Epoch Facebook page, organized advertising boycotts, harassed advertisers and one particular vocal anti-Epoch activist was quoted as saying that he didn’t think “it is going to be in anybody’s best interest to advertise in that paper.”
In early April of 2012, just after Bill’s beloved annual Tampa Bay Seafood Festival weekend, and just a few months before the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Bill Sharpe was found dead of strangulation in his office. The Tampa City police and the coroner wasted little time in declaring that Bill Sharpe, age 59 had committed suicide. There was no suicide note. People who had talked to Bill during the Seafood Festival and within the previous 24 hours said that he seemed his normal self. There was not much of an investigation of Bill’s death.
Some people were glad to see Bill dead. Many more miss him and grieve their personal loss and the loss to the City of Tampa. Most people, even those that supported the Epoch, thought that the Epoch would die too without Bill. It has not despite the hope of some and the very hard work of others. The Epoch is still struggling financially but it has survived. Bill’s vendors of hundreds of homeless people turned small business people are still struggling to survive too, by selling Bill’s newspaper on the street corners of Tampa.
If you are ever in Tampa look for Bill’s vendors wearing blue Epoch t-shirts and reflective vests. Buy a copy of the Epoch to give a hand up to a small business person…and in remembrance to Bill Sharpe.
David William is a political, social and economic commentator.
*United States Interagency Council on Homelessness: http://www.usich.gov/media_center/press_releases/ new_report_offers_constructive_alternatives_to_the_criminalization_of_homel/
**The National Law Center of Homelessness and Poverty: http://www.nlchp.org/view_release.cfm?PRID=142
***The Tampa Bay Times, August 4, 2012: http://www.tampabay.com/news/humaninterest/as-clearwater-passes-laws- targeting-the-homeless-advocates-say-funding-is/1244145