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Fabrizio
August 9th, 2009, 05:56 PM
Whoa! Tell me the article I'm posting below from today's NYTimes is a gross exaggeration... tell me it was written by some old radical ex-hippie with a bleeding heart agenda. Please.

It's actually hard to get through.

My own country (maybe I've never mentioned it but I live in Italy) is also busy coming up with laws to regulate public behavior... I don't know if we're this far along yet... but I think it's our future...

Is It Now a Crime to Be Poor?

By BARBARA EHRENREICH
Published: August 8, 2009

IT’S too bad so many people are falling into poverty at a time when it’s almost illegal to be poor. You won’t be arrested for shopping in a Dollar Store, but if you are truly, deeply, in-the-streets poor, you’re well advised not to engage in any of the biological necessities of life — like sitting, sleeping, lying down or loitering. City officials boast that there is nothing discriminatory about the ordinances that afflict the destitute, most of which go back to the dawn of gentrification in the ’80s and ’90s. “If you’re lying on a sidewalk, whether you’re homeless or a millionaire, you’re in violation of the ordinance,” a city attorney in St. Petersburg, Fla., said in June, echoing Anatole France’s immortal observation that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges.”

In defiance of all reason and compassion, the criminalization of poverty has actually been intensifying as the recession generates ever more poverty. So concludes a new study from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which found that the number of ordinances against the publicly poor has been rising since 2006, along with ticketing and arrests for more “neutral” infractions like jaywalking, littering or carrying an open container of alcohol.

The report lists America’s 10 “meanest” cities — the largest of which are Honolulu, Los Angeles and San Francisco — but new contestants are springing up every day. The City Council in Grand Junction, Colo., has been considering a ban on begging, and at the end of June, Tempe, Ariz., carried out a four-day crackdown on the indigent. How do you know when someone is indigent? As a Las Vegas statute puts it, “An indigent person is a person whom a reasonable ordinary person would believe to be entitled to apply for or receive” public assistance.

That could be me before the blow-drying and eyeliner, and it’s definitely Al Szekely at any time of day. A grizzled 62-year-old, he inhabits a wheelchair and is often found on G Street in Washington — the city that is ultimately responsible for the bullet he took in the spine in Fu Bai, Vietnam, in 1972. He had been enjoying the luxury of an indoor bed until last December, when the police swept through the shelter in the middle of the night looking for men with outstanding warrants.

It turned out that Mr. Szekely, who is an ordained minister and does not drink, do drugs or curse in front of ladies, did indeed have a warrant — for not appearing in court to face a charge of “criminal trespassing” (for sleeping on a sidewalk in a Washington suburb). So he was dragged out of the shelter and put in jail. “Can you imagine?” asked Eric Sheptock, the homeless advocate (himself a shelter resident) who introduced me to Mr. Szekely. “They arrested a homeless man in a shelter for being homeless.”

The viciousness of the official animus toward the indigent can be breathtaking. A few years ago, a group called Food Not Bombs started handing out free vegan food to hungry people in public parks around the nation. A number of cities, led by Las Vegas, passed ordinances forbidding the sharing of food with the indigent in public places, and several members of the group were arrested. A federal judge just overturned the anti-sharing law in Orlando, Fla., but the city is appealing. And now Middletown, Conn., is cracking down on food sharing.

If poverty tends to criminalize people, it is also true that criminalization inexorably impoverishes them. Scott Lovell, another homeless man I interviewed in Washington, earned his record by committing a significant crime — by participating in the armed robbery of a steakhouse when he was 15. Although Mr. Lovell dresses and speaks more like a summer tourist from Ohio than a felon, his criminal record has made it extremely difficult for him to find a job.

For Al Szekely, the arrest for trespassing meant a further descent down the circles of hell. While in jail, he lost his slot in the shelter and now sleeps outside the Verizon Center sports arena, where the big problem, in addition to the security guards, is mosquitoes. His stick-thin arms are covered with pink crusty sores, which he treats with a regimen of frantic scratching.

For the not-yet-homeless, there are two main paths to criminalization — one involving debt, and the other skin color. Anyone of any color or pre-recession financial status can fall into debt, and although we pride ourselves on the abolition of debtors’ prison, in at least one state, Texas, people who can’t afford to pay their traffic fines may be made to “sit out their tickets” in jail.

