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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December 10, 2018

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December 4, 2018

From Sector Newcomer to Board Member

Marjona Jones joined the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock four years ago after working in the field as an organizer for 14 years. She came to Neighborhood Funders Group (NFG) through an existing relationship between Veatch and NFG: Molly Schultz Hafid, former assistant director at Veatch, also served as an NFG board member and co-chair for the Funders for a Just Economy (FJE) working group. “She was outgoing co-chair when I was hired at Veatch — the relationships she had built through that working group were important to me as well because I also worked around economic equity,” says Marjona. Initially, NFG was a space of learning for Marjona as a newcomer to the sector:

I joined [FJE’s] program committee, and then was invited to join the coordinating committee. It was an education! It was really about supporting the working group in order to create opportunities for funders to come together, hear about grantees, and think about how to create more space within philanthropy for this. That takes building relationships within philanthropy. That takes creating more breadth for funders to leverage what we have, and more, for our grantees. We’ve got to do that by educating one another within philanthropy.

NFG was also a space of affirmation and sustenance for Marjona, whose organizing background and perspective from the field anchors her work as a grantmaker and informs her relationships with grantees. At NFG, she found a commitment to racial and economic justice that matched her own. She has gone on to become centrally involved in NFG, joining Funders for Justice (FFJ), participating in Project Phoenix, and now serving on NFG’s board. 

An Intersectional Framework

NFG centers people in its work, helping funders understand the meaning of an intersectional analysis and apply it to their grantmaking. Marjona lifts up FJE’s Working at the Intersections program as an example:

Something I really want to share is a report that Working at the Intersections put out [titled Journey Towards Intersectional Grant-making] about best practices for how we want and need to support work at the intersections of identity. “Intersectional” is often just a buzzword, and so we thought it would be good to offer understanding around how that perspective plays out, and how it plays out within philanthropy too.

To me, it was a beautiful convening that we did [with Working at the Intersections]. It really opened up folks to talk about what it is we deal with as women of color within philanthropy. We need to be mindful about how that impacts the field of philanthropy, and how we move our work. There are layers that we have to be very intentional about if we really care about justice liberation and how all those things intersect. If we aren’t mindful of this, we can be really shortsighted then in funding program work because we are so siloed in philanthropy — ‘This week she will show up as a worker, next week she will show up as a woman, the following week as a person of color…’

Because of [Veatch’s’ general support grants], our funding isn’t requiring people to carve up their identities, which I think is a disservice. Requiring people to show up in this way sometimes impacts and distracts from the work.

In speaking about how NFG promotes an intersectional approach in the philanthropic sector, Marjona also highlights her participation in NFG’s Project Phoenix: Connecting Democracy, Economy, and Sustainability, a year-long cohort collective learning program for funders. For Project Phoenix, the term “new economy” means intersectional activities with an intention to support a democracy that works for all, an economy that provides good jobs and promotes local economic prosperity, the growth of ecologically sustainable and non-extractive sectors, and a re-prioritization of the role of capital in society to better serve these goals. Marjona shares how participating in Project Phoenix expanded her understanding about environmental grantmaking:

Project Phoenix really helped me understand my work a great deal, because it was focused on democracy and the environment. It was hard for me as a general support funder to see our role in moving that work because we have an environmental portfolio, but we didn’t have a way of supporting those intersections [of racial and economic justice].

Project Phoenix was helpful for me to understand all the different ways the work that we fund had a place [in the environmental landscape]. It was important for me to understand where we fit in the larger field of philanthropy. And it was also really helpful to understand our current socio-economic moment — capitalism, it extracts not just resources from the ground but it extracts resources from working-class, poor communities; it extracts people, it extracts lives, it extracts health. Prisoners are used as free labor to make goods and then those goods are sold back to us. It extracts our wealth — from the way the banking system works to the way it suppresses wages.  

So it helped me understand when you are talking about climate change and environmental protections, you need to be talking about worker protections, and housing, and health, and education. All of these things are connected. You can’t talk about these things in a vacuum. Those organizations that are focused on the environment without thinking about people need to be focused on people as well.

Amplifying Resources and Awareness in Critical Times 

Marjona shares an example of how NFG plays a powerful and responsive role in amplifying resources for racial justice through the network of funders with whom the organization has built a shared values framework and provided concrete, immediate avenues for funders to take action. With the organizers in 2014 who were taking a stand on the ground to protest the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, Marjona understood the importance of supporting them with navigating the same criminal justice system that was being used to target and intimidate them. She worked closely with NFG’s Funders for Justice program staff to convene a conference call to mobilize resources and support the organizers’ legal costs: 

There were protests happening in St. Louis, and they needed emergency funds for bail support and organizers to work on legal aspects such as defending people, going with them to court, and helping them through the process. I felt that was critical because it is something that gets left out of grant proposals. People are going to put their freedom on the line — what happens to them once they are arrested, charged, and have to go to court? This is a concern especially in St. Louis, where folks are often new or first time offenders.

I remember emailing Lorraine [Ramirez, Senior Program Manager] at Funders for Justice, asking, ‘Can you send this out to the listserv?’ And she said, ‘Why don’t we do a call?’ I helped get folks on the phone, and they ended up getting support. It wasn’t a large call; it was just a handful of funders. But, I feel like if there had not been FFJ, I would have had to do that legwork myself, and to be honest, I don’t know if I would have been able to call funders individually to get that support while I had the work of my docket. I could not have brought people to the table so quickly on the strength of my own relationships.  

Because NFG has been organizing within philanthropy over the years with convenings and webinars, they have built up integrity in the field. People know to go to NFG if they have questions about black organizing and police brutality. So when NFG puts a call out asking if we can move resources for something, people will join and pony up.

Supporting Members to Engage Actively 

The ways that NFG supports its members to go deeper and develop a broader understanding of their role and potential for impact is important to Marjona in her work:

I think folks [at NFG] understand that we need to organize. They understand that philanthropy has to be as organized as we expect our grantees to be. NFG’s convenings and information sharing help create conditions so that can happen. A lot of [the staff at NFG] are former organizers... I said it before, and I will say it again, I don’t know if I would still be in philanthropy if it had not been for NFG.

Veatch has always had a commitment to racial justice, but we have increased our giving to over a million dollars to racial justice organizing — and part of that was from our work with NFG. We said to ourselves, ‘Yes, we are doing this, but we can do more. So let’s figure out how to be creative, and how to support our colleagues in being creative as well.’

After what happened with the Ferguson uprising, there was so much handwringing on the left. Helping to break through that to take action was important — because this isn’t just about Missouri, and this goes beyond Michael Brown. This is about the nation. It helped people do something, get in the game, and be public about how they were going to support that work. Was it perfect? Hell no! Especially when you have got money and power in the mix. But it did move funders in the right direction, and that’s what we need. Because it’s really easy to sit in our offices and say, ‘I [only] have this much money, and I have to get this docket out the door.’ But we have a greater responsibility. NFG helps you understand that greater responsibility, as well as how you can take that responsibility, hone it, and bring it into the program work