Fight Poverty, Not the Poor:

Constructive Alternatives to Criminalizing Poverty in Greensboro

This document was given to the Greensboro City Council on May 11th, 2018 to encourage the city of Greensboro to actually address root causes of homelessness, rather than punish the victims of systemic poverty. (Read PDF version here)

Introduction:

         Our modern crisis of mass homelessness is a national epidemic caused by more than three decades of policy failure that has resulted in a situation where millions of Americans cannot afford safe and decent housing. To adequately address this epidemic, federal, state and local governments need to work together to provide adequate housing options for people of all income levels, and ensure that people have adequate income, food access and healthcare to sustain themselves in housing. 
Unfortunately, due to a lack of meaningful action from the federal government, many local governments have resorted to dealing with the presence of poor and homeless people in their streets through punitive action – by criminalizing the physical existence of poor and homeless people in public spaces. Pressured by business interests (often Business Improvement Districts), many local communities have passed ordinances which criminalize unavoidable and life sustaining activities such as resting in public. 
The City of Greensboro, North Carolina is a town known for its civil rights history. We are a community that is proud of the advances made by poor and oppressed people towards the goal of honoring the dignity and worth of all persons. However, at the present time, Greensboro has multiple ordinances on its books which are reminiscent of a previous era where governments openly discriminated against specific groups of people. Namely, under the city’s current “aggressive solicitation”, and “loitering” ordinances, people who appear to be experiencing homelessness and poverty are targeted and criminalized for merely existing in public spaces. These laws don’t serve the city’s need for public safety and are often duplicative of pre-existing laws. Rather, they are vaguely worded ordinances, which are meant to provide the police with broad sweeping tools to push “undesirable” people out of public space.
Criminalizing poverty is a bad policy choice for numerous reasons. It is counterproductive towards the goal of eradicating poverty, because it creates unnecessary hurdles for poor people to jump through in order to get out of poverty- i.e. court dates, fines and arrest records. Furthermore, it is a complete waste of tax dollars to fund enforcement of these ordinances. Study after study has shown that providing housing for low income people, coupled with supportive services, is actually cheaper than paying to keep people in the (all too common) vicious cycle of modern homeless policy: emergency shelters, arrest, E.R. visits, shelter beds, back out on the street, etc. Moreover, criminalization ordinances often amount to costly litigation, as most anti-homeless ordinances wind up being subject to civil lawsuits and found unconstitutional. And lastly, criminalizing the existence of poor and homeless people in public spaces is immoral and unnecessarily cruel. 
While Greensboro does not have the most number of anti-homeless ordinances of any modern U.S. city, there are several problematic ordinances on the city’s book today, and the potential for future misguided policies is great. However, the city has the opportunity to lead the nation in regard to homeless issues, by finding solutions that meet the needs of Greensboro’s most impoverished residents and simultaneously curb the unfortunate side effects of visible poverty without trampling on the cherished constitutional rights of its citizens. 
The city has already done some work to increase affordable housing funds in recent years, and has committed to raising the minimum wage for all city employees within the next fiscal year. We applaud these efforts by the city as constructive steps towards eradicating poverty, but sadly, there is much more work to be done. 
In the hopes that Greensboro might invest adequate funding towards solutions that address root causes of poverty, and resist the unnecessary trend of criminalizing poverty, we offer the following policy initiatives: 
These policy recommendations are not all-encompassing. We would applaud additional efforts, such as investing in programs to improve healthcare access and transportation access for low income and moderate income citizens. However, common sense dictates, and policy experts agree, that the primary cause of mass homelessness is a lack of affordable housing options that are available to low-income earning people. As such, the following policy recommendations stress the need for attainable housing options first and foremost, as well as living wage employment opportunities. 
Furthermore, because Greensboro is having a conversation about how to deal with public space issues resulting from mass homelessness, we have made recommendations as to how the city might proactively create a public space policy that both meet the needs of Greensboro’s residents (like access to water), and mitigate some of the negative impacts of having people live in public spaces (i.e. litter management) while also respecting the rights of people using public spaces. 
    Some of these policies will require time and a commitment of funds to implement and see to fruition. However, there are multiple proposals listed that could be described as “low hanging fruit” - initiatives that could be adopted and set in motion immediately. The city ought to begin by reforming how it polices and regulates homelessness, by adopting an ordinance that will help protect low income residents from unnecessary and harmful policing practices. This would actually save the community money, as public resources could be diverted away from incarcerating individuals and towards constructive solutions. Homeless Bill of Rights ordinances have been adopted in other cities, showing a good precedent for these types of laws, and we have included a model ordinance in Appendix A which the city of Greensboro could adopt immediately. 
    The recommendations listed below would not only benefit people who are currently experiencing homelessness, but also all of Greensboro - and particularly the 20%+ of Greensboro that currently lives in poverty. Moving forward, it is imperative that the city develop a plan to address systemic poverty and involve low income people throughout the entire process. As such, we suggest the development of a Poverty Commission with a functioning majority of low income residents to ensure that low income people’s needs and priorities remain at the forefront of the conversation.
We look forward to working with the City of Greensboro as we move forward. Let us combat systemic poverty, not fight the victims of a system that has created mass homelessness.                                                                  

-The Homeless Union of Greensboro

 

Constructive Alternatives to Criminalization:

Part 1. Creating a Poverty Commission to advise the City on Eradicating Poverty

  1. The City of Greensboro should establish a commission with a functioning majority of low income and homeless people to advise the city on policy to effectively eradicate poverty in Greensboro. People directly affected by poverty and injustice are the true experts of their own needs and the needs of their community.

