The city I live in is an economically mixed community. Our housing stock ranges from million dollar homes overlooking the ocean to cardboard shacks tucked out of sight in city parks and in the woods. Most live in housing somewhere in-between these extremes.
Currently our mayor is proposing an ordinance to make it illegal for our neighbors who are homeless to camp or store their possessions on public property. This ordinance is similar to a controversial ordinance by the City of Tampa, Florida which in July 2013 passed a similar law.
Such punitive laws make criminals of those who are most fragile and vulnerable in our society. It makes restoring people to health and a place in society that much more difficult. In addition it is not cost-effective costing tax payers on average $50 per day to incarcerate a person.
Such laws are based on the misconception that being homeless is a choice. This misconception is quickly laid to rest if you get to know your homeless neighbors. As a pastor I have been walking with the homeless for over 30 years.
Here are a few of their stories (names changed): Elliott was a brilliant college student until schizophrenia took over his mind; Bob did two tours in Iraq and now with PTSD lives in the woods no longer comfortable being around people; Karen was sexually abused as a little girl and carries deep emotional wounds which she seeks to escape through alcohol; Vivian worked as a secretary and was laid off from her work and couldn’t afford the high rent; Donny is a young man who was beaten by his father and fled to the streets.
These women and men are not ‘the other’, they are us. Homelessness is not a choice it is the result of circumstances that could affect any of us. I recently read that 1 in 4 people in Massachusetts live in poverty. Nationwide 1 in 5 people live with food insecurity worried about where their next meal will come from.
Instead of criminalizing neighbors who are homeless we need to be working with all facets of our community to understand the causes of homelessness and find meaningful ways to respond. We need to look at the shortage of emergency shelters, affordable housing, stagnation in wages, inequality in access to quality education, lack of treatment for addictions and lack of mental health services etc.
Criminalizing homelessness is not the answer. It doesn’t solve anything and erodes the moral health of the greater community. Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa said: “The moral health of a community is measured in proportion to the communities compassion for those most vulnerable.”
I believe that my city is better than this. Soon the snows of winter will arrive and rather than pass an ordinance to criminalize camping and storing of possessions, we should be coming together to find housing and services. The answer is found in working together for the common good.
Note: A public hearing by the City Council to consider the Mayor’s proposed ordinance to ban public camping and storage, takes place November 17th, 2014 7 p.m. at Beverly City Hall (3rd floor Council Chambers).
Addendum: Since I published the article above I’ve learned that the cities of Beverly and Salem, Massachusetts have decided (announced on Nov. 15) to form a regional task force to tackle the problem of homelessness. This task group will be co-chaired by the mayor of each community. This is good news and I thank both Mayors for bringing together a broad-based task group to understand and develop strategies for addressing the causes that led people into homelessness and meaningful ways to address the complex needs of our neighbors who are homeless.
The Mayor of Beverly however continues to advocate for a ban on camping and storage of possession on public property. The question remains: ‘Where do you sleep and store your few possessions when you have nowhere to go?’ I continue to voice my opposition to this ban.