Sunday, September 20, 2009

It’s a list no city wants to make. “Meanest Cities” in the nation.

The qualifications are simple: Treat the homeless badly, and you get on the list.

Los Angeles earned the top spot on the list this year for its crackdown on the city’s legendary Skid Row — a “victory” Washington and Baltimore will gladly concede and one they worked hard to avoid.

Homeless advocacy groups rate cities on various factors, particularly how the homeless are treated by law enforcement and whether “selective enforcement” is used on common crimes such as loitering.

Washington and Baltimore have been taking measures to improve the way they deal with the homeless. The result: another year in which they managed to stay off the list.

Butch, a 56-year-old homeless man, thinks he knows one reason for Washington’s success.

“Most officers don’t really want to bother us,” said Butch, who puffs on the first of many Black and Mild cigars for the day. “People who have problems with officers usually bring it on themselves. Police tell you to pour out a beer, pour out the beer. … Police are just doing their jobs.”

Three years ago, Butch landed on the streets, sleeping on park benches in Dupont Circle and hustling chess games for cash to survive.

Wracked with guilt after his mother’s death from kidney failure, Butch said the loss was unbearable. He said he could no longer keep up his job teaching chess to inner-city students.

“All the stuff I did bugged her heart,” said Butch, as he dry shaved the week’s stubble off his chin while holding a broken hand-held mirror — all of his belongings stuffed underneath his “bed” in a clear plastic trash bag.

So he fled to the park, the only place he knew he could focus entirely on chess — the only creative release that would make him happy, he said. His run-ins with police have been few, but friendly.

“It’s where I want to be,” Butch said. “When I get tired, I’ll get off the street.”

Washington and Baltimore have never made the Top 10 list of Meanest Cities, though Washington appeared on an extended list in 2006 and Baltimore made the extended list this year.

But the homeless agencies also consider the positive steps cities take to improve situations for the homeless, and D.C. and Baltimore each have scored points.

In May, the state of Maryland helped out Baltimore by becoming the first state to add homeless people as a protected class to its hate crimes law after several people were severely beaten and killed. There were 774 violent attacks on homeless people between 1999 and 2007 resulting in 217 deaths, according to the coalition.

D.C. officials look to follow Maryland’s lead, examining legislation that would classify attacks on the homeless as hate crimes and inflicting stronger penalties on criminals.

D.C. managed to get off the extended list of cities needing to improve the treatment of its homeless despite the city’s rising homeless population.

There are 703 homeless families in the District with more than 1,400 children, representing a 20 percent increase from the previous year alone, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. The city received $7.4 million in federal stimulus money to cope with homelessness.

Some of that money is slated for homeless prevention grants as well as affordable housing projects.

Los Angeles wasn’t as fortunate as D.C. and Baltimore, mostly because of its crackdown on Skid Row.

In 2009, Los Angeles spent $6 million to pay for 50 extra police officers to clean up the heavily populated homeless area, despite budgeting $5.7 million for homeless services over the same period of time.

In an 11-month period, 24 people were arrested 201 times costing taxpayers an estimated $3.6 million in the jail and court systems. Most citations in the Skid Row area issued to the homeless were for jaywalking and loitering, something the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty consider “selective enforcement.”

In their 2009 report “Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities,” the groups examined the treatment of the homeless in cities across the nation.

In addition to selective enforcement of misdemeanors such as loitering, jaywalking or open container laws, they also weighed enactment of laws aimed specifically at the homeless, such as making it illegal to sit, sleep or store personal belongings in cities where people are forced to live in public spaces.

Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless said police should be focused on people committing more serious crimes.

“We’re concerned about the criminalization issue here,” he said. “People are breaking real laws with serious crimes that should be dealt with. Cops are enforcing these smaller laws that more or less keeps people homeless. It doesn’t solve the problem.”

The report shows an overall increase in cities and law enforcement cracking down on more neutral laws with an 11 percent spike in laws created prohibiting loitering in particular public places since 2006, often aimed at the homeless.

St. Petersburg, Fla., ranked No. 2 on the list after police and fire officials raided two homeless camps, destroying tents and other personal property. City officials also passed six new ordinances including prohibitions on panhandling, storing personal property in public locations anywhere in the city and made it unlawful to sleep outside at various locations.

No. 3 “Meanest City” went to Orlando, where city officials passed a law restricting groups from sharing food with 25 or more people because they said it created safety and sanitation problems for the community.

Rounding out the list were Atlanta; Gainesville, Fla.; Kalamazoo, Mich.; San Francisco; Honolulu; Bradenton, Fla.; and Berkeley, Calif.