Often the path to legal trouble begins when one of your creditors has a court issue a summons for you, which you fail to honor for one reason or another. (Maybe your address has changed or you never received it.) Now you’re in contempt of court. Or suppose you miss a payment and, before you realize it, your car insurance lapses; then you’re stopped for something like a broken headlight. Depending on the state, you may have your car impounded or face a steep fine — again, exposing you to a possible summons. “There’s just no end to it once the cycle starts,” said Robert Solomon of Yale Law School. “It just keeps accelerating.”

By far the most reliable way to be criminalized by poverty is to have the wrong-color skin. Indignation runs high when a celebrity professor encounters racial profiling, but for decades whole communities have been effectively “profiled” for the suspicious combination of being both dark-skinned and poor, thanks to the “broken windows” or “zero tolerance” theory of policing popularized by Rudy Giuliani, when he was mayor of New York City, and his police chief William Bratton.

Flick a cigarette in a heavily patrolled community of color and you’re littering; wear the wrong color T-shirt and you’re displaying gang allegiance. Just strolling around in a dodgy neighborhood can mark you as a potential suspect, according to “Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice,” an eye-opening new book by Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor in Washington. If you seem at all evasive, which I suppose is like looking “overly anxious” in an airport, Mr. Butler writes, the police “can force you to stop just to investigate why you don’t want to talk to them.” And don’t get grumpy about it or you could be “resisting arrest.”

There’s no minimum age for being sucked into what the Children’s Defense Fund calls “the cradle-to-prison pipeline.” In New York City, a teenager caught in public housing without an ID — say, while visiting a friend or relative — can be charged with criminal trespassing and wind up in juvenile detention, Mishi Faruqee, the director of youth justice programs for the Children’s Defense Fund of New York, told me. In just the past few months, a growing number of cities have taken to ticketing and sometimes handcuffing teenagers found on the streets during school hours.

In Los Angeles, the fine for truancy is $250; in Dallas, it can be as much as $500 — crushing amounts for people living near the poverty level. According to the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, an advocacy group, 12,000 students were ticketed for truancy in 2008.

Why does the Bus Riders Union care? Because it estimates that 80 percent of the “truants,” especially those who are black or Latino, are merely late for school, thanks to the way that over-filled buses whiz by them without stopping. I met people in Los Angeles who told me they keep their children home if there’s the slightest chance of their being late. It’s an ingenious anti-truancy policy that discourages parents from sending their youngsters to school.

The pattern is to curtail financing for services that might help the poor while ramping up law enforcement: starve school and public transportation budgets, then make truancy illegal. Shut down public housing, then make it a crime to be homeless. Be sure to harass street vendors when there are few other opportunities for employment. The experience of the poor, and especially poor minorities, comes to resemble that of a rat in a cage scrambling to avoid erratically administered electric shocks.

And if you should make the mistake of trying to escape via a brief marijuana-induced high, it’s “gotcha” all over again, because that of course is illegal too. One result is our staggering level of incarceration, the highest in the world. Today the same number of Americans — 2.3 million — reside in prison as in public housing.

Meanwhile, the public housing that remains has become ever more prisonlike, with residents subjected to drug testing and random police sweeps. The safety net, or what’s left of it, has been transformed into a dragnet.

Some of the community organizers I’ve talked to around the country think they know why “zero tolerance” policing has ratcheted up since the recession began. Leonardo Vilchis of the Union de Vecinos, a community organization in Los Angeles, suspects that “poor people have become a source of revenue” for recession-starved cities, and that the police can always find a violation leading to a fine. If so, this is a singularly demented fund-raising strategy. At a Congressional hearing in June, the president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers testified about the pervasive “overcriminalization of crimes that are not a risk to public safety,” like sleeping in a cardboard box or jumping turnstiles, which leads to expensively clogged courts and prisons.

A Pew Center study released in March found states spending a record $51.7 billion on corrections, an amount that the center judged, with an excess of moderation, to be “too much.”

