Reader's View, homelessness: City must focus on housing, not more laws

June 18, 2013 

Boise's City Council is considering three ordinances that, if passed, would unnecessarily expand the reach of government, criminalize homeless residents, and waste taxpayer dollars - without providing any real solutions to address homelessness.

These measures - the Boise Civil Sidewalks Ordinance, Aggressive Solicitation Ordinance, and Placement on Public Property Ordinance - are an overreach of government, particularly in the realm of free speech. They prohibit a wide range of passive, innocent behaviors, including sitting or lying in public places and setting down personal belongings, even just for a moment on public property.

They would restrict street performers and charity fund drives Downtown. Individuals who violate these sweeping laws would face criminal convictions and disproportionate punishment for simply sitting, lying down or asking for help - up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine per violation. These harsh measures are unnecessary given that the city of Boise has long had laws to address aggressive panhandling, disorderly conduct and unsafe and unsanitary conduct. These ordinances seem motivated by a desire to remove people experiencing homelessness and persons who are mentally ill or physically disabled from Downtown Boise. The city has declared its vision as making Boise the most livable city in the country, yet these measures make it increasingly difficult for some of our community's most vulnerable citizens - including veterans and families experiencing homelessness.

Instead of addressing the root causes of homelessness, these measures criminalize and perpetuate the problem. Homeless individuals who receive misdemeanor convictions and fines they have no hope of paying will face significantly more barriers while trying to access and maintain employment, housing, and medical and social services - the very things they need to move beyond homelessness. Access to housing and services is already extremely limited in Boise. The Boise City/Ada County Housing Authority has a five-year backlog to access affordable public housing and discontinued its waiting list. Rather than adding further barriers, the city's focus should be on improving access to necessities such as employment, housing and services.

The city's doggedness in enacting and enforcing new crimes is costly to taxpayers. Cycling homeless persons through our criminal justice system places significant burdens on law enforcement, the jail, and the court system, none of which is equipped to effectively address social service issues. Studies from around the country indicate that criminalization is more expensive than adopting constructive policies aimed at ending homelessness. This is illustrated by the city's own 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, which estimates that the annual cost of providing homeless services for one chronically homeless individual in Boise is $40,000-$85,000 (including costs for case management, police, incarceration, paramedics, fire department, emergency room, hospital care and shelter services). In contrast, the annual cost of providing housing with supportive services is estimated to be $25,000-$35,000. In addition, passing laws that blatantly violate constitutional rights exposes the city to the risks of costly litigation.

The steps necessary to end homelessness in Boise are no mystery. As described in the City's 10-Year Plan, the city must prioritize the creation of additional affordable, permanent supportive, and transitional housing units and increase capacity for services such as mental health and substance abuse treatment and case management. It may do so by providing housing and services directly or by increasing funding for local nonprofit organizations that effectively re-house homeless individuals and families. Such a proactive approach would be far more effective than criminalization and would be consistent with the recommendations of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, which in its 2012 report Searching Out Solutions advised communities to focus on "solutions that do not marginalize people ... but rather strike at the core factors contributing to homelessness." (See www.usich.gov/resources/uploads/asset_library/RPT_SoS_March2012.pdf)

We are dismayed by the council's decision to consider such counterproductive measures and urge it to instead focus on constructive solutions that address the root causes of homelessness and respect the dignity of all members of our community.

Henry Krewer is mission coordinator, Corpus Christi House. Contributing authors are Heather M. Johnson, civil rights director, National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty; Monica Hopkins, executive director, ACLU of Idaho; Howard Belodoff and Zoe Ann Olson.

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