The struggles faced by the homeless don't get much attention in D.C. on a daily basis, but they remain persistent and grossly mishandled by those we've entrusted with power. At advocacy group Street Sense's "Over-Criminalization of Homelessness" event Thursday night at The Church of the Epiphany, I heard stories of police abuse, encampment eviction, and other examples of urban policy that make things harder on the city's most vulnerable.
"Criminalization efforts in D.C. are less overt [than in other cities] but becoming more insidious," began Ann Marie Staudenmaier, an attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. Regulations here prohibit panhandling at public transit stations, she explained, while "temporary abode laws" give public officials a high degree of discretion to evict the homeless from public encampments.
Although panhandling is clearly a First Amendment issue, for libertarians with a high degree of respect for property rights, the campsite evictions may, to some degree, seem philosophically justifiable. But D.C. officials have drawn scrutiny as of late for going against their own protocol and clearing out encampments during hypothermia season, which runs from November to March. City protocol says to wait until winter is over so as to mitigate homeless deaths during these months. Nonetheless, earlier this winter, the city went ahead with destroying a Rock Creek Park encampment.
D.C. government protocol also states that if a public encampment is to be cleared, officials must give 15 days of notice and must not confiscate items of value. Such items include IDs, medicine, and tents. But mystifyingly, city officials seized and destroyed all that property and more from the Rock Creek site, leaving residents without even their few possessions.
Attendees of the Street Sense event who have themselves experienced homelessness added that shelters are often hotbeds of theft and violence, and that many impose unnecessarily restrictive policies—like requiring people to stay within the shelter from sundown until sunrise, thus limiting their ability to do meaningful things with their time. Some audience members noted this had prevented them from attaining jobs, thus trapping them in dependence.
Add in open container laws, which disproportionately hurt those without a dwelling place to retreat to, and the degree to which even a minor criminal record can restrict an individual's employment and housing eligibility, and you have an unsettling portrait of government overreach that leads to near-constant persecution of the already down-and-out.
Homelessness issues are rarely talked about in libertarian circles, which is not just a shame but a missed opportunity. In fact, the burden of government overreach and the criminalization of relatively harmless acts fall hardest on those in society with the least resources available to them.
But libertarians can take heart: Street Sense and other like-minded groups (including Samaritan Inns and Friendship Place) have become impressive examples of private actors making strides toward ending homelessness and addressing the needs of the indigent. Organizations like these are proof that committed citizens are frequently better able to solve intransigent social problems, even as government itself too often makes life harder for the least among us.