Vijay Das is a writer and policy advocate based in Washington D.C. Follow him on Twitter @vijdas. The views expressed are his own.
(CNN)Forty miles north of Levi’s Stadium, the site of Super Bowl 50, San Francisco is gearing up for big crowds and big parties. As tech moguls, sports icons and pop stars hit the Embarcadero and branch out to the Tendernob and Mission neighborhoods, they’ll inevitably cross paths with people on the opposite end of America’s economic spectrum: the 7,000 homeless men, women and children living in the city’s alleys, underpasses and street corners.
San Francisco has made many strides to reduce homelessness. Yet its continued reliance on policing and criminalization raises concern.
The city has 23 laws on the books criminalizing homelessness. Public park citations for sleeping and camping increased six times from 2011 to 2014. Police citations for sleeping, sitting and begging increased threefold from 2011 to 2013.
While Mayor Ed Lee celebrates new community development and housing initiatives, he’s also enforcing cruel and draconian anti-homelessness laws.
Homelessness in America’s major cities is rising, contrary to national trends. Washington, Los Angeles and Seattle saw increases last year. Hawaii just declared a state emergency because of its homelessness problem.
There’s a national shortage of affordable housing. Since 2001, 13% of low-income housing stock has vanished. In most cities, the availability of shelter beds can’t keep up with demand.Opinion: Mom pays $1,000 a month for a garage 03:55
To combat homelessness and growing encampments, American mayors are increasingly putting their police to use.
Over the last few years, there has been a 60% increase in laws criminalizing public sleeping and a 119% increase in laws prohibiting living in one’s vehicle nationwide. More than one-third of cities prohibit loitering. California cities are particularly harsh. Since 2010, California cities enacted 55 similar laws, which overwhelmingly target homeless people.
This trend is cruel and inhumane. It’s also wasteful.
It costs two to three times more to criminalize rather than support the homeless. For example, analysis from the University of New Mexico showed that the city of Albuquerque reduced homeless-related jail costs by 64% by providing housing.
In Central Florida, Impact Homelessness studied the impacts of criminalization in Osceola County. In one decade the county spent $5 million to jail just 37 homeless individuals. Over the same period it cost $3.7 million to house its homeless. In providing each housing unit, Osceola County spends 40% less than placing homeless residents in jail.Opinion: Two jobs and still living in a shelter 04:49
The uptick of these criminalization laws has been a cause of international censure. The United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a report in 2014 urging the United States government to abolish state and local homelessness criminalization laws. Last year, the federal government responded.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a guidance against criminalization and encourage alternatives to criminalization. Last summer the U.S. Department of Justice filed a brief opposing an Idaho anti-encampment ordinance on the grounds that the anti-homeless law was cruel and unusual punishment.
Criminalization’s rise reflects a dark reality: America prefers to punish its homeless rather than help them find a safe place to sleep.
Homelessness is an affordable housing issue. As cities like San Francisco enjoy rising prosperity, mayors should push for larger federal investments and pursue aggressive social services and housing agendas. They should not opt for criminalizing the homeless.Opinion: Poverty on ‘my side’ of Silicon Valley 02:54
Utah realized this. Ten years ago, Utah launched an ambitious homelessness program called Housing First that is credited with reducing chronic homelessness by 91% statewide. By investing in permanent housing, Utah is freeing resources to tackle wider problems facing its homeless. These include creating greater access to affordable housing, substance abuse services and counseling support.
Utah’s program is cost-effective. Housing First saved the state $8,000 annually per homeless person. Gordon Walker, Utah director of Housing and Community Development, says the program has saved Utah millions of dollars since it began.
The federal government’s Rapid Rehousing program is another alternative to criminalization. This program provides rental assistance for families on the verge of homelessness and also housing for those who just lost their homes. A Georgia study found that a person who stayed in an emergency shelter or temporary housing was five times more likely to return to homelessness compared to a Rapid Rehousing family who quickly got stable housing.
More than 100 million people will settle in on February 7 in the comfort of their homes to watch one of the biggest television events of the year. The leaders of America’s most forward-thinking cities should make every effort to assist those who don’t have the luxury of watching it in their homes. They should not try to hide the homeless.
America is locking up its most destitute, who are struggling to eat, sleep and survive. The nation must do a better job in updating its backward homeless laws.
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