No Rights to Rest: Perpetuating Homelessness

== With AFP Story by Veronique DUPONT: US-CALIFORNIA-POVERTY-HOMELESS == A sign reading "Skid Row" is painted on a wall next to the Los Angeles Mission, September 22, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. Los Angeles' Skid Row contains one of the largest populations of homeless people in the United States. AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck

The ‘quality of life’ policing debate raises ethical considerations of whether government policy involving “coercive care” and “tough love” for the homeless citizen provides hard evidence of success in ‘pushing’ the homeless citizen toward help, or if it deteriorates the potential for those who are homeless to regain a ‘meaningful’ life. The implementation of such policing involves the application of specific laws to prevent homeless citizens from engaging in survival activities such as sleeping in a public place, receiving food from ‘do-gooders’ to loitering and sheltering from harsh weather conditions.

Laws that seek to curb these behaviours are questioned by researchers who ask if these implemented measures do more harm than good. Data suggests that without adequate services to assist the homeless with meeting acceptable living conditions, for example, ‘move along’ laws’ genuine intentions appear flawed.

The path to homelessness can occur through economic, social, biological and psychological reasons. Psychological factors include a loss of “self-esteem” and “self-identity” which eventually evolves into a “sense of learned helplessness”. In the case of a 2004 study conducted in Australia, Sydney’s inner suburbs displayed high rates of mental illness closely associated with homelessness compared to that of the general Australian population. The report documents data for those noted homeless as having a mental illness at a rate of four times greater than the general population; and are strongly correlated to also suffer substance abuse.

According to Intervention Strategies with the Homeless Population, substance abuse is closely tied into the biological factors underlying homelessness and is exacerbated by economic factors that eventuate in homelessness in the first instance, such as loss of employment, a mortgage foreclosure or bankruptcy. The deterioration of one or more of these factors, and the resulting homelessness, then leads to the marginalisation, stigmatization and discrimination of the citizen, thus creating problematic hurdles for those actively seeking help out of the cycle.

Using approved DSM-IV criteria, the Psychiatric Disorders in Homeless Men and Women in Inner Sydney report uncovered that 73 percent of men suffered one or more mental disorders while 81 percent of women experience the same. A comorbidity – where those suffering more than one mental disorder, including substance abuse problems – was 20 percent in men, and 29 percent in women.

These results suggest a causal link between mental illness, substance abuse and the path to homelessness, compared to the general Australian population’s percentage of mental illness resting at 0.5 percent. When studying the relationship between mental illness and homelessness, both the negative and positive impacts of quality of life policing must be examined. Do these quality of life rules, implemented internationally and particularly in the United States’ Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, have significant baring on outcomes for those truly seeking help?  The challenge is significant, and in the international arena perhaps overlooked or fundamentally ignored by government policy implementation.

Critics of the quality of life policing laws argue that the policies governing the homeless under “coercive care” is a guise to “regulate visible poverty” through urban cleansing “rather than rehabilitation or reintegration.” A 2009 case of civil rights abuses in Skid Row is documented where the ACLU and National Lawyers Guild sued the Los Angeles Police Department’s Safer Cities Initiative (SCI) officers, claiming they used racial profiling and excessive force against the homeless without probable cause, winning the lawsuit.

Vitale outlines in the report how the SCI policy – established to “reduce crime and homelessness” – remains subject to critical analysis.   The effectiveness of the SCI to reduce crime in Skid Row is reflected in the additional law enforcement expenditure of $600 million annually to maintain its functionality, including the processing of arrests made against homeless citizens for quality of life infringements.  The question raised is if this money would be better allocated to the construction of “supportive housing.”

Other negative aspects implicit to quality of life policing are the active arrests of homeless citizens that result in isolation from federal assistance, particularly if the offence is drug related. Arguably this exacerbates the homelessness condition, locking out the affected citizen from programs, including education and housing, designed to break the cycle.

Comparatively, not all believe this form of policing is only successful in moving people along to a more imperceptible location rather than addressing the issue of homelessness. The key principles of quality of life policing are said to be fundamentally addressed, particularly by those policing Skid Row amid the SCI program. According to local police accounts, the homeless citizen benefits from police interventions such as a citation for sleeping on the sidewalk to coerce them into moving into a shelter which offers rehabilitation programs. This is considered a shift in policy from the 1960s “rabble zone” to the current “recovery zone” allocated for “(re)training homeless individuals in the attitudes, values and behaviours that will allow them to rejoin mainstream society.”

The positive connotations of a “recovery zone” potentially shift the outlook on homelessness towards a rehabilitative approach. In the 1990s the Clinton administration moved funding away from the more traditional considerations to areas said to address the root causes of homeless, instigating rehabilitative mega shelters within the Skid Row area, and the United States. As per the Clinton administration, substance abuse and mental illness were among the primary causes recognized as initiators of homelessness. Was this seen as a positive step in resolving homelessness? It can be argued. Strategies through the SCI were seen to reduce the level of homelessness and crime in the area – a key principle of the quality of life policing. Officers patrolling introduced incentives through citation at different periods of the month, knowing when to financially hit at the homeless citizen to accord the largest impact on behaviour, arguably to force the citizen’s motivation via discomfort to seek rehabilitation. It’s the “one last nudge,” says one SCI officer, to force the homeless citizen to pursue help. But is it successful?

When critiquing and analysing if quality of life policing achieves its fundamental principle of helping the homeless citizen recover from their situation – to become a functional member of society – the outcome appears contrary to what existing data suggests. The very nature of “coercive care” and the “tough love” stance by means of depriving the homeless citizen of essential acts to sustaining life only suggests more injury is placed on the shoulders of the homeless citizen. If the pathway to homelessness is paved by mental health, substance abuse, medical and economical patterns; logically, systems must first be in place to ‘catch’ the homeless citizen when pushed by authorities towards re-entry into society.

“No Right to Rest” examines the outcomes of Colorado homeless citizens and the measure of this form of policing. According to the article, those who are homeless report their lives as worse off since the introduction of quality of life policing.

Thousands of destitute people line up for several hours to receive a $10 bill gift.

In one account, the quality of life policing can be said to enhance the sense of helplessness as police move along homeless citizens to beds that do not exist. Inadequate services are highlighted in the Colorado studies, suggesting that quality of life policing fails to provide assistance to the homeless, rather, it criminalizes them although they are less likely to be guilty of a violent crime than those citizens permanently housed.

In hard data, of the 40 percent of those who attempted to facilitate a shelter post camp bans (laws preventing a homeless citizen from using a tent or tarp to sleep under), 73 percent were turned away from the shelter. In considering available beds to the homeless in Boulder Colorado, 2014, 1,219 citizens are noted as homeless while only 20 shelter beds were available. Likewise, in Fort Collins, 118 beds were available for 438 homeless citizens.

For every positive aspect to the effectiveness of quality of life policing, data suggests there are two negatives. Granted that there is a unanimous call for further studies to be conducted into this issue, the overwhelming suggestion from the limited resources used here to discuss the usefulness of this form of policing suggests more harm is perpetrated against the homeless citizen than good. However, despite this outlook, there are proponents who defend the laws as means to improve homeless citizens’ lives through forcing them into programs they would otherwise not have access to, and thus end the cycle of destructive behaviour. However, as studies suggest, it raises the pertinent question of intention. Is quality of life policing more about government policy to rid society of the homeless citizen or is it policy to rid society of homelessness?


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