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How the D.C. Government Is Targeting Its Homeless Population

A reminder that unlawful property seizure and intrusive laws hurt vulnerable members of society the most

Street Sense EventLiz WolfeThe 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.

EventLiz WolfeAttendees 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.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Homelessness issues are rarely talked about in libertarian circles, which is not just a shame but a missed opportunity.

    Well then they should try to marry a same-sex, undocumented immigrant then.

  • Jerryskids||

    If you've got a tent, you're not really homeless, you're just camping. If you can't afford a nice tent, can't you just use a cardboard box? What's the deal with the government mandating your dwelling must have electricity and running water, be a minimum square footage, meet certain construction standards and so on? If all I can afford is a cardboard box, fuck off, it's my house.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Then you, sir, owe property taxes.

  • Jerryskids||

    I'll give you eight aluminum cans, a broken clock/radio, a hubcap off a '98 Buick, and a half-eaten apple. We square?

  • Florida Man||

    You paid more than I would expect. Pro Tip: claim the rats as livestock and green belt your box. Your taxes will be nil.

  • Citizen X||

    Yeah, but then, if you're in anything that can even be remotely considered a "watershed," you gotta deal with the EPA.

  • Brian||

    Two words on rat livestock: farm subsidies.

  • WoodchipperPatriarch||

    I've actually stopped using a tent in favor of a hammock and rain fly. It's much more comfortable and portable. I'd recommend it to any indigent-Americans who happen to read Reason.

  • khm001||

    "What's the deal with the government mandating your dwelling must have electricity and running water, be a minimum square footage, meet certain construction standards and so on?"

    It's to prevent people like you from living in those places. If you could afford electricity, running water, the minimum square footage, and construction standards, and want to live in that type of neighborhood, you would simply buy a house in that neighborhood that met your requirements. If you can't afford those things, having them mandated simply means you can't buy a house. It doesn't mean that magically you are able to afford those types of homes.

    Those state enforced standards are designed to keep undesirables out. The pinky people don't want to just keep you out of not just neighborhoods with strong HOAs, which are voluntarily entered into contracts by all parties, but for the pinky people that live in those communities to keep you out of the surrounding neighborhoods too.

  • R C Dean||

    encampment eviction

    Also known as removing trespassers, perhaps? Libertarians are complaining about that, now?

  • Jerryskids||

    Trespassers on public property? Oxymoron?

  • R C Dean||

    Public property is subject to rules and restrictions. It belongs to the state, not to nobody. Violate the owner's rules, and you are a trespasser.

    For example, I can't carry a pocketknife into just about any public office building. If I insist, they won't let me in.

    I can't go into most parks during certain times of the day. I can't build a house in a park and live there. I can't camp in a park. etc.

    So no, not an oxymoron.

  • WoodchipperPatriarch||

    Then it's state property, not public property.

  • R C Dean||

    Yup. Calling it public property is in line with the level of obfuscation you should expect by now from the government.

  • Brian||

    When will government address the tragedy of the commons that is the homeless camp?

    Oh, wait...

  • kinnath||

    Yes, the problem is people that squat on property they don't own or rent.

  • Florida Man||

    Where are they suppose to go? Can't go on private property, can't go on public property, what's left?

  • kinnath||

    right

  • Agammamon||

    Well, actually they *can* go on private property.

    The problem is the state will step in to forcibly disrupt the relationship between a private property owner leasing space on their property to the homeless.

  • Meriwether3||

    Yes. Thank you. And God forbid that you should want to build housing for the homeless on your own property, the zoning board will have some choice words for you.

  • Jerryskids||

    There was a group near me that wanted to get together and build a little communty for some of the homeless, they had some free-for-the-taking vacation cabins available from where Georgia Power was enlarging a lake and a couple acres just outside town somebody was willing to donate. By the time the county got done with them they figured out to meet all the demands they'd be looking at well over half a mil for 6 cabins. And of course, this all had nothing to do with the county wanting to make damn sure the poors didn't have a place to settle down and bring down the surrounding property values. No, it's all a "quality of life" issue for the homeless bums who might have to suffer the indignity of living in sub-standard housing.

  • Akira||

    Don't forget the time that some nuns wanted to build a homeless shelter, but their project was rendered unworkable by building regulations that require an elevator in every multi-story dwelling.

    http://imprimis.hillsdale.edu/.....d-the-law/

    ... And "progressives" will point to current levels of poverty as evidence that private charity cannot be relied on, all the while cheering for more government, which is the very entity that stymies many private, voluntary efforts at alleviating poverty.

