Policing the Homeless: Broken Windows ‘On Steroids”

by Lynn Lewis

March 29, 2016, The Crime Report

Cities, towns and rural areas all over the United States are experiencing a housing crisis not seen since the Great Depression. Homelessness is the tip of the iceberg of that crisis; but rather than address its causes, local authorities are treating it as a law enforcement problem.

That has not only led to real tragedies, but violates the Constitution.

In recent years, we’ve seen police officers used to force homeless folks out of public spaces, buttressed by laws that effectively criminalize life-sustaining behavior such as lying down in a park, or by regulations that restrict the ability of homeless people to share the same rights of access to public space as those with homes.

New York City has set an especially poor example.

The New York Police Department (NYPD) recently created a new category to define instances where two or more individuals, assumed to be homeless, congregate in public. In an internal memo, obtained by the Picture the Homeless organization, where I am director, it termed these as “hot spots” where police are empowered to intervene. And such “hot spots” could include parks or other public spaces.

The memo, dated Jan. 19, 2016, was “issued to all commands” with the subject line: Re: Homeless Encampment Procedure.” [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent="yes" overflow="visible"][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type="1_1" background_position="left top" background_color="" border_size="" border_color="" border_style="solid" spacing="yes" background_image="" background_repeat="no-repeat" padding="" margin_top="0px" margin_bottom="0px" class="" id="" animation_type="" animation_speed="0.3" animation_direction="left" hide_on_mobile="no" center_content="no" min_height="none"][A copy of this memo is available on request from Picture the Homeless.]

Substitute race, age, gender or any other category in this definition, and it would be considered blatant discrimination.

Most city residents know that rents are becoming increasingly exorbitant, stretching the budgets of low-income, working and middle class individuals. For those earning a minimum wage and who rely on fixed incomes of social security or disability benefits, it is becoming more difficult each day to afford rent.

Too many are one missed check, medical condition or emergency away from losing their home.

In New York City, San Francisco, Denver, Dallas, Los Angeles, and many smaller cities, the impact of failed housing policies that do not provide affordable living options for residents go back decades. But instead of correcting these policies, local authorities have empowered police departments to pursue strategies of homeless removals, sometimes in conjunction with Business Improvement Districts and other civic groups.

Mandates that force the homeless go somewhere else, with police ordering them to move at any hour of the day or night, have become all too common. The impact of such police actions can be catastrophic. Clearing the homeless in sudden police sweeps often means that they lose their personal effects, ranging from medications and IDs, to clothing and family photos.

The real goal is humiliation and harassment: It sends a message to disappear out of public sight into the shadows.

This is “broken-windows” policing on steroids.  It’s not just mean or bad policing; it is also unconstitutional.

Being homeless is not a crime. But the strategies that criminalize the homeless are authorized by local laws and policies that violate anti-discrimination laws and rights to due process—and which people with little-to-no legal resources are ill-equipped to challenge in court.

For example,  NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, who is considered one of the country’s foremost proponents of the broken-windows policing strategy, recently announced that homeless New Yorkers found sleeping will be removed from  subway trains and platforms—regardless of whether they paid their fare.

Editors’ Note: In other reports, Bratton insisted the NYPD would wake individuals up in order to protect them, claiming that 50 percent of reported crimes on the subway “involve sleeping passengers.”   

This announcement flagrantly undermines New York City’s own laws.

In 2013, it became the first jurisdiction to prohibit police from profiling individuals based on housing status. Local Law 71, passed as part of the Community Safety Act, bars police from using factors such as actual or perceived housing status as the determinative factor in initiating law enforcement action.

That law, while evidently not stopping police abuse, was a start in the right direction.  But there’s a lot more to be done.  Under Local Law 71 for example, a homeless person who experienced police eviction must prove he or she has been the victim of profiling—which requires the kind of legal assistance unavailable to most homeless.

During the administration of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has made affordable housing a key part of his platform, we’ve also seen the NYPD collaborating with other city employees to confiscate and throw away the belongings of homeless people—a clear violation of due process and property rights.

An incident in East Harlem in October was captured on a surveillance camera. In that incident, no one was arrested, but homeless people were physically abused and had their property thrown away as part of a broader police initiative meant to harass, intimidate and force people to “leave the area.”

Elsewhere in the country, the increase in the use of “move on” orders by local police in order to disperse  and dismantle  what have loosely been called “encampments” has drawn some opposition from the Department of Justice in a legal filing, and policy recommendations opposing such approaches to “encampments” have been issued  by the White House Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Yet Bratton bulldozes on. He recently indicated in a speech at the Manhattan Institute that “courts have barred officers from shooing people sitting on the sidewalk or lying on a subway grate — though the rules are so complex that if someone is lying in a box instead of a piece of cardboard, forcing them to move along is OK.”

Bratton has a long history of targeting and stigmatizing the homeless.  In his first term as police commissioner under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Bratton declared soon after his appointment in 1994 that ”we are going to flush them [homeless people] off the street in the same successful manner in which we flushed them out of the subway system.”

But the struggle to oppose such stigmatizing is also gaining traction. Homeless folks are not only asserting their rights, but promoting real solutions to homelessness in many of their communities.

Picture the Homeless in New York, the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) in several western states, the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, and Denver Homeless Out Loud are just a few examples.  In both Denver and San Francisco, sweeps of homeless folks and their belongings have been met with resistance.

Grassroots organizing, led by the homeless, is the only way to end these abusive practices and educate the broader public that homelessness is directly connected to bad housing and community development policies and practices.

Discriminatory broken-windows policing exacerbates homelessness. It destroys lives. And it undermines our values as a society.

