Almost 50 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson started an ambitious initiative to eliminate poverty in America, which he called the War on Poverty. His weapons were programs that created a national safety net for people battling poverty, like food stamps, Head Start, and Medicare.
Today, is the tide of the War on Poverty changing for the worse?
In Los Angeles, the City Council recently approved a ban on camping in city parks. While the ban was intended to prevent a new Occupy L.A. tent city, it could result in the criminalization of people who are sleeping in parks because they are homeless.
Other cities are using similar tactics to battle the encroachment of homelessness on their streets and public spaces. If a congregation in Philadelphia wants to publicly feed people living on the streets of their city, they would be breaking the law. In Denver, eating or sleeping on another person’s property is also illegal.
I don’t think these measures would have received President Johnson’s approval.
I often receive calls from hard-working people who have lost their jobs, are one week away from eviction, and have no choice but to live in their car or carve out a space under a bush.
Where is the crime in sleeping under a park bench until another job is found? Who is the victim here, if not the person who must sleep on the ground?
In many American cities, the perceived victims are homeowners and merchants who have lost patience with the tents near their property. Compassion is fine if it means volunteering to cook a meal in a controlled environment like a homeless shelter. But when those same hungry people camp out near your business, compassion turns to anger.
The downturn in our economy several years ago caused many Americans to lose their jobs and their homes. Many were able to stay off the streets only because of supportive family members or the help of federal programs.
You would think the large number of citizens on the brink of extreme poverty would create compassion for people living on the streets. But, instead, city leaders are feeling more pressure to enact anti-camping and anti-feeding ordinances to force homelessness out of their communities.
People are tired of compassion. Irritation has trumped tolerance for those who are homeless.
Enforcing anti-homeless ordinances is more politically expedient than actually addressing the root causes and long-term solutions to homelessness.
But, instead of helping people experiencing homelessness move off the streets for good, these ordinances just force them into different neighborhoods. We are not ending homelessness, we are rearranging it.
The battle to end homelessness can only be won when more permanent affordable housing linked with intensive services is created to house those living on our streets. Then people experiencing homelessness, service providers, politicians, and community members can all say, “Mission Accomplished.”
Photo by Jeremy Sidell.