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2008-09-28 03:30:30 (UTC)

Homeless hurt on several fronts

A sour economy makes it harder for poor Americans to find
jobs, yet rents and home prices that usually sag in a
recession are rising in many places, throwing more people
onto the streets.

On top of that double whammy comes a crackdown on street
people. Many cities are passing tough laws against
panhandling, loitering and sleeping in public places.

Homeless advocates say assistance has not increased to meet
the crisis.

Even in this city known for generosity to the downtrodden,
tough love is the new mantra. Voters last month approved
slashing cash grants to the homeless from $395 a month to
$59 while beefing up mental health, substance abuse and
housing programs.

Dubbed "Care Not Cash," the measure is supposed to treat the
causes of homelessness not its street symptoms. Supporters
say it will erase San Francisco's status as the free lunch
capital by eliminating what lures homeless people from
across the country.

"No one can find even the cheapest rundown motel in San
Francisco for $395," says Gavin Newsom, an elected
supervisor who sponsored the measure. "No city in America
spends more per capita on the homeless, but it's still not
enough to provide a roof over your head."

Attitudes toward the nation's estimated 3 million homeless
have hardened, advocates say. Downtown merchants think
street people hurt business. Tourists recoil at panhandling.
The homeless are blamed for petty crime and create
resentment by sleeping in public parks and under freeway
overpasses and bridges. In a sample of 49 cities, the
National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found a 22%
increase in the past three years in prohibitions on
loitering and a 14% increase in laws against sleeping in public.

Sidewalk bans proliferating

In Orlando, a tourist destination like San Francisco,
homeless people as of September risk $500 fines and 60 days
in jail for sitting or lying on downtown sidewalks. The city
also requires panhandlers to get licenses and limits begging
to special zones. Berkeley, Calif., and Seattle are among a
number of cities with new sidewalk bans this year similar to

Santa Monica, Calif., this fall barred the homeless from
camping in downtown doorways and limited the free meals they
get from charity groups. Palmdale, Calif., last month
approved misdemeanor citations for homeless people who camp
illegally. New Orleans removed all the benches from historic
Jackson Square to keep the homeless from sleeping there.

New York homeless advocates have sued police over a sharp
spike in arrests of homeless people for infractions that
they say would not normally justify charges. In Los Angeles
last month, police swept through downtown's skid row and
arrested 130 people just days after business groups
complained about the homeless. Police said they were
searching for parole violators.

Corpus Christi, Texas, police gave homeless residents of a
tent city until the end of January to clear out or be
removed. Dallas this year began enforcing health code rules
on charities' street feeding of the homeless. Last spring,
Las Vegas police forced 175 homeless people out of makeshift
homes as part of its mayor's pledge to clean up a
garbage-strewn downtown area.

Downtown Baltimore businesses persuaded the city last summer
to crack down on minor crimes that homeless advocates say
were aimed at street people. Santa Cruz, Calif.; Lakeland,
Fla., and Asheville, N.C., are among a growing list of
cities to severely restrict panhandling.

El Cajon, Calif., is fighting in court to break up a
homeless camp outside an Episcopal church. The church claims
a First Amendment right to shelter the indigent. Sacramento
twice tried a man for illegal camping — at a cost to
taxpayers of up to $10,000 a day — before winning a
conviction. The man was sentenced to 30 days on a work detail.

"There's definitely a growing trend toward harsher treatment
of the homeless," says Donald Whitehead, executive director
of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington.
"But what's significant is we found that none of the cities
doing crackdowns had enough shelter space."

Last week, the U.S. Conference of Mayors' annual 25-city
homeless survey found requests for emergency shelter up an
average 19% in 18 cities reporting increases, the steepest
rise in a decade. Most of the cities reported that the
length of time people were homeless had increased.

As homeless numbers swell so do fears that more will become
crime victims. Through October, 16 homeless people had died
in violent crimes this year compared with 18 in all of last
year, the national coalition says.

"The term 'compassion fatigue' is used," Whitehead says.
"People have not seen a significant reduction in the number
of homeless people. They see dollars being spent for
emergency needs but not for systemic solutions."

Housing is the gravest need, but the federal government's
housing assistance budget has declined 51% since 1976 while
tax breaks for homeowners have risen 312%, the National Low
Income Housing Coalition says. Housing advocates say there's
a shortage of at least 5 million affordable rental units

Suit filed to stop Care Not Cash

In San Francisco, where the homeless issue has festered for
years and cost two mayors their jobs, no one's betting the
latest fix will end the political turmoil. Homeless
advocates have sued to stop Care Not Cash from taking effect
in July.

They doubt that the city will live up to the spirit of the
measure and provide sufficient housing. The city, like many
others operating in the red, faces a $200 million budget

"The only thing the city could possibly do with the money
recouped by deducting it from the poor is massive shelter
programs," says Paul Boden, director of the Coalition on
Homelessness in San Francisco. "But we think 20 years of
opening up more and more shelters is a failed approach."

Supervisor Newsom says Care Not Cash is worded so that funds
can't legally be cut. He says the city is ready to take over
leases of 1,000 single room occupancy units and make them
available to the homeless.

San Francisco's homeless population is estimated at 10,000
to 12,000, but only 2,800 single adults are eligible for
monthly cash. Cutting those benefits will free about $12
million a year to implement Care Not Cash.

Nearly everyone expects homeless numbers to fall. When
nearby Alameda County cut benefits from $336 to $18 a few
years ago, its homeless population shrank from 2,000 to
fewer than 200. Many simply moved across the bay to San
Francisco, officials say.

Gavin believes the city, by doling out cash, is indirectly
contributing to drug addiction, overdose deaths and crimes
against the homeless. "Any police officer will tell you
there's an increase in crime ... when people are getting
their checks," he says.

Voters here seem weary of years of haggling over the
homeless. A competing ballot measure last month to water
down Care Not Cash failed. The business and tourist sectors
have complained for years about aggressive panhandling,
public urination and squalid conditions in homeless encampments.

San Francisco police routinely break up them up, and
homeless advocates say arrests for blocking sidewalks and
sleeping in parks are up. The national coalition rated San
Francisco, along with Atlanta and New York, as the USA's
meanest cities if you're homeless.

Leslie Edquist, a laborer from Helena, Mont., who has lived
on San Francisco's streets for three years, says police
rousted him from his tent recently, packed him off to jail
and threw away his belongings. Since his release he has
scavenged a sleeping bag and a few other belongings from
trash cans in affluent neighborhoods. He lives in a crude
shelter with a tarp over it in a vacant lot near train
tracks on the city's south side. He stays mobile with two
grocery carts and a bicycle.

Edquist won't apply for the city's cash benefits because he
says he's capable of working. He survives on a few dollars
from repairing old bikes. He says he's been clean and sober
for 11 years.

"This used to be the city of love," Edquist, 39, says. "Now
it's so strict, it's got a big noose around it and the rope
is really tight, and they're jerking the heck out of the
rope right now."

source: By John Ritter, USA TODAY