No loitering

Greensburg, PA-Irwin, PA, 8.1 miles

Loitering is not my idea of a good time. And I doubt most people enjoy loitering. But, when you are homeless, it is a way of life.

Since I’ve begun this journey I’ve spent hours loitering. I’ve loitered at Panera, at Starbucks and McDonald’s. I’ve spent time lingering far too long in parks, libraries and along the side of the road. There is nothing quite so conspicuous as loitering with a massive backpack.

So today, even as my ankle protested, I put one foot in front of the other and began walking. Not because I wanted to, not because my ankle was OK, but because the shame of being seen loitering yet again was too much for me.

No matter what people will say, myself included, you stare at loiterers. And, though you may feel bad for them, you want them to move along. Countless cities and towns across the country have enacted laws that make it illegal to loiter forcing homeless people to become invisible.

According to a July 2009 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, Homes not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities, numerous cities have enacted laws that have prohibited activities ranging from loitering to sitting in certain areas to panhandling in an attempt to target the homeless.

“Even though most cities do not provide enough affordable housing, shelter space, and food to meet the need, many cities use the criminal justice system to punish people living on the street for doing things that they need to do to survive.” the report states. Further, a study by UCLA released in September 2007 found that Los Angeles was spending $6 million a year to pay for fifty extra police officers to crack down on crime in the Skid Row area at a time when the city budgeted only $5.7 million for homeless services.

Of the 235 cities surveyed for the report: 47% prohibit loitering in particular public areas and 19% prohibit loitering city-wide. Fortunately the Supreme Court has overturned several loitering laws for being unconstitutionally vague and violating the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.

Though I did not fear being arrested for loitering at the shopping center, I certainly felt ashamed. A homeless man in Greensburg, Pa., I had shared my dinner with a few days ago said he had gotten over that long ago. Perhaps out of necessity you let go of the embarrassment of being homeless. It had not yet left me–I felt deeply conscious of what other people thought.

Whether or not he felt self-conscious in his loitering, and regardless of whether the Supreme Court has found the laws unconstitutional, that has not stopped police from harassing those forced to live on the street. And unfortunately I learned this first-hand in Greensburg when I was arrested for disorderly conduct as I sat shoeless in the Amtrak station.

The report cites numerous examples of homeless individuals being arrested for allegedly loitering. In the summer of 2005, at a free public event at Riverfront Park in Little Rock, Ark., various businesses were giving away free samples of their merchandise to the public. Vendors encouraged homeless people to take free samples but officers of the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Department told the homeless individuals, including a handicapped man at a picnic table, that they had to leave the event immediately or be subject to arrest for loitering in a park.

“Homeless people are no longer allowed to be visible.” –A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities

And Amtrak, whose Greenburg, Pa. station was the site of my arrest for disorderly conduct for refusing to provide police with my identification, has been found guilty of ejecting the homeless from Penn Station. The lawsuit, Streetwatch v. National R.R. Passenger Corp., 875 F. Supp. 1055 (S.D.N.Y. 1995) challenges the Amtrak police’s policy of arresting or ejecting persons who appeared to be homeless or appeared to be loitering in the public areas of Penn Station in the absence of evidence that such persons had committed or were committing crimes. The District Court issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting Amtrak police from continuing to engage in the practice, finding that in light of Amtrak’s invitation to the public, the practice implicated the Due Process Clause.

Arrests, even for minor crimes, can have serious consequences. Homeless individuals are rarely able to pay their fines, and, as a result, many are jailed and end up with a criminal record. Once a person has a criminal record, it is more difficult to get access to housing assistance and other services.

There is some good news. On June 8, 2008, the Berkeley City Council passed an ordinance repealing a 1946 loitering ordinance. And lawsuit after lawsuit has found loitering laws unconstitutional.

As a society we need to get over our shame, embarrassment and guilt regarding homelessness and take active steps to create more affordable housing. Loitering is a choice but a situation born of necessity. And a jail cell may protect against the elements, but it is not a home.

– by Jennifer E. Cooper