Did you know that it’s against the law in more than 50 U.S. cities to give food to a homeless person?
That nearly half of our cities prohibit people from sleeping in cars (according to a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty)? And that more than half of the nation’s cities make it a crime to sit or lie down in certain public spaces?
More and more in our compassion-challenged country, we’re passing petty laws and regulations meant to outlaw the very things homeless people do to survive.
This week it has become illegal to be in Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va., during the wee hours unless you can show a ticket for an early-morning flight. This will be devastating to those who counted on airport security guards to leave them alone while they caught some sleep in a warm, safe, Metro-accessible place. This airport building — of soaring vaulted ceilings, mosaic and terrazzo — is a travel hub for Washington’s rich and powerful. And with this change, one of the few remaining places where the haves and the have-nots converge has also been changed. Now the homeless can be arrested for trespassing if they are found dozing in any of the terminals between 11:30 p.m. and 4:30 a.m.
Criminalizing homelessness — finding legal ways to get rid of the people who have no place to go — is all the rage. My family’s local D.C. library has the kind of metal cage you see at airports, where you measure your bag to see whether it qualifies as a carry-on. To enter the library, your bag has to be small enough to fit in there.
And, yes, many of the homeless folks who use the library as a daytime shelter are lugging all their possessions in huge bags that no airline would accept. Gone.
At storage facilities across the region — where many homeless people are able to rent lockers to stash their belongings — they are kicked out if they have exceeded the limit of hours they’re allowed to spend at their storage unit. Gone.
Take a look at the design of benches in parks, airports and museums. See the railings that make it impossible to lie down? Or the decorative spikes screwed into building ledges to make it impossible to sit? Gone.
Here is where we have to ask ourselves: Why?
What harm are these people doing? Are they really taking up all the empty seats at the airport? Are they checking out too many books at the library? Are they using up too much air at storage facilities?
Not really. It’s all about quality of life. Ours. We’re making their human acts illegal because they make us uncomfortable.
I understand the feeling. There may be piles of dirty blankets. There may be an unpleasant smell. The folks who are mentally ill might scream or shout or rant. Those things make me uncomfortable, too. But not enough to get them banned from my sight.
Why does contact with fellow humans at their most vulnerable frighten or even enrage us? There has been an increase in the number of hate attacks against homeless people, too. The National Coalition for the Homeless reported a 23 percent increase in these attacks from 2012 to 2013. The incidents included three middle-aged men who stabbed, tortured and beat a homeless man to death, a 28-year-old man who stomped the head of a homeless woman sleeping outside because he didn’t like her smell and two attackers in Nashville who doused a homeless man’s tent with gasoline and set it on fire.
Whether it’s through acts of violence or legislation, how can we be so cruel?
Here’s the thing — there are many different kinds of people without homes. There are the rough sleepers, the chronically homeless and mentally ill people who make us most uneasy.
But there are many whose situation is invisible to the rest of us. My colleague Rachel Weiner spoke with a man who sleeps at Reagan National and works during the day at a local gym. I doubt that the people getting out of their steam rooms and grabbing a towel from him would consider outlawing his right to sit on a certain park bench.
Over the years, I’ve met dozens of working people — waiters, mechanics, construction workers, cashiers, clerks and secretaries — who are sleeping in their cars, living out of storage lockers or couch-surfing to survive.
In this area, even some people with jobs can’t find an affordable place to live.
A steady decrease in federally subsidized housing, loose regulations on developers and the foreclosure crisis have all helped jack up the nation’s rate of homelessness.
And keeping them out of sight is not going to fix the problem.
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