But will it be enough — the collision of rising prison populations that we can’t afford and the criminalization of poverty — to force us to break the mad cycle of poverty and punishment? With the number of people in poverty increasing (some estimates suggest it’s up to 45 million to 50 million, from 37 million in 2007) several states are beginning to ease up on the criminalization of poverty — for example, by sending drug offenders to treatment rather than jail, shortening probation and reducing the number of people locked up for technical violations like missed court appointments. But others are tightening the screws: not only increasing the number of “crimes” but also charging prisoners for their room and board — assuring that they’ll be released with potentially criminalizing levels of debt.

Maybe we can’t afford the measures that would begin to alleviate America’s growing poverty — affordable housing, good schools, reliable public transportation and so forth. I would argue otherwise, but for now I’d be content with a consensus that, if we can’t afford to truly help the poor, neither can we afford to go on tormenting them.


http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/09/opinion/09ehrenreich.html?pagewanted=3&em

ZippyTheChimp
August 9th, 2009, 08:08 PM
Is It Now a Crime to Be Poor?

By BARBARA EHRENREICHDoes the reporter think this is a two year phenomenon that goes against logic because of the recession? Sounds like she's been living in isolation, read a report, a drew simple conclusions.

I think that hostility toward the poor was even more intense during the boom 1990s, more "in defiance of all reason and compassion." There seemed to be a prevailing attitude that there was no excuse for anyone to be poor. After all, we wiped out the deficit, and were making long-term plans on what to do with future surpluses.

Fabrizio
August 9th, 2009, 08:44 PM
This is how I read an article like this:

"IT’S too bad so many people are falling into poverty at a time when it’s almost illegal to be poor. You won’t be arrested for shopping in a Dollar Store, but if you are truly, deeply, in-the-streets poor, you’re well advised not to engage in any of the biological necessities of life — like sitting, sleeping, lying down or loitering."

--- If you are truly "in-the-streets-poor" what city services are available to help you? Let's here about them? What about local churches, charity services, private initiatives? So maby those laws against camping out in a park make sense actually.

--

" the number of ordinances against the publicly poor has been rising since 2006, along with ticketing and arrests for more “neutral” infractions like jaywalking, littering or carrying an open container of alcohol."

---- "jaywalking, littering or carrying an open container of alcohol" ? Sounds fine with me.

--

" The City Council in Grand Junction, Colo., has been considering a ban on begging"

---- Perhaps it has become truly a hassle for those living there. Again: if someone is so poor that they need to beg, what city services are available?

---

"It turned out that Mr. Szekely, who is an ordained minister and does not drink, do drugs or curse in front of ladies, did indeed have a warrant — for not appearing in court to face a charge of “criminal trespassing” (for sleeping on a sidewalk in a Washington suburb). So he was dragged out of the shelter and put in jail. “Can you imagine?” asked Eric Sheptock, the homeless advocate (himself a shelter resident) who introduced me to Mr. Szekely. “They arrested a homeless man in a shelter for being homeless.”

--- Uh... no... the man was arrested for not appearing in court to face a charge of “criminal trespassing” .

---

"A few years ago, a group called Food Not Bombs started handing out free vegan food to hungry people in public parks around the nation. A number of cities, led by Las Vegas, passed ordinances forbidding the sharing of food with the indigent in public places, and several members of the group were arrested. A federal judge just overturned the anti-sharing law in Orlando, Fla., but the city is appealing. And now Middletown, Conn., is cracking down on food sharing."

---- That term "food sharing". What does it mean? It's one thing to split a sandwhich... but it could also be a euphamism for food distribution... do we want that in a public park?

--

"If poverty tends to criminalize people, it is also true that criminalization inexorably impoverishes them. Scott Lovell, another homeless man I interviewed in Washington, earned his record by committing a significant crime — by participating in the armed robbery of a steakhouse when he was 15. Although Mr. Lovell dresses and speaks more like a summer tourist from Ohio than a felon, his criminal record has made it extremely difficult for him to find a job."

--- Oh really? That's news to me.

-------

I can can go on and on here, point by point... and my motive is not to defend anyone... but to point out bad journalism...the sensationalism...it does nothing to develop a real understanding.

I do feel that it is logical that if there is more poverty and more homelessness today than before (homegrown and among new immigrants), there will be more begging, sleeping in parks, open dunkeness etc. and so there will be more hositility among the public and more laws governing public behavior. And some of them may be genuinely needed.

I'm sure there are some good points in the article... but the sensationalism drowns them out and makes me skeptical.