We are better than this. We need to advance real housing solutions, not the status-quo, politically expedient approach that designates law enforcement as the first responder to homelessness.

Lynn Lewis is the director of Picture the Homeless In New York City.

 

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October 24, 2019

Reflections from Philanthropy Forward's First Cohort

Philanthropy Forward: Leadership for Change is a CEO fellowship program created by Neighborhood Funders Group and the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions. The program's first cohort started in October 2018 in furtherance of building and advancing a shared vision for the future of philanthropy.

Hear perspectives from members of the first cohort as they reflect in this video on their work together as strategic thought partners, addressing philanthropy's most challenging issues and aligning to build a financial engine for social change.

2018 - 2019 Philanthropy Forward Cohort

A grid with individual photos of each of the 20 members of Philanthropy Forward's 2018-2918 cohort..

Click here for participant bios

  • Dimple Abichandani, General Service Foundation
  • Sharon Alpert, Nathan Cummings Foundation
  • Elizabeth Barajas-Roman, Solidago Foundation
  • Ned Calonge, The Colorado Trust
  • Irene Cooper-Basch, Victoria Foundation
  • Farhad A. Ebrahimi, The Chorus Foundation
  • Nicky Goren, Meyer Foundation
  • Justin Maxson, Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation
  • Joan Minieri, Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock
  • Maria Mottola, New York Foundation
  • Mike Pratt, Scherman Foundation
  • Jocelyn Sargent, Hyams Foundation
  • Pamela Shifman, NoVo Foundation
  • Starsky D. Wilson, Deaconess Foundation
  • Steve Patrick, Aspen Institute Forum for Community solutions
  • Dennis Quirin, Raikes Foundation
September 10, 2019

For Love of Humankind: A Call to Action for Southern Philanthropy

Justin Maxson, Executive Director of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, calls on fellow funding organizations based in the South to respond to the federal government's anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies with three concrete actions. This post was originally published here on the foundation's website.

Justin was part of the first Philanthropy Forward: Leadership for Change Fellowship cohort, a joint initiative of Neighborhood Funders Group and The Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions. The Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, which strives to help people and places move out of poverty and achieve greater social and economic justice, is a member of NFG.


 

Justin MaxsonWe are issuing a clarion call to Southern philanthropic organizations to respond to the manic drumbeat of anti-immigrant rhetoric and cruelty coming from the White House. This month began with a mass shooting targeting the Latinx community. Days later, massive raids tore apart hundreds of families and destabilized Mississippi communities but levied no consequences for the corporate leadership that lures vulnerable people to work in grueling, dangerous conditions. It is astounding that since those events, with the resulting fear and trauma still reverberating through immigrant communities across America, the administration has: 

  • repeated its intention to end birthright citizenship, a 14th Amendment guarantee that babies born on American soil are citizens. 
  • attempted to terminate the Flores Agreement, which sets standards for the care of children in custody. This would allow the administration to detain migrant families indefinitely in facilities where children are dying of influenza, yet flu shots are not administrated, where children are sexually assaulted, where soap, toothbrushes, human contact and play are not standard, and where breastfeeding babies are taken from their mothers. Child separation is known to cause permanent psychological trauma and brain damage.
  • announced changes to the so-called “public charge rule” to make it harder for legal immigrants to secure citizenship if they use public assistance. As our partners at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities argue, this change would cause many to “forgo assistance altogether, resulting in more economic insecurity and hardship, with long-term negative consequences, particularly for children.” Further, the decision “rests on the erroneous assumption that immigrants currently of modest means are harmful to our nation and our economy, devaluing their work and contributions and discounting the upward mobility immigrant families demonstrate.”

There was also a recent effort to effectively end asylum altogether at the southern border. And despite the Supreme Court ruling blocking the citizenship question from the 2020 census, advocates believe the debate will depress response rates. As we wrote earlier this month, this administration’s animus against immigrants and increasingly aggressive ICE actions are compounding the devastating effects on communities across the country. 

Why Southern philanthropy? 

An analysis of recent grantmaking by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy found our region has deportation rates five times higher than the rest of the country, yet Southern pro-immigrant organizations receive paltry philanthropic funding. Barely one percent of all money granted by the 1,000 largest foundations benefits immigrants and refugees, and even that money doesn’t go to state and local groups that are accountable to grassroots and immigrant communities. Organizations in Southern states receive less than half of the state and local funding of California, New York and Illinois. 

Where to begin? 

Speak up. As Desmund Tutu taught us, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Use your institutional voice to influence decisionmakers.

Examine your foundation’s policies. Find out if your endowment is invested in private detention centers. Consider how supporting organizing, power building and policy advocacy could advance your mission. NCRP has more recommendations in its report.

Give generously. Our partners at Hispanics in Philanthropy have curated a list of organizations helping the families affected by the raids across Mississippi. Our partners at Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees have compiled a list of ways to help, from rapid response grants to long-term strategies. 

Many of the Babcock Foundation’s grantee partners are doing more and more immediate protection work, stretching themselves thin and often putting themselves at risk. They are keeping families intact in the short term while building power for the long term, so history will stop repeating: 

If you know of more resources, please share them. If you’d like to learn more about the organizations on the ground across the South – or think about ways we can do more together – contact us. We are always looking to learn and act in alignment with our fellow funders toward a shared vision of a strong, safe, welcoming and equitable region. 

Activist Jane Addams said, “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us.” Regardless of a foundation’s mission, abject cruelty surely undermines it. It also undermines the most basic tenet of philanthropy, which literally means “love for humankind.” We see no love in this administration. It’s up to all of us to spread it.