Report urges cities to help rather than harass homeless people.

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The first statewide study of laws relating to homelessness concludes that Washington cities have been punishing people for being homeless when it would be cheaper and more constructive to help them instead.

Six Seattle University law students, guided by professor Sara Rankin, gathered and analyzed data, consulted with experts, and over two semesters produced a report they hope will spur discussion that will lead to more effective policies and better treatment of people who are homeless.

Rankin said cities across the state have been adopting more and more laws that effectively make being homeless a crime by outlawing behaviors that are part of surviving on the streets — sleeping on a sidewalk or in a car, or relieving one’s self outdoors. There are things people have to do, like sleep or use the bathroom, which are hard to do if you don’t have a bedroom or a bathroom.

The report, released last week, is the first of its scope, Rankin told me Thursday. It consists of four policy briefs — a survey of ordinances and enforcement, a look at costs, the demographics of homelessness, and a comparative history of laws that affect selective groups.

The researchers found that most communities have ordinances that police public behavior and are aimed primarily at controlling or removing people who are homeless from places where they aren’t wanted.

Auburn has 14 such laws, the most in the state. Seattle has six, which is average, but Seattle issues by far the most citations because it has the largest population of homeless people.

In most cities, there are periodic calls to make the streets more pleasant, safer, cleaner by doing something about homeless people who camp out in parks, in front of businesses, or who panhandle.

“When you hear that kind of narrative about cleaning up the streets,” Rankin said, “really what that refers to quite commonly is the removal of humans who are experiencing homelessness from public space.”

Businesses worry that customers will stay away. No one wants people urinating or defecating in public places, and just seeing people living on the streets can make any of us uncomfortable. It should make us uncomfortable. But then, how do we react? What do we do about it?

Sometimes the reaction is fear or anger or disgust directed at people who are homeless, and Rankin thinks that’s partly because we don’t really know them as individuals. How many people know someone who is homeless, she asks.

“It becomes very difficult for people to develop empathy for people who are experiencing this circumstance, and when you can’t develop empathy with someone it’s really easy to dehumanize them.”

The researchers who looked at the demographics of homelessness found a broad spectrum of people with varied reasons for being without a home. They also found that people who are marginalized in other ways are most likely to experience homelessness. In homelessness, Rankin sees the effects of bias and the failure of our society to effectively fight poverty.

Black people, Native Americans, Latinos, LGBTQ young people were disproportionately more likely to be homeless than other groups. And there are significant numbers of people with untreated substance abuse or mental illnesses.

The laws we have can make their circumstances worse without solving the problems they were designed to solve, without, once and for all, getting people off the streets.

The report pointed to laws that require people to pay fines they can’t afford. They wind up in jail temporarily or with a record, which can make it harder to get work. Or, someone who’s sleeping in a car can lose that car for failure to pay fines.

The researchers found police and judges who use their discretion to avoid harming people, but the laws remain on the books and affect people who need help rather than punishment.

Rankin said, “The greatest access-to-justice problem, the epicenter of prejudice and discrimination for me, revolves around poverty.” She recalled the revelations about Ferguson, Mo., where officials used fines against poor people to finance the city.

The students found a long history of communities crafting laws that further disadvantage marginalized groups, Jim Crow laws, vagrancy laws — even so-called “ugly laws,” designed to keep people with “unsightly” disabilities out of public spaces.

Jim Crow is gone, and so are the ugly laws, some of which lasted to the 1970s, and the report suggests it’s time to do away with laws that specifically target people who are homeless.

“The practical impact of these laws is to create no-homeless zones. Basically locations where you can’t survive without violating one of the many layers of laws that are restricting your right to survive in public space,” Rankin said.

And, the study found the laws cost money to enforce; police, prosecutors, judges, jail time and other expenses add up.

“If they spent that same money, and redirected it to the provisions that all of the experts tell you will actually address some of the root causes of homelessness and have positive impacts in terms of recidivism and health,” Rankin said, “it would save millions of dollars.”

The report makes a number of recommendations including providing more housing, of course, and more public restrooms in downtown Seattle, more access to social services and to mental-health care.

OK, we knew that. Why haven’t we done it already? Rankin thinks we’re looking at homeless people as objects to be moved, not as people to be helped. Maybe the report will get us to take a second look.