---

lofter1
August 9th, 2009, 09:05 PM
By BARBARA EHRENREICH

Does the reporter think this is a two year phenomenon that goes against logic because of the recession?



B. Ehrenreich (http://www.barbaraehrenreich.com/barbara_ehrenreich.htm) has had a long & solid history (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Ehrenreich) of writing about the poor and unfortunate (http://ehrenreich.blogs.com/) in America:

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nickel_and_Dimed) (2001)

Fabrizio
August 9th, 2009, 09:20 PM
I remember when Nickel and Dimed was released, there was a lot of news about it... let's hope it was written better than that article.

lofter1
August 9th, 2009, 09:22 PM
---- That term "food sharing". What does it mean? It's one thing to split a sandwhich...
but it could also be a euphamism for food distribution... do we want that in a public park?

Do we WANT that? Maybe it'd better that food that is ready & available NOT be given out free by those who wish to do so.

Services for the poor in the USA have been decimated since the Banks & Wall Street pulled their coup last fall. Even before that the numbers of homeless were climbing (former job holders fired, then lost their homes, now broke).

America often treats our poor as if their sorry situation is solely their fault: They don't try hard enough, they have no work ethic, they're genetically inferior, they're worthless and shiftless and up to no good.

btw: It's an Op Ed piece:


Op-Ed Contributor (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/09/opinion/09ehrenreich.html?ref=opinion)

Not the same as reporting / journalism.

If you want sensationalism look at the often prevailing attitude claiming that the poor should help themselves and get their own sh!t together. That is sensationalist in the worst way.

Fabrizio
August 9th, 2009, 09:36 PM
I think she sums up her point with:

"Maybe we can’t afford the measures that would begin to alleviate America’s growing poverty — affordable housing, good schools, reliable public transportation and so forth. I would argue otherwise, but for now I’d be content with a consensus that, if we can’t afford to truly help the poor, neither can we afford to go on tormenting them."

"I would argue otherwise" too... I think the US can afford the measures that would begin to alleviate America’s growing poverty... but I can also understand laws that try to curb bad public behavior.

I remember NYC in the 1970's. I would not want to see a repeat of that. I don't know what street you live on. I'm sure you are tolerant... but when does it become too much? Certainly the gov. must do it's part to help people... but at the same time: you want to enjoy your neighborhood.

------


Do we WANT that? Maybe it'd better that food that is ready & available NOT be given out free by those who wish to do so.

The issue was "food sharing" in public parks. Do we want an organization to take it upon themselves to distrubute food in a public park? Would you like to see them set up booths without regulation in Central Park? Couldn't there be other places to do so? Certainly the group doing so has good intentions... but I can understand a city not letting this go on in a park that tax dollars go toward to keep clean and attractive.

Again... I agree that the city should provide food kitchens for the poor... I'm surprised if NYC does not have them.

---

Fabrizio
August 10th, 2009, 10:24 AM
This is also from the NYTimes (August 7th) and It seems almost a companion piece to the article that opens the thread:


Attacks on Homeless Bring Push on Hate Crime Laws

By ERIC LICHTBLAU
Published: August 7, 2009

WASHINGTON — With economic troubles pushing more people onto the streets in the last few years, law enforcement officials and researchers are seeing a surge in unprovoked attacks against the homeless, and a number of states are considering legislation to treat such assaults as hate crimes.

This October, Maryland will become the first state to expand its hate-crime law to add stiffer penalties for attacks on the homeless.

At least five other states are pondering similar steps, the District of Columbia approved such a measure this week, and a like bill was introduced last week in Congress. A report due out this weekend from the National Coalition for the Homeless documents a rise in violence over the last decade, with at least 880 unprovoked attacks against the homeless at the hands of nonhomeless people, including 244 fatalities. An advance copy was provided to The New York Times.

Sometimes, researchers say, one homeless person attacks another in turf battles or other disputes. But more often, they say, the assailants are outsiders: men or in most cases teenage boys who punch, kick, shoot or set afire people living on the streets, frequently killing them, simply for the sport of it, their victims all but invisible to society. “A lot of what we see are thrill offenders,” said Brian Levin, a criminologist who runs the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

Only Thursday, two homeless men in Hollywood were stabbed to death and a third was wounded in a three-hour spree of separate daylight attacks. The police arrested a 54-year-old local man who they said appeared to have made homeless people his random targets.Researchers say a combustible mix of factors has added fuel to the problem. Rising unemployment and foreclosures continue to push people into the streets, with some estimates now putting the nationwide number of homeless above one million. And in cities like Las Vegas, public crackdowns on encampments for the homeless and cutbacks in social services have frequently made street people more visible as targets for would-be assailants.

