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Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice is spoke out on one city’s local ordinances that target sleeping in public spaces. According to The Washington Post, the DOJ last month filed a statement weighing in on a Boise, Idaho, ordinance that prohibits sleeping in public spaces.

The DOJ says, as quoted by the Post:

When adequate shelter space exists, individuals have a choice about whether or not to sleep in public. However, when adequate shelter space does not exist, there is no meaningful distinction between the status of being homeless and the conduct of sleeping in public. Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity — i.e., it must occur at some time in some place. If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.

In effect, the DOJ argues, criminalizing homelessness becomes a form of cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment. You can read the full filing here.

Boise isn’t the only city that has similar ordinances. According to a National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty report, “No Safe Place,” 66 percent of the 187 cities and towns they studied have laws the prohibit sleeping in public spaces. d

Charlotte is one of them.

Our ordinance was passed in the lead up to the city’s hosting of the Democratic National Convention in 2012, largely in response to Occupy protests that had set up camp at Old City Hall. The ordinance prohibits “camping,” defined in the law as: “the use of city property for living accommodation purposes such as sleeping, or making preparations to sleep (including the laying down of bedding for the purpose of sleeping), or storing personal belongings, or placing any tents or a temporary shelter on city property for living accommodation purposes.”

I reached out to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department for information on how many arrests or citations have been made under the ordinance. I was pleased to learn they couldn’t find any. That’s good news. But the local law is still problematic and it needs to come off the books. Repealing laws that could be detrimental to a population the city is seeking to serve would go a long way in local government’s quest to stem the tide of homelessness here.

The city and county have, in fact, been making promising steps to address some of these challenges. Some of the proposals have been great, like increasing access to supportive housing and other services. Other proposals have been, like U.S. cities’ various anti-camping/anti-sleeping ordinances, downright intolerable.

Last July, the city considered removing benches in and around Independence Square at Trade & Tryon. The benches have been used by countless homeless people as their beds and temporary homes for the night. The city’s hope then was that removing the benches would force homeless persons to avail themselves of shelter and other services, like job training skills and eventually get them into permanent housing.

But there was backlash, and rightly so. The city eventually backed off that plan. Some of the homeless had no where to go, and shelter services aren’t always adequate (and, in the case of LGB and especially transgender people, shelters aren’t always safe or affirming). For one homeless women, Independence Square was the safest option she felt she had.

From the Charlotte Observer:

Among the regulars is 51-year-old Diane, who has been homeless since 2012 and sleeping on a bench near Trade and Tryon since January. Everything she owns fits in a suitcase and a duffel bag, which also serve as her pillow and mattress.

Diane, who prefers not to give her last name, says the concentration of people near Trade and Tryon has an easy explanation: Bank of America security guards.

“See him?” she says, pointing to a guard on one side of Trade Street. “And him?” she says, pointing to a guard on the opposite side the street.

“If I get in trouble, I’d like to believe they will help me. I feel secure here.”

Like many of the homeless at The Square, she has a regular bench she sleeps on each night, and counts on having the same homeless neighbors sleeping directly across from her.

If all the benches were to suddenly disappear, Diane said she might try to get into the Salvation Army Center of Hope, which often has to turn women away because of a lack of beds. (An expansion plan is underway to add 64 beds.)

The city, county and several private institutions began working on a joint project this year that they hope will end homelessness in two years. The goal is ambitious, but possible, especially if the right resources continue to flow toward the right needs.

Groups like Time Out Youth in Charlotte are already working on some of these items, partnering with other local agencies to get a better understanding of the need, like ensuring better counts of LGBT people in local homelessness surveys. (And their host home program helps fill in some gaps, but certainly not all.) Nationally, groups like the True Colors Fund are documenting the need and advocating for changes.

As our community continues to work on these issues, I’d suggest we continue to keep an eye on important focus areas often overlooked by local government, among them:

  • The safety of shelters and other homelessness programs for lesbian, gay, bisexual and, especially, transgender people. Shelters need concrete non-discrimination policies and staff training to better relate with and serve LGBT clients with unique needs, including their need for physical and mental safety, access to HIV and other medications and staff understanding of the dynamics which often cause LGBT people, especially youth, to become homeless in the first place.
  • Examining the intersections between homelessness, poverty and crime and creating better law enforcement priorities and services to assist those who might engage in otherwise criminal activity for survival. A stark example includes the experiences of LGBT youth; up to 40 percent of all homeless youth identify as LGBT and one study in New York City sheds important light on the lengths to which some youth engage in survival sex work, sometimes for money and sometimes simply in exchange for a place to sleep at night. Are these folks criminals? No. And we should work to ensure they are never be treated that way.

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