    1. The Poverty Commission should have at least 51% representation of low-income and homeless residents to ensure the priorities of low income people are adequately represented.

    2. The Poverty Commission may participate in various task forces which can implement some of the short-term policy solutions listed below

Part 2. Protecting Rights for All - Legislation and Criminal Justice Reform

  1. The City of Greensboro should pass an ordinance which protects the rights of all citizens to exist and rest in public spaces without fear of harassment, ticketing or arrest by police officers.

    1. Numerous other cities have passed Homeless Bill of Rights legislation. See Appendix A for sample Homeless Bill of Rights Ordinance language.

  2. The City of Greensboro should repeal the city’s unconstitutional panhandling (“aggressive solicitation” – new ordinance not listed on Municode Library database) and loitering ordinances (Sec. 18-44 and 18-66).

  1. See Appendix B to read a letter written by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty concerning the city’s current unconstitutional “Aggressive Solicitation” ordinance.

  1. The City should commission a review of its current ordinances and arrest records to ensure that poor and homeless people are not disproportionately arrested or cited for city ordinances.

  2. The City of Greensboro should establish a citizen oversight board for the police with subpoena power to ensure fairness and accountability in policing practices.

Part 3. Housing Justice Initiatives

  1. The City of Greensboro should be a vocal advocate for increased funding for federal Public and Affordable Housing Programs.

    1. See Appendix C for a history of housing policy and an explanation of why investing in affordable housing is crucial to ending homelessness

  2. The City should use Tax Increment Financing, Community Development Block Grants and other county, state and federal funds to build and sustain publicly owned permanent low income housing for individuals making 0-30% Area Median Income

  3. The City should invest local tax dollars into building and sustaining publicly owned permanent low income housing for individuals making 0-30% Area Median Income

  4. It is crucial that the city of Greensboro work with Greensboro Housing Authority to preserve its remaining public housing stock and invest in more public housing, rather than voucher based programs.

    1. The Greensboro Housing Authority (GHA) is committed to sell its remaining housing stock to private housing development agencies through the Rental Assistance Demonstration Program (RAD). This is very unfortunate, as public housing is the most secure form of low-income housing available, and the RAD program leaves housing assistance vulnerable to market speculation and swings in government budget allocations. The RAD program, and its predecessor, the HOPE VI program, have resulted in the loss of over 250,000 public housing units nationwide (and over 350,000 if you include Section 8).

  5. The City should help fund the Foreclosure Diversion program started by the Center for Housing and Community Studies (CHCS) at UNCG

    1. Greensboro ranks 7th in the country for cities with the most evictions. Evictions are expensive for both landlords and tenants, and social safety net programs who support people once they are out on the street. Reducing the number of evictions in Greensboro would effectively save resources and money.

    2. See Appendix D for more information about the eviction crisis in Greensboro and CHCS’s work combating unnecessary evictions

  6. The City should develop a foreclosure legal defense program like other cities have to ensure that all residents facing eviction have legal representation when appearing in court.

    1. See Appendix E for more information about eviction legal defense programs

  7. The city should invest in Emergency Rental Assistance Fund programs which could be distributed the Greensboro Housing Coalition.

Part 4. Economic Justice Initiatives

  1. The City of Greensboro should be a vocal advocate for raising the minimum wage statewide and eliminating prohibitions on cities establishing their own minimum wage rates.

  2. The City should raise the minimum wage for all city employees to at least $15/hr and allow the City Workers Union UE Local 150 to implement a fair “Step Plan” for all city workers.

  3. The City should develop a low-barrier “Day Works” program similar to Denver, CO or Albuquerque, NM where unemployed people are given the opportunity to work for the city, earn a living wage (minimum of $15/hr) and transition into full time employment

    1. See Appendix F for more information on Denver’s successful Day Works Program

  4. The City should commission a study of current day labor/temporary work agencies and determine what policies are appropriate to improve pay rates, reduce unfair fees imposed on temporary employees and eliminate wage theft.

Part 5. Public Space Policy - Providing for basic needs

  1. The City of Greensboro should invest in public bathrooms, water fountains and hygiene facilities throughout the city to promote sanitation and curb public urination/defication.

    1. See Appendix G for an example of a successful public restroom program (Portland Loo)

  2. The City of Greensboro should provide adequate seating and bus shelters in public spaces.

  3. The City of Greensboro should invest in trash receptacles along pathways and trails throughout the city to curb littering.

  4. The City should establish a safe and legal area where homeless people can sleep outdoors without fear of police harassment, citation, or arrest. Due to the significant lack of affordable housing options available to people, people must sleep somewhere and creating a safe and legal area to do so is both humane, free to tax payers, and morally right.

    1. See Appendix H for more information on the roles that service providers and cities can play in regards to homeless encampments.

 

List of Appendixes:

  1. National Health Care for the Homeless Council Statement on Homeless Encampments

 

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