Cracking Down On The Homeless

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For more years than he cares to remember, John Dumont has called home the doorways and alleyways of downtown San Francisco. For most of that time, the city paid little mind to the 50-year-old former paramedic and his cartful of possessions. That indifference vanished last month when a police officer found him sitting on the sidewalk in front of a Wells Fargo ATM and issued a $76 ticket and a court summons. Then one morning last week, Dumont says, he was awakened by a cop kicking him in the foot and telling him to move on. "It gets worse every day," says Dumont. "If I were sleeping in front of a store, I'd understand it. But now the cops come after you even when the store owner hasn't called them."

Dumont has been getting off easy compared with some of his brethren. Cities across the U.S. are toughening the rules of engagement in the war on homelessness. Thirty-five municipalities, from Tampa, Fla., to Tucson, Ariz., are enacting or enforcing punitive anti-vagrancy ordinances, banning everything from loitering on median strips to getting food handouts in public parks. Fed up with the homeless, who, they say, are increasingly aggressive, violent and bad for business, at least 24 cities now conduct nightly "police sweeps" of their streets. In New York City, Mayor Rudy Giuliani vowed to clamp down after a homeless man seriously injured a woman by slamming her head with a brick. Giuliani ordered that all "able-bodied" homeless people must go to work or risk losing their city-provided shelter and possibly their children to foster care. The decree raised an outcry from civil libertarians and clergy as well as his likely rival for a Senate seat, Hillary Clinton, and TV talk-show host Rosie O'Donnell, who blasted Giuliani for being "out of control."

This tough-love approach to the homeless is a relatively recent phenomenon. Back in the 1980s, when Americans rated the issue an urgent priority, Congress passed a landmark law to give homeless people a variety of housing, health-care and job programs. In 1986 an outpouring of almost 6 million people locked hands to form a 4,152-mile human chain, Hands Across America, to raise some $15 million for the cause. Popular concern about the homeless eased in recent years as the economy boomed, but the stubborn visibility of the problem--coupled with high-profile incidents like the warehouse blaze in Worcester, Mass., in which a homeless couple allegedly set a fire by accident that killed six fire fighters--has once again put the issue in the headlines.

While measuring the size of the homeless population is an imprecise business, most evidence indicates the numbers are swelling. The demand for emergency shelter has grown every year since 1985 and leaped 11% in 1998, according to a study published last year by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. In New York City the number of homeless has grown more than 9% this year. Experts suspect the frothy economy is partly to blame. It has in many cases driven housing rentals beyond the reach of minimum-wage workers.

The aim of many of the tough new urban measures is disarmingly simple--to shoo the homeless out of sight. Chicago has privatized sidewalks in front of businesses, which means that anyone who loiters is trespassing. In Sacramento, Calif., police will pay for one-way bus tickets out of state for homeless with family or jobs to go to. In its attempts to drive the homeless from downtown, San Francisco has even arrested nuns serving hot meals in the United Nations Plaza--for lacking a proper permit. Most of the 20,000 citations reportedly issued this year by San Francisco have gone unpaid, yet the campaign has become a flash point in the city's mayoral election.

New York City has adapted a more comprehensive policy of requiring the homeless to go to work in exchange for shelter. A state judge temporarily halted this practice last week in order to consider its legality. Some of the New York provisions are plainly unforgiving: being an hour late to work could mean a loss of benefits for more than 90 days; refusing employment altogether could result in eviction; and evicted parents have been threatened with losing their children to foster care. An outcry over that last threat has put the Giuliani administration on the defensive. "We're not going to be separating children from parents," says deputy mayor Joe Lhota. "We're asking able-bodied people to work 20 hours a week for their shelter. What's wrong with that?" Still, homeless advocates argue that the hard-line laws brush aside the fundamental right to shelter recognized by cities, including New York, for the past decade. What's more, they contend, such approaches are only a Band-Aid. "The homeless problem is not just a housing issue but a mental-health issue, a domestic-violence issue and an economic issue," says Andrew Cuomo, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. His department released a major study last week supporting that argument. "The homeless label covers a plethora of problems," it said.

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