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Tide Starts To Turn Against The 'Crime' Of Being Homeless

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Homeless people and their tents line a canal in Honolulu in June 2015. Hours after a city crew cleared the banks of the canal, the homeless people that had been living there moved right back to the riverside.

Work crews in Honolulu recently dismantled wooden shacks and tents that lined city streets and housed almost 300 people.

It was the latest example of a city trying to deal with a growing homeless population, and responding to complaints that these encampments are unsafe, unsanitary and, at the very least, unsightly.

Last month, Madison, Wis., banned people from sleeping outside city hall. And in New Port Richey, Fla., the city council voted to restrict the feeding of homeless individuals in a popular park.

"We received complaints from the regular users of the park who felt that it was intimidating or they were leaving behind a mess, which was true," says City Manager Debbie Manns. "We had to clean that up."

Other cities have passed similar laws with increasing frequency in recent years — restricting outdoor sleeping, begging and other activities linked to homelessness — according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

Homeless advocates say these laws criminalize the basic, everyday activities of those who have nowhere else to live.

"However, there have been some positive developments just in the last couple of months," says Maria Foscarinis, the law center's executive director, "and some of those are starting to have an impact."

In August, the Justice Department filed a brief in her group's case challenging an anti-camping ordinance in Boise, Idaho. The department said such laws are unconstitutional if individuals have nowhere else to stay.

A few weeks later, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that it will consider what steps a community is taking to prevent the criminalization of homelessness when it awards $1.9 billion in new homeless assistance grants later this year.

"We can't really fight these battles city by city. It's like putting out fires," says Foscarinis. "Now with the federal government taking a stance, I think we really have a chance of turning the ship around."

And there are signs that's beginning to happen. Several California communities have stopped enforcing their anti-camping laws to consider alternatives. And in Colorado last month, Denver, Colorado Springs and Boulder suspended panhandling ordinances after a federal judge ruled that one such law was unconstitutional because it violated free speech.

Sarah Huntley is a spokesperson for the city of Boulder.

"Based on the advice of our city attorney, we made a determination it would be a prudent move to scale back some of the provisions we had, specifically related to how we define aggressive begging," she says.

Homeless advocates say they understand why communities are frustrated having people begging, sleeping, and in some cases, defecating in public. But Foscarinis says throwing them in jail doesn't solve the problem.

"We agree. People should not be living in public," she says. "What we're saying is the response should not be to make it a crime. The response should be to ensure that people have a place to live."

And indeed, many communities are trying to pair enforcement with more positive efforts to get people off the streets.

Scott Morishige, homelessness coordinator for the state of Hawaii, says the city and state sent workers out to help those in the street find places to live before the Honolulu camp was torn down.

"Really trying to do everything we can to provide an array of supports, so that individuals living in encampments have opportunities to move not only into shelter, if they so choose, but also into permanent housing," he says.

Morishige says they succeeded getting about half the camp residents into shelter or housing. They're now turning their attention to the others, many of whom moved to a new encampment that sprung up in a nearby park.

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