Further, in the last several years the Internet has seen a proliferation of “bum fight” videos, shot by young men and boys who are seen beating the homeless or who pay transients a few dollars to fight each other. Indeed, the National Coalition for the Homeless, which works to change government policies and bring people off the streets, says in its new report that 58 percent of assailants implicated in attacks against the homeless in the last 10 years were teenagers.

Michael Stoops, the group’s executive director, said social prejudices were “dehumanizing” the homeless and condoning hostile treatment. He pointed to a blurb titled “Hunt the Homeless” in the current issue of Maxim, a popular men’s magazine. It spotlights a coming “hobo convention” in Iowa and says: “Kill one for fun. We’re 87 percent sure it’s legal.”

With victims wary of going to the police, statistics on the attacks are often incomplete. But surveys show much higher rates of assault, rape and other crimes of violence against the homeless than almost any other group, said Professor Levin, of California State, who worked on the new report. “More and more, we’re hearing about homeless people being attacked for no other reason than that they’re homeless, and we’ve got to do something about it,” Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, Democrat of Texas, said in an interview.

Ms. Johnson introduced a measure in the House last week to make attacks on the homeless a federal hate crime and require the F.B.I. to collect data on it. (The Senate voted last month to expand federal hate crimes to include attacks on gay and transgender victims, another frequent target.) And in addition to the measures already approved in Maryland and the District of Columbia, proposals to add penalties for attacks on the homeless are under consideration in California, Florida, Ohio, South Carolina and Texas.

The push has lacked any organized support by major civil rights groups. In Florida, which leads the country in assaults on homeless people, groups like the Anti-Defamation League have opposed recognizing those attacks as a hate crime. Opponents argue that homelessness, unlike race or ethnicity, is not a permanent condition and that such a broadening of the law would have the effect of diluting it. “I hear the same rhetoric all the time,” Ms. Johnson said. “They ask, ‘Why is their life more important than anyone else’s?’ ”

The coalition’s study, which relied on police and news reports but excluded crimes driven by factors like robbery, found 106 documented attacks against the homeless last year. That was a doubling of levels seen six or seven years ago but a sharp drop from 2007, an apparent improvement that researchers are still trying to explain. The study found 27 fatalities last year, flat relative to the year before. Eight other victims were shot, nine raped and 54 beaten.

In Portland, Ore., twin brothers were charged with five unprovoked attacks against homeless people in a park. One of the victims was a man beaten with his own bike, another a woman pushed down a steep staircase. In Cleveland, a man leaving a homeless shelter to visit his mother was “savagely beaten by a group of thugs,” the police said. In Los Angeles, a homeless man who was a neighborhood fixture was doused in gasoline and set on fire. In Boston, a homeless Army veteran was beaten to death as witnesses near Faneuil Hall reportedly looked on. And in Jacksonville, N.C., a group of young men fatally stabbed a homeless man behind a shopping strip, cutting open his abdomen with a beer bottle.

In Las Vegas, home to a large population of the homeless, there were no reported killings of any of them last year, but many say hostilities have risen as the city moves to get them out of the parks and off the streets. Some of the Las Vegas homeless resort to living in a maze of underground flood channels beneath the Strip. There they face flash floods, disease, black widows and dank, pitch-dark conditions, but some tunnel dwellers say life there is better than being harassed and threatened by assailants and the police. “Out there, anything goes,” said Manny Lang, who has lived in the tunnels for months, recalling the stones and profanities with which a group of teenagers pelted him last winter when he slept above ground. “But in here, nothing’s going to happen to us.”

Their plight is a revealing commentary on the violence facing street people, said Matt O’Brien, a Las Vegas writer who runs an outreach group for the homeless.
“It’s hard to believe that tunnels that can fill a foot per minute with floodwater could be safer than aboveground Vegas,” Mr. O’Brien said, “but many homeless people think they are. No outsider is going to attack you down there in the dark.”