This year’s report also examines Baltimore for the positive examples city leaders have set there as well as what needs to be improved.

Baltimore provides housing and supportive services — including eviction prevention, transitional and permanent housing and emergency shelter — to more than 13,000 individuals and families costing about $24 million annually. On any given night, at least 3,002 city residents sleep on the streets. The city received $10 million in stimulus funding.

Baltimore’s homeless faced a rough time two years ago. The Downtown Partnership of Baltimore was accused of intentionally pushing the homeless out of the city after clearing out a homeless encampment under a bridge along Guilford Avenue. The group removed cardboard boxes from the area as part of daily cleaning.

“We clean every inch of the downtown area as much as possible,” said Kirby Fowler, president of the partnership. “If we were truly driving the homeless out of downtown, we wouldn’t know who the homeless are or interact with them.

“At least 40 percent of our cleaning team are formerly homeless individuals. I don’t think the coalition probably understood that.”

To attack aggressive panhandling, the city installed donation meters along Pratt Street and elsewhere, which collect an average of $100 per month from more than 10 meters. But homeless advocates say the money from the meters never truly reaches the homeless and dehumanizes the person-to-person exchange of physically giving money to someone in need.

Greg Sileo, director of community outreach for Baltimore Homeless Services, said the majority of criminal records involving the homeless are for drug and alcohol addictions, minor theft and some prostitution — not loitering, camping or panhandling, the crimes often considered “selective enforcement” for the report.

“It’s important to remember there’s always going to be instances in which police and the government are going to butt up against people in the street,” Mr. Sileo said. “It’s the nature of the issue. There’s always going to be interactions with police.”

Even Butch, who stands by the way D.C. police treat the homeless, acknowledges those interactions will take place.

“The police came up to me and my friend and asked us for IDs, then asked if we had any warrants,” Butch said. “He checked me out and saw I didn’t have any. My friend said no, but he had one on him. The cop cuffed him, and you didn’t see him for six months.”

Sgt. David Schlosser, spokesman for U.S. Park Police, said the department has a solid relationship with D.C.’s homeless population, which rely on parks for shelter.

“Homeless people, as any people in any part of the world, commit crimes,” he said. “We take appropriate actions. There is an enforcement of criminal laws — fair and equitable regardless of economic status.

“You see some of these things slipping through the cracks, and it’s frustrating. We’re unable to take care of the filth. If it’s bitterly cold out, it’s frustrating to see someone who has mental health issues but don’t meet the parameters to get into a mental health program.”

However, 40-year-old Glen Currie, who has been on the District’s streets for five years, said he disagrees. He sees treatment of the homeless in D.C. less favorably than Butch.

“If a person’s appearance is more shabby, police have a more aggressive attitude,” Mr. Currie said, as he waited for breakfast in the alley next to St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Northwest. “There’s a lack of compassion, but it’s not their job to be compassionate. They just don’t understand the homeless situation. I don’t think police have a grip on how to handle this.”

Which is true to a certain extent, according to some homeless rights advocates.

Tulin Ozdeger, civil rights program director for the law center, said it is unfair to place the blame completely on law enforcement.

“I definitely think police are put in a position where they’re dealing with a social problem not appropriate for them to be dealing with,” Ms. Ozdeger said. “They’re imposing these kinds of measures. There’s pressure from the community to get people moving along. Law enforcement is not the appropriate tool. Services and housing are more appropriate.

City officials in Daytona Beach, Fla., have taken that cue and created the Downtown Streets Team, which gives homeless people career, financial and housing resources to better their situations in exchange for helping to clean up the city. The report listed Daytona Beach as a positive example of how a city treats its homeless population.

Rick Shiver, city commissioner, said the program was enacted at the beginning of the year and has gained community support. At least 42 people have gone through the program since it began.

The current volunteers, mostly chronic panhandlers, have a place to sleep at the local Salvation Army, three meals a day and a free monthly meal from restaurants, Mr. Shiver said. The city police department also provides bicycles to the participants, so they have reliable transportation to work.

“We have weekly success meetings, go over any issues they’ve had and perform mock job interviews,” Mr. Shiver said. “We help them make resumes, discuss budgeting, open checking accounts and budget money. We get them an address and an ID, we get them some of the basic stuff so they can compete for a job.”

The participants are required to look for a job every day. The program runs the city about $125 per person weekly. Funding comes from taxes, fundraisers and private donations, he added.

“Once you accept that homelessness is your problem, you can go from there,” Mr. Shiver said. “They’re sleeping in our parks and under our bridges.”

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