A recent report to Congress estimates that 578,424 people experienced homelessness on any given night this year in the United States. That represents an overall 10 percent reduction in the non-housed population since 2010, when the Obama administration launched the nation’s first comprehensive strategy to prevent and end homelessness.
And while that’s great news, it doesn’t mean that cities and states around the country aren’t taking matters into their own hands — and some are doing so in ways that smack of frustration and dare we say, desperation?
Last June, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell wrote an essay that appeared in The Honolulu Star-Advertiser. "It’s time to declare a war on homelessness, which is evolving into a crisis in Honolulu," he said. "We cannot let homelessness ruin our economy and take over our city."
In September, the Honolulu City Council approved measures aimed at nudging homeless people out of popular tourist spots in Hawaii, including one that bans sitting and lying down on sidewalks in Waikiki.
And now Hawaii's Institute for Human Services has launched a $1.3 million initiative to further rid the palm-lined streets of the homeless. Among the features of the plan is a program that will put more than 100 homeless people on airplanes and fly them off the islands. Just pack 'em up and ship 'em off.
Many support the plan. “When the number one complaint from our visitors is why they will not be coming back to Hawaii is the homeless, you have an issue," George Szigeti, president and CEO of Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association.
But not everyone agrees. Interfaith Alliance Hawaii’s Bishop Stephen Randolph Sykes, for example, isn’t sure the city should be so focused on ridding the state of homelessness by such drastic measures.
"We recognize Waikiki is our economic engine, and having our homeless there is not something that is necessarily beneficial," he told AP, "but creating an island-wide type of situation where we're criminalizing homelessness is just not 'pono' [righteous], it's not ethical, because these people don't have any place to go, and we're just pushing them around."
Meanwhile in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 90-year-old Arnold Abbott has spent years feeding the homeless. He was in the process of serving 300 homemade lunches to the homeless, but after handing only the first three, he was arrested. The crime? Violating a recent ordinance that bans charitable groups from giving food to homeless people in public. Abbott and two pastors face a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail.
The Fort Lauderdale feeding rules are the latest in a number of measures put forth by the city. Officials are calling them "public health and safety measures," saying the feeding restrictions will protect the homeless population from potential illnesses. Opponents call them "homeless hate laws."
And they do seem extreme.
One of the measures allows authorities to seize the belongings of a homeless person and store them until the owner pays a fee.
The feeding ordinances are prohibitively restrictive. They declare that indoor food sites cannot be within 500 feet of one another or on the same block; outdoor sites cannot be within 500 feet of residences, and organizers must obtain a permit or get permission from the property owners as well as provide portable bathrooms on site, reports the Washington Post.
And it’s not just Fort Lauderdale. In the past two years, 21 other cities have passed legislation that restricts giving food away, according to a report by the National Coalition for the Homeless. More than 10 other cities are reported to be planning similar measures.
“There are many myths and motivations that are frequently circulated regarding the issues of homelessness and food-sharing,” according to the survey. “Food-sharing does not perpetuate homelessness.”
As for Abbott, he says the Fort Lauderdale’s restrictions won’t stop him. In 1999, he was in a similar predicament when the city tried to prevent him from giving food to the down-and-out on Fort Lauderdale Beach. He sued the city — and won. He said it looks like he will have to do it again.
“I’m going to have to go to court again and sue the city of Fort Lauderdale — a beautiful city,” he told a local news station. “These are the poorest of the poor, they have nothing, they don’t have a roof over their heads. How do you turn them away?”
Circling back to the Obama plan, we see that it presents strategies that include mainstream housing, health, education, and human service programs to end homelessness, which the outline calls for by 2020. In the meantime, can feeding the hungry some homemade lunch really be so harmful?
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