Ninjahedge
August 10th, 2009, 02:34 PM
Tough decisions. But the thing that makes it even tougher is that doing nothing is not an option. Feeling bad about a persons situation and trying to help is one thing, but a bunch of stinky (to put it nicely) unwashed, drunken or otherwise individuals camping out in a park, or sleeping on a subway train does nothing for the people and buisnesses trying to work in the area.

I know, that can be read so many ways. It can be read as me being a heartless individual wanting to push these people onto someone elses front lawn, but that is not it. When you have an individual that reeks of vomit, body stank and human feces riding the train with you, it makes for a very unpleasant, and possibly unsanitary experience. It also does not attract people to live, shop or otherwise conduct buisness in or around areas that have these people.

So what is the solution? Hide them? Put them in "storage"? Possibly, but I think tehre needs to be a way to seperate the wheat from the chaff. Some of these guys that are genuinely struck by bad times and cannot bathe for mere lack of services available NEED US TO DO MORE.

We also need a few more "tough love" establishments to try and get the borderline cases back on track so they can not only be more productive, but maybe ENJOY their own lives for a change.

As for the rest? The best we can do is to keep them clean and safe. Try to make sure they are not the harborers of the next mutation of the Avian Flu. That they are not the human storage vessels for diseases like AIDS. That they do not pose a threat to themselves or the people around them.

But how do you do THAT when most that are that far gone don't WANT any help?

Having a town wine-o is one thing, but in a town this big, you simply do not have enough streetspace for them (and they stop being such a "quaint" reminder of our own stations in life as portrayed in the old 1950's era depicitions of such characters....). So what kind of program could you enact that would work to reduce the number, help those that WANT it, and protect the rest of us from those that really don't?

Alonzo-ny
August 10th, 2009, 03:58 PM
I've been wondering lately, wouldn't it make a huge difference if there was a small space set up by the state with shower and laundry facilities in each area. I mean it wouldn't take up alot of space or cost a massive amount of money but the difference it would make would be quite significant for everyone.

Ninjahedge
August 11th, 2009, 09:16 AM
The hard part is not the space, but the maintainance.

People have very little respect for this kind of thing. Hell, ANYTHING.

ablarc
August 11th, 2009, 01:15 PM
I think it's been a crime to be poor for years and years.

ZippyTheChimp
August 11th, 2009, 05:57 PM
^
That's what I said.

ablarc
August 12th, 2009, 04:39 PM
^ Glad we agree.

Luca
August 13th, 2009, 10:19 AM
It's tough. Most of the police powers that lead to the virtual criminalization of poverty are, IMO, also necessary to avoid a slide into mass anti-social behavior that was a key reason behind the 'escape from the cities' of the 20th century. This raises the sticky issue of applying rules and regs with intelligence. I saw an example of this, a few years ago, in Miami Beach, where a cop confronted in a very humane but also firm way an (apparently) 'street' person about his somewhat rowdy dog. He (the cop) struck a balance between inflexibility (immediate confiscation, destruction of the indifferently cared for mutt, etc.) and just ignoring the problem (this guy's dog seemed to just bark aggressively at anyone 'of color' walking by the sidewalk).

I am constantly moved to observe, here in the UK, that a number of behaviors that literally make life unbearable for many elderly / poor / young people here would simply be policed away in the US (or at least the US I knew, way back when).

I would think that our immensely wealthy societies should be able to offer some (spartan) shelter and food to people who are out on their luck and only then prohibit vagrancy (with the threat of compulsory temporary 'residence' in even more spartan surroundings).

Fabrizio
August 14th, 2009, 07:21 AM
I would think that our immensely wealthy societies should be able to offer some (spartan) shelter and food to people who are out on their luck and only then prohibit vagrancy (with the threat of compulsory temporary 'residence' in even more spartan surroundings).


There is the phenomena of the tent city and illegal encampments:

In hard times, tent cities rise across the country
Since foreclosure mess, homeless advocates report rise in encampments

updated 4:36 p.m. ET Sept. 18, 2008

RENO, Nev. - A few tents cropped up hard by the railroad tracks, pitched by men left with nowhere to go once the emergency winter shelter closed for the summer. Then others appeared — people who had lost their jobs to the ailing economy, or newcomers who had moved to Reno for work and discovered no one was hiring. Within weeks, more than 150 people were living in tents big and small, barely a foot apart in a patch of dirt slated to be a parking lot for a campus of shelters Reno is building for its homeless population. Like many other cities, Reno has found itself with a "tent city" — an encampment of people who had nowhere else to go.

