On South Carolina's troubling criminalization of homelessness

By Elizabeth Lefebvre| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
blog Social Justice

In our August cover story, author Paula Lomazzi argued that we shouldn’t enact laws and policies that effectively make it a crime to be homeless. Lomazzi, formerly homeless herself and now the director of the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee, made a compelling argument in favor or community, compassion, and practical solutions to ending homelessness. Our readers agreed, with 67 percent indicating that they would vote against legislation that prohibited sleeping outside in their city.

The timing of the article unfortunately now seems apt, as last week Columbia, South Carolina introduced a plan for the city that very blatantly makes being homeless a crime. As the New York Times reports, Camron Runyan, the Columbia councilman who wrote the proposal, said the intent of his strategy was to “increase enforcement of existing vagrancy laws and offer the homeless three options: accept help at a shelter, go to jail, or leave Columbia.”

The Atlantic Cities blog offers some more details about the plan:

Officers from the Columbia Police Department will begin collecting homeless people who are found downtown and transporting them by shuttle to a temporary homeless shelter at the edge of the city. Once there, homeless people will be allowed to leave the shelter only in a shuttle headed away from the downtown area. An officer will also be posted at the intersection of Williams and Laurel streets, located between downtown and the shelter, to keep homeless people from entering downtown. The city will provide a hotline for downtown businesses to call when 'a person in need is identified,' so that police can pick them up.

The Cities blog (admittedly sidestepping some of the problematic human rights elements) criticizes the plan on logistical grounds such as the fact that there aren’t enough beds at the shelter to house the city’s homeless population, the immense cost of the plan, and the fact that the planned permanent shelter will be located even farther away from the city.

I'll add the issue of profiling and the troubling “hotline” for people to be picked up by the police. This will only reinforce the stereotypical belief that all people who experience homelessness are some combination of dirty, drunk, and disturbing the peace. What about the calm, clean person walking down the street toward the library carrying a backpack? Will anyone call the hotline on them? Are they homeless and looking to spend a few hours inside where they can possibly use a public restroom? Are they trying to find a place to work on homework? Maybe this person is both homeless and looking for a place to work on coursework. The city's plan comes down the hardest on those whose barriers to securing housing are the most visible—often people who are in tremendous moments of crisis and who, more than needing to be rounded up and hidden away, are in crucial need of mental health services or substance abuse treatment.

The plan also notes that a police officer will be stationed to keep people from entering the city once they have been forcibly removed. What if the person has a perfectly legitimate reason to be downtown? Maybe they have a work shift, a medical appointment, a job interview, a court date, or a visit to see family. This plan does little to offer permanent solutions as to why people experience homelessness, and does everything to exclude members of the Columbia community. As Paula Lomazzi wrote, “The hardships and insecurity of homelessness couldn’t dampen my spirit as much as the humiliation that my city hated me. They must have hated me, since I was denied shelter and yet forbidden to live without shelter.”

Runyan’s three options for those experiencing homelessness are for people to crowd an overcapacity shelter with law enforcement positioned to prevent you from accessing the community, to go to jail and have a criminal record as an additional obstacle to securing future employment or housing, or to leave the place that you call home and may have lived for your entire life.

“What got me off the streets were not laws forbidding me to be there but an opportunity to get back into housing,” Lomazzi wrote. “When we finally decriminalize homelessness, we can then get down to the real work of ending homelessness, wholeheartedly.”