For far too long, homelessness has been the default discharge option for our mental-health system, our criminal-justice system and our foster-care system.
A federal appeals court recently held that the city of Boise cannot prosecute people for living on the streets when there is no shelter available to them. The Seattle Times correctly reported that this may invalidate the practices of the almost 80 percent of Washington cities that criminalize homelessness. [“City attorney says ruling on sleeping outside wont affect Seattle,” NWSaturday, Sept. 8.]
Beyond that narrow holding, however, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision last week calls on us to recognize the broader and more important principle that people do not lose their fundamental rights by becoming homeless.
No one chooses to become homeless. The urban myth of the person who “likes being homeless” is just that: a myth. For far too long, homelessness has been the default discharge option for our mental-health system, our criminal-justice system and our foster-care system. In recent years we have also seen a steep rise in simple economic homelessness. A person earning minimum wage cannot afford housing, and one minor crisis can tip them into homelessness.
Once a person is homeless, most options simply disappear. In the current rental market, what landlord is going to rent to a person with an eviction — even if that eviction was due to a low-wage worker having a medical crisis and losing his job? With very low vacancies, what landlord will rent to a person with no recent tenant history — even if it was because she was successfully receiving treatment for depression? How do you save up first and last months’ rent plus a deposit when living day-to-day? Most people who have been forced into homelessness need some sort of help to exit. It might be as little as a few months’ rent for a low-wage worker who lost her job or supportive housing with round-the-clock care for a person wrongly cut loose by the mental-health system. At a minimum, they need emergency shelter to get off the streets.
The answer to homelessness is housing and services. Unfortunately, our resources currently are woefully inadequate to address the scope of the problem (and the federal government, unlike other First World countries, has essentially turned its back on funding low-income housing).
What are we to do? On the positive side, some jurisdictions are working to create homelessness-prevention programs, affordable housing and supportive housing with services. On the negative side, a large and growing number of jurisdictions, even those who are also building housing, are responding by treating people experiencing homelessness as less worthy of respect and protection than those of us fortunate enough to have escaped the medical crisis, loss of work or severe depression that forced our neighbor into homelessness.
Cities across Washington have been criminalizing people asking for donations (notwithstanding that the U.S. Supreme Court has held it is constitutionally protected speech). Governmental agencies have invaded people’s encampments, often taking and destroying key parts of the residents’ lives like medications, documents, beloved photos and mementos (notwithstanding that our Court of Appeals has held that a homeless person’s tent is a protected dwelling under the Washington Constitution).
Harassing people who have had the misfortune to become homeless, destroying their possessions and arresting them for being on the streets when they have no other option are ineffective ways to deal with their problems and, in the long run, much more expensive than housing and services. Equally important, such actions are, as the Boise case reminds us, a violation of the basic rights that each of us holds dear. Ignoring the rights of people experiencing homelessness creates a class of “others” that is toxic to the very fabric of our society.
The solution to homelessness is housing and, where needed, services. As we struggle to meet that need, however, we must respect the constitutional rights and human dignity of those still waiting for their opportunity to be housed. That is what I would want for me and what I must seek for others.