Cities Crack Down On The Homeless, Alarming Some Advocates The Aim: Making City Streets Safer And Providing ``tough Love.'' Dissenters See A Lack Of Compassion.

Posted: December 12, 1996

WASHINGTON — In New York, it's against the law to beg near bank machines. Philadelphia wants to make it illegal to lie down on sidewalks. And Charlotte, N.C., conducts sweeps to roust homeless people who live under bridges.

More and more, cities are cracking down on street people, according to a survey released yesterday by the National Law Center on Poverty and Homelessness, an advocacy group that examined practices in the country's 50 biggest cities.

Some see the trend as a troublesome sign that America has become less compassionate.

``I'm seeing more apathy on the part of people,'' said Judy Appel, staff attorney for the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness. ``I think people used to feel badly. And now, I think people feel bothered. And that's a dangerous shift.''

Others say that the rules are a sign of ``tough love'' for the homeless, and concern for everyone else who uses the city streets.

``There is absolutely nothing wrong with saying to everyone: `You may not pee in the street. You may not drink in the park,' '' said Mark Sidran, the city attorney in Seattle, which prohibits aggressive panhandling and sitting or lying on downtown public sidewalks in the daytime. ``There is nothing in the great tradition of civil liberties about parking your butt on the sidewalk.''

In a report timed to coincide with the holiday season and winter weather, the center found that in the last four years, nearly one-third of the nation's largest 50 cities had passed restrictions on begging, bringing the total to 77 percent of those cities.

In addition, 38 percent of the cities have initiated crackdowns on street people in the last few years, the study said. And more than half have engaged in recent police ``sweeps'' to move homeless people out of public areas, the report says.

The center named five cities as having the toughest laws against the homeless: Atlanta, San Francisco, Dallas, New York and San Diego.

At the same time, resources to provide shelter or assistance for homeless people to become self-sufficient are seriously lacking, the report said. In virtually every city, the number of homeless residents exceeds the number of emergency shelter and transitional housing spaces, the survey said.

Philadelphia has 4,750 homeless people, 2,240 shelter beds and 1,133 slots for transitional housing, according to the most recent information the city filed with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Philadelphia bans loitering in particular public places, the law center noted.

``We are deciding to make it a crime to be poor,'' said Appel. ``We are saying it is your fault that we have created a structure where there aren't enough jobs and housing for you to lead a decent life.''

She fears the situation will worsen as the new welfare law goes into effect and more poor people lose federal benefits.

``People used to worry when someone got moved out a doorway, about where they were going,'' Appel said. ``Now, they just want them out of their face.''

The result, said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the homeless law center, is that some cities are making it a crime to be in public.

``The criminalizing response is cruel,'' she said. ``It is poor policy, and it won't work.''

Rob Teir, general counsel for the American Alliance of Rights and Responsibilities, agrees that cities are passing more ``quality-of-life and urban street-order-maintenance initiatives,'' but that they were not aimed at the homeless.

``They are aimed at setting minimal standards of public conduct,'' said Teir, whose organization helps cities draft such laws.

Besides trying to make public spaces safer, such laws are a form of tough love as a way to steer people off the streets and to services, Teir said.

City officials say they have to take steps to keep law-abiding citizens from withdrawing and neighborhoods from deteriorating.

``When you get panhandled aggressively, you will make choices: You can go to the mall or move to a different part of town or move your business,'' said Sidran, the city attorney in Seattle. ``In comes the graffiti, the stench of urine and litter, and fewer people who look like they care about the community.

``As law-abiding citizens withdraw, you marginalize downtown businesses and you destroy jobs and your tax base. And into those areas come criminal predators who are drawn to the area like moths to light.''

Phyllis Ryan, executive director of the Philadelphia Committee to End Homelessness, said her organization was deeply troubled by the city's proposed ordinance to regulate lying in public spaces. But, she said, she understands why the tougher laws are the trend.

``There is pressure from the business community,'' she said. ``I have to think it is very hard to be harassed and accosted day after day. I think it would be equally sanctimonious of homeless advocates to pretend that weren't so.

``I think there is frustration that the issue of homelessness was an emergency crisis, meaning short term, but now we are moving into the second decade of high visibility of people.''

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