From Seattle to Athens, Ga., homeless advocacy groups and city agencies are reporting the most visible rise in homeless encampments in a generation. Nearly 61 percent of local and state homeless coalitions say they've experienced a rise in homelessness since the foreclosure crisis began in 2007, according to a report by the National Coalition for the Homeless. The group says the problem has worsened since the report's release in April, with foreclosures mounting, gas and food prices rising and the job market tightening. "It's clear that poverty and homelessness have increased," said Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the coalition. "The economy is in chaos, we're in an unofficial recession and Americans are worried, from the homeless to the middle class, about their future."

The phenomenon of encampments has caught advocacy groups somewhat by surprise, largely because of how quickly they have sprung up. "What you're seeing is encampments that I haven't seen since the 80s," said Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, an umbrella group for homeless advocacy organizations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Calif., Portland, Ore. and Seattle. The relatively tony city of Santa Barbara has given over a parking lot to people who sleep in cars and vans.The city of Fresno, Calif., is trying to manage several proliferating tent cities, including an encampment where people have made shelters out of scrap wood.

In Portland, Ore., and Seattle, homeless advocacy groups have paired with nonprofits or faith-based groups to manage tent cities as outdoor shelters. Other cities where tent cities have either appeared or expanded include include Chattanooga, Tenn., San Diego, and Columbus, Ohio. The Department of Housing and Urban Development recently reported a 12 percent drop in homelessness nationally in two years, from about 754,000 in January 2005 to 666,000 in January 2007. But the 2007 numbers omitted people who previously had been considered homeless — such as those staying with relatives or friends or living in campgrounds or motel rooms for more than a week.

In addition, the housing and economic crisis began soon after HUD's most recent data was compiled. "The data predates the housing crisis," said Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for HUD. "From the headlines, it might appear that the report is about yesterday. How is the housing situation affecting homelessness? That's a great question. We're still trying to get to that."

In Seattle, which is experiencing a building boom and an influx of affluent professionals in neighborhoods the working class once owned, homeless encampments have been springing up — in remote places to avoid police sweeps. "What's happening in Seattle is what's happening everywhere else — on steroids," said Tim Harris, executive director of Real Change, an advocacy organization that publishes a weekly newspaper sold by homeless people.

Homeless people and their advocates have organized three tent cities at City Hall in recent months to call attention to the homeless and protest the sweeps — acts of militancy, said Harris, "that we really haven't seen around homeless activism since the early '90s."

In Reno, officials decided to let the tent city be because shelters were already filled. Officials don't know how many homeless people are in Reno. "But we do know that the soup kitchens are serving hundreds more meals a day and that we have more people who are homeless than we can remember," said Jodi Royal-Goodwin, the city's redevelopment agency director.

Those in the tents have to register and are monitored weekly to see what progress they are making in finding jobs or real housing. They are provided times to take showers in the shelter, and told where to go for food and meals. Sylvia Flynn, 51, came from northern California but lost a job almost immediately and then her apartment. Since the cheapest motels here charge upward of $200 a week, Flynn ended up at the Reno women's shelter, which has only 20 beds and a two-week limit on stays. Out of a dozen people interviewed in the tent city, six had come to Reno from California or elsewhere over the last year, hoping for casino jobs.

"I figured this would be a great place for a job," said Max Perez, a 19-year-old from Iowa. He couldn't find one and ended up taking showers at the men's shelter and sleeping in a pup tent barely big enough to cover his body. "Sometimes I think we need to put out an ad: 'No, we don't have any more jobs than you do,'" Royal-Goodwin said.

The city will shut down the tent city as soon as early October because the tents sit on what will be a parking lot for a complex of shelters and services for homeless people. The complex will include a men's shelter, a women's shelter, a family shelter and a resource center. Reno officials aren't sure whether the construction will eliminate the need for the tent city. The demand, they say, keeps growing.

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And what happens when a tent city springs up next to a suburban community?

http://www.stoptentcity.com/

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