Javier Ortiz, a law student at Seattle University (SU), would be happy to see laws that criminalize sitting, standing, sleeping, panhandling, camping and urinating in public repealed, but it would take more for him to be truly satisfied.
“I’d want them to be recognized for what they are: Anti-homelessness ordinances,” he said.
Ortiz is one of several students with SU's Homeless Rights Advocacy Project who authored a series of four reports, released May 6, on the criminalization of homelessness in Washington. The reports were widely anticipated as the first comprehensive statewide analysis of ordinances that advocates say unfairly target homeless populations while punishing life-sustaining behavior (“Seattle University students build a resource to stop laws that criminalize homelessness” RC, April 1).
The reports approach the issue from many angles: analyzing the scope of municipal codes in 72 Washington cities, estimating the cost of enforcing laws, examining the intersection of already-marginalized groups and homeless populations and comparing modern ordinances to long-rejected historic exclusion laws, such as Jim Crow.
By providing evidence through historic, legal, moral and financial lenses, students aim to provide policymakers and the public traction for repealing the laws, while starting a dialogue about cultural bias against visible poverty.
“My hope is that policymakers will start to engage in dialogue with us and actually identify concrete ways to move forward and come up with more appropriate responses to the problems of homelessness and poverty,” said Sara Rankin, the leading professor on the project. “And by appropriate, I mean effective approaches that address the root causes as opposed to using the criminal justice system as a broom to sweep a certain group of people out of public space.”
While the laws can seem facially neutral, student Justin Olson said it takes little to realize that they are discriminatory, because those experiencing homelessness often have little choice but to conduct the prohibited behavior in public.
Someone with a bed to sleep in and a home to return to has an easy alternative to violating anti-camping laws, while someone experiencing homelessness may not. According to one of the reports, Seattle issued nearly 6,000 citations for such laws over a five-year period, the majority for camping in public.
Olson used the example of urinating and defecating in public. Though it is a legitimate public health and sanitation concern, cities do not often provide easy access to public restrooms —
Seattle only has one functional 24-hour restroom downtown, according to one of the reports.
“We have to provide alternatives and make sure there is a choice between violating the law and not violating the law,” Olson said.
Among the students’ findings: Criminalization of life-sustaining behaviors in Washington has increased since 2000, and greater income disparity is linked to higher rates of enforcement. They also estimate that a five-year minimum of $2.3 million goes toward enforcing only 16 percent of such ordinances in Seattle, while $1.3 million goes toward enforcing 75 percent of ordinances in Spokane. Students only looked at data for criminal ordinances, not civil infractions.
Rachael Myers, executive director of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, said having that cost analysis is invaluable.
“Given how hard we work year after year to get money and prevent cuts in funding to end homelessness, it’s more than frustrating to see the large amount of money that I would say is essentially wasted on enforcing laws like this,” she said.
Myers, students and other advocates say they want to see the reinvestment of resources that currently go toward enforcement. The reports tout Housing First alternatives and affordable housing as cheaper, more effective options.
“The briefs demonstrate that it’s much more effective to shift the public resources currently focused on enforcing these laws toward the solutions to address the underlying issues,” said Lisa Herbold, legislative aide to Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata.
Before releasing the reports, students received feedback from an array of policy experts and interviewed those experiencing homelessness, which drew stories of dehumanization, harassment and exhaustion associated with the ordinances.
So far, students say they have received an outpouring of interest from legal and homeless rights advocate groups as well as local stakeholders. Kimberly Mills, spokesperson for the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, said Criminal Division Chief Craig Sims is in the process of looking further into the statistics used in the report in regard to Seattle.
Meanwhile, the often-hostile nature of the online comments Rankin has seen in response to the reports simply fuels her desire to continue her work.
“There is unbridled, toxic and open hostility toward people experiencing homelessness,” she said. “Instead of creating some compelling counter narrative, these comments show me why this research is so important.”
That is why for Rankin, there’s lots to be done. The current briefs only focus on the most obvious laws, she said, and she aims to include a host of others that may unfairly target homeless people: exclusion orders, curfews, obstruction or contempt of cop cases, and scofflaw programs, where wheel-locking devices are placed on cars with unpaid tickets.
“We missed a bunch of laws, and we know that,” Rankin said. “These are living documents, and we will be updating and expanding the research.”
One of the largest limitations of the research, Rankin said, is that it only focused on criminal violations and not civil infractions, which are more difficult to track. In Seattle and other cities, failure to respond to civil infractions can trigger an automatic misdemeanor, leading to jail time. But Rankin said it is difficult to trace those misdemeanors back to their original infraction. It’s important research, she said, considering someone who is homeless is unlikely to be able to afford a fine or appear in court.
“We want to get to that data because we think it is the base of the iceberg,” Rankin said. “We want to figure out what is going on with civil infractions, and that is going to take more people and more time.”
As far as future action, Myers also said the idea of trying to enact a state law that limits local governments’ ability to pass laws that criminalize survival behaviors has been a topic of conversation among homeless advocacy groups for several years.
“That would be incredibly challenging,” she said, “But with this new data, I think it makes the case that we should at least consider that seriously.”
Ted Brackman, an activist in Puyallup, helped organize a public seminar and sleep-in on May 15, hoping to call attention to the criminalization of homelessness and the need for affordable housing in a place where many homeless people are relegated to the bushes or the riverside.
“In Puyallup, just like almost every other city in the area, you are illegal if you are homeless,” he said. “If you try to sleep on public property, you are violating the camping ordinance, and if you sleep on private property, you are trespassing. You are told, ‘You don’t belong here. We don’t’ have a place for you. Go away.’”
For his part, Olson said he has come to think of the ordinances as the same kind of discrimination we see in history books.
“Someday, we are going to look back and be disgusted at our policy choices,” he said. “When an election runs on a campaign of ‘We’re going to clean up the street,’ we’re viewing people as garbage. That’s a despicable way of looking at the world.”