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Cities are trying to restrict feeding the homeless. But other policies actually work

Arnold Abbot, a 90-year-old from Fort Lauderdale, has been cited several times for feeding that city's homeless.
Arnold Abbot, a 90-year-old from Fort Lauderdale, has been cited several times for feeding that city's homeless.
Getty Images

On Tuesday, a judge ordered Fort Lauderdale to stop restricting how people feed the homeless.

The decision comes weeks after the city famously cited a 90-year-old man for handing out food to homeless people. Police stopped Arnold Abbott, a World War II veteran who founded local nonprofit Love Thy Neighbor, on November 2, when he was out serving food to the homeless with other volunteers. He has been cited again since then as well, along with others.

The whole story is a sort of microcosm of homeless policy in the US: we have some good ideas about what works in homelessness policy, but we haven't consistently put them into practice — or we've mixed them in with policies that are counterproductive.

Anti-handout ordinances

Fort Lauderdale's now-infamous law makes it much more difficult to feed the homeless. If a group wants to put up an outdoor feeding site, it must have toilets, get written consent from property owners, and be at least 500 feet from any other sites and from residences, as the New York Times reported. The city, however, made it easier to hold feeding events indoors, like at churches — the goal being to move feeding sites indoors.

Since January 2013, 21 cities have passed similar types of legislation trying to restrict where the homeless can be fed, according to an October report from the National Coalition for the Homeless. By one count, 57 cities nationwide have either banned or restricted feeding people outside.

Homelessness laws

Source: National Coalition for the Homeless

One thing that spurred the Fort Lauderdale law was complaints from the city's Women's Club. The congregations of homeless in the park in front of that club, the New York Times reports, were dirtying the park and making it difficult to hold events like yoga classes and weddings at the club.

The mayor also blamed feedings for enabling homelessness. "I'm not satisfied with having a cycle of homeless in the city of Fort Lauderdale," Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler said, as reported by CNN. "Providing them with a meal and keeping them in that cycle on the street is not productive."

This ordinance was just the latest in a string of new anti-homelessness laws the city has passed recently. According to the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, the city has also passed laws this year that "curtail panhandling, prohibit sleeping on public property downtown and ban people from storing personal belongings on public property." In addition, it has set aside $25,000 for bus tickets, to allow the city's homeless residents to leave Fort Lauderdale if they wish and go to … wherever.

Homeless family

A homeless family living in Philadelphia's shelters poses in November 2014 (Getty Images).

"Criminalizing homelessness"

So how dependent are America's homeless on getting food outdoors? Michael Ford, a 58-year-old homeless resident of Washington, DC, says some service providers and kitchens just aren't open enough to keep people eating indoors every day, for all meals.

He's a client of Miriam's Kitchen, which feeds and provides services to the homeless in DC. But it's only open Monday through Friday. On the weekends, he says, he and other homeless people often need meals handed out in parks by other organizations.

That rings true to Michael Stoops, director of community organizing at the National Coalition for the Homeless.

"Very few cities have convenient indoor locations providing three meals a day, seven days a week," he says.

With that in mind, Ford says he feels both indignant and understanding about ordinances like those passed in Fort Lauderdale.

"I heard of that, and I thought, 'How horrid that people would prevent people from giving something away to eat,'" he says. "But there's a place called Franklin Park here in DC where people just trash that park with food donations from being fed. That park from a social sense is pretty disgusting."

Speaking more broadly about these laws in Fort Lauderdale and other cities, homeless advocates say these types of ordinances "criminalize homelessness."

"There's no city that's passed these kinds of mean-spirited laws that then saw their homelessness problem go away," says Jerry Jones, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "None of those things solve a person's homeless situation. They're intended to make it unpleasant or uncomfortable to make a person stay in a jurisdiction."

You might say it's logical to worry that giving aid to a homeless person encourages more begging — and that therefore making fewer opportunities for free food or money means you're "enabling" homelessness less.

"The more you give to beggars, the harder beggars will try. This leads to what economists call 'rent exhaustion'" — a situation in which lots of people seeking out a big potential reward crowd each other out — "which again limits the net gain to beggars," the economist Tyler Cowen has argued.

It's true that giving someone a sandwich isn't in and of itself going to help them out of homelessness. But it works the other way, too: the problems that lead to a person's homelessness are often so deep or wide-ranging that simply taking away whatever "incentive" to homelessness there is in a sandwich or $5 won't lead them to get a job and an apartment.

According to 2003 figures from the National Coalition for the Homeless, up to one-quarter of single homeless adults in the US suffer from a "serious and persistent" mental illness. And for the homeless who get a bus ticket from City Hall, many don't know where to go, says Jeremy Rosen, director of Advocacy at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

"There are a small percent of cases where somebody has truly become separated from caring friends and family," he says. "In nearly all cases the reason somebody has become homeless and traveled away from those friends and relatives is because, for some reason or another, the bonds of family or friendship have been broken."

Volunteers from the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless provide services to a homeless man. (Getty Images)

What works: just giving housing to people who need it

It's easy to pile on Fort Lauderdale as an example of how not to help homeless Americans. But it is in another way a leader in combating homelessness — as one of 186 communities nationwide involved in the 100,000 Homes movement. That movement is using a strategy called Housing First in providing shelter to 100,000 chronically homeless Americans — that is, people with long or repeated bouts of homelessness. That would be a huge boost — according to HUD, around 580,000 Americans were homeless on a specific night as of January 2014. As part of that program, the city opened its first apartments to chronically homeless residents in March.

The idea of Housing First is just what it sounds like — get housing to the chronically homeless first, without preconditions like counseling for substance abuse or mental illness, and without transitional housing in between.

Other cities have used government funds, and have also partnered with local developers, to get housing first programs off the ground. Portland, for example, just announced it would build a new apartment facility for homeless people. Madison, Wisconsin, has created a village of tiny houses for its homeless population. And studies from North CarolinaFlorida, and Los Angeles are just a few that have shown it to reduce costs, as it keeps homeless people in safe homes and out of ERs, shelters, and jails.

Of course, Housing First isn't intended as a solution for every homeless person in America. There are lots of types of homelessness, from the chronic kind that lasts for years and often comes alongside mental illness, to short-term, to living on a friend's couch short-term. And Housing First is meant to address the roughly 100,000 chronically homeless Americans.

"This intervention is meant for a small subset of the population that has been homeless for years and is at the greatest risk of dying on the street — the same people who often cycle in and out of the emergency room, inpatient hospital, and shelter," writes Kurt Runge, director of advocacy at Miriam's Kitchen, in an email.

As for the rest of our homelessness problem, many of the solutions will be complicated, but at the very least will also be common-sense, say advocates. Tackling America's poverty problems is one of the top priorities, says Stoops, and also tackling the problem of expensive housing. Once you put more low-cost housing into a city, he says, you help people at the low end of the income ladder — those who might have the least-secure housing — stay off the streets.

But there are also ways in which feeding the homeless can, eventually, get them off the streets. Keep feeding someone — seeing them every day or every week — and you develop a relationship, and the trust needed to give them other kinds of help. One of the guiding philosophies behind many meal providers like Miriam's Kitchen is to keep people coming back, in the hope that someday you can give them more services than just a meal. Feeding someone isn't a bad thing, but to really help, you need to do more.

"I always tell young people when they're passing out sandwiches, 'If that's all that you're doing, when you're my age 40 years from now, you will be volunteering at your local soup kitchens," says Stoops.

Correction. This article originally said the homeless count was for any given night in January. It's based on one-night counts.

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