The homelessness problem defies “common sense” solutions. The conflict between liberal and conservative appellate court judges in the Federal 9th Circuit provides a good example.
The question before the court was whether homeless people could be criminally charged for sleeping on public property. The court decided this issue, and then a panel declined to overturn it, citing protection under the 8th Amendment.
A Los Angeles Times article explained that the “…9th Circuit panel had found that the 8th Amendment ‘prohibits the imposition of criminal penalties for sitting, sleeping, or lying outside on public property for homeless individuals who cannot obtain shelter.’” Conservative justices on the court harshly criticized the decision.
A caller to the Michael Smerconish Program on SiriusXM declared that the conservative justices’ opinion was just “common sense.” Count me among those who would like to walk city streets and go to public parks without encountering homeless people, especially those defecating on the sidewalk.
But let’s assume this case goes to the U.S. Supreme Court, which then decides it’s legal to arrest homeless people. Where will they be detained…and for how long… what will be done to address their underlying problems while they’re in detention… where will they go when they’re eventually released…and how much money will be required to build enough jails to house the 70,000 homeless people in Los Angeles and the many thousands more across the nation.
As a psychologist, I worked for nearly three decades with police departments. Kansas City police chief Jim Corwin and I developed a task force on homelessness over several years beginning in 2008. (I also previously worked in the county jail for three years and have seen the complicated problems of poverty, addiction, mental illness, and crime.)
Our task force developed cooperative agreements with four counties, and we made good progress with some problems but not in others. The task force was later incorporated into a regional organization, but there wasn’t enough political will to fund the operation, and it was allowed to die. There have been recent efforts in Kansas City to revive the task force, but I am skeptical that the public will ultimately be willing to pay what is necessary to address the problem. And I am equally skeptical that politicians will stick to the task.
Instead, there are appeals for “common sense,” which usually means arresting people who are homeless without then answering the big question: What then?
Here are several additional questions that must be answered if the U.S. Supreme Court decides to overturn the 9th Circuit Court ruling:
- If shelter is available and a homeless person declines to accept the placement, preferring to sleep outdoors, can they still be arrested and detained? And for how long?
- Can a person be forced into treatment if they are homeless because of addiction or mental illness? And who pays for this treatment?
- If the courts decide that homeless people can be arrested, should they be detained in a general jail population? If convicted of a crime, how long should the sentence be? Should homeless people be sent to state penitentiaries?
- Can homeless people be arrested and detained if they sleep in their cars parked on public streets?
- Suppose homeless people with addiction problems are arrested and involuntarily placed in some type of confinement or treatment program. What will happen if they use drugs or alcohol while in the program?
- Should cities establish homeless encampments (Hoovervilles) on which tents or other simple structures can be erected? Will the cities be responsible for sanitation and police protection of the vulnerable in these encampments? Will building codes be enforced in the Hoovervilles?
- What should we do about homeless children with their parent(s) in public places? Should the children be removed from parental custody and placed in temporary or permanent care? Who will pay for such care?
- If police are mandated to arrest homeless people, some likely to resist arrest, what level of force will be permitted to remove these people?
- When homeless people have erected a tent or other structure on public property and have personal belongings there, however meager, what are police required to do with this property after an arrest? Can this property be destroyed, or must it be preserved when individuals are released from custody? Who pays for the removal and storage of such property?
Of course, there are many more questions.
We know the lack of affordable housing is a major driver of homelessness. Research about homelessness also shows that providing housing without providing services to address the underlying problems resulting from homelessness is ineffective.
But doing nothing about homelessness is also expensive. Police departments spend a great deal of money on calls related to people who are homeless. The Kansas City Police Department created this video to demonstrate the costs.
Solving the problem of the many causes of homelessness is not as simple as just using “common sense.” Arresting people sleeping on public property won’t work, even if conservative justices say it’s legal. The solutions will require funding for services that conservative commentators probably will decry as “woke” liberalism. But if we want a civil society and livable cities, we must invest in our people.
George A. Harris, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in Kansas City. He previously worked in vocational rehabilitation and corrections. He was a consultant to the National Institute of Corrections and was an associate professor of criminal justice at Washburn University before entering private practice providing pre-employment evaluations for police and correctional agencies and expert witness evaluations for attorneys.
He is the author of numerous books and articles for professional and public audiences, including Counseling the Involuntary and Resistant Client and Broken Ears, Wounded Hearts, which was awarded best book of 1984 by President Reagan’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped. He served on the reader advisor panel for the Kansas City Star. He was a founding board member of L’Arche Heartland, a group home organization for people with developmental disabilities, and along with then police chief Jim Corwin founded a task force on homelessness in Kansas City.