  • ||

    *bows head for JsubD*

  • tarran||

    respect

  • Cliché Bandit||

    a moment of silence sans snark.

  • Florida Man||

    What happened to JsubD, if it is not insensitive of me to ask?

  • WoodchipperPatriarch||

    Tragic supermodel-three-way accident.

  • Rich||

    RIP. Quite some time ago.

  • Florida Man||

    Thanks. RIP.

  • ||

    This is the whole story.

  • Florida Man||

    Thank you Nicole. I read all the comments.

  • RAHeinlein||

    Thanks, Nikki.

  • ||

    Homelessness is inextricably connected to mental health issues. It isnt as simple as 'jobs' or 'housing'. The vast majority of homeless people are gravely mentally ill and that means that the homeless problem is a huge can of worms.

  • kinnath||

    Society struck a great blow for justice when it threw the mentally ill out on the streets, because committing mentally ill people against their will to mandatory shelter, food, and medicine is evil.

  • Jerryskids||

    Look at Mr. Libertarian Kettle over here talking about mentally ill pots.

    But yeah, there are a certain percentage of people who - strange as it seems - just prefer being urban campers, a lot who are just temporarily down-and-out, but there are the hard-core crazy cat lady street people who would benefit as much from medication as a warm place to sleep.

  • Sevo||

    Suthenboy|2.12.16 @ 4:05PM|#
    "Homelessness is inextricably connected to mental health issues"

    I guess preferring to avoid work and have lunches delivered to you would qualify as a 'mental health issue', in which case many of the SF homeless qualify.
    Also, hearing that SF is very generous with bums' benefits might qualify as a 'mental health issue', which means all those folks who took a bus to get here are golden.
    Sorry, S, I'll give you 5-10% max. The others find the weather and the benes just too good to bother with looking for a job, and SF has an unemployement rate of something close to 3%; if you can fog a mirror, you can get a job.

  • regularidiot||

    The bums will never win Lebowski!

  • Hamster of Doom||

    It's one-fifth to one-third depending on which study you're reading.

    This is a myth that doesn't want to die.

  • Sevo||

    "It's one-fifth to one-third depending on which study you're reading."

    Did you know 1/5 of American children are sexually abused on line?
    Seriously, I can see a biased source arriving at numbers like that, if you include drug use as a 'mental health issue'. And you don't count the magnet cities known for heir generous benefits.

  • khm001||

    It's a good thing, then, that the left closed down a LOT of mental institutions by lying about their conditions, claiming that the terrible conditions found in a very few institutions were systemic.

  • khm001||

    It's a good thing, then, that the left closed down a LOT of mental institutions by lying about their conditions, claiming that the terrible conditions found in a very few institutions were systemic.

  • Curt||

    Restrooms (What if it was locked to you?)

    Simple. Because I'm a paying customer I would tell them to unlock it. If they didn't, I would take my business elsewhere.

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    Homelessness is a difficult issue for any ideology. It's hard to track homeless people and to keep them accountable for their crimes, and equally difficult to track crimes committed against them. Progs and conservatives love to bitch about the violence done to college students, cops, and any number of groups who are incredibly safe, but the homeless population is host to an astounding amount of violence. I wonder if allowing the homeless the option to place themselves as wards under some organization (a church, a non-profit, or a business?) would help: the organization would have legal liability as well as custody for the homeless person, and presumably could work out a deal for what the homeless person would be doing while in their care.

  • Sevo||

    "I wonder if allowing the homeless the option to place themselves as wards under some organization (a church, a non-profit, or a business?) would help: the organization would have legal liability as well as custody for the homeless person, and presumably could work out a deal for what the homeless person would be doing while in their care."

    During the NFL crony-fest in SF, the 'homeless' held a protest demanding 'affordable housing!'
    Well, it's available, free; you can move in with your dog, there are showers and beds, food is provided by various (gov-funded) NGOs.
    And it's found to be 'boring' by the bums; hardly any of them took up residence.
    My sympathy-face got lost some time ago; get a fucking job, pal.

  • DenverJ||

    I was arrested some years back in an incident resets may or may not remember me talking about. While in jail, I stick up conversations with a few homeless people.
    Apparently, they are high on the cops' goto list.
    Bored? No real crime? Go to the shelter and run everybody's id. If you're in a shelter, they're is no 4th amendment protection from fishing trips. If you're doing laundry at the laundry mat downtown and drinking a beer in alley while you wait for the dryer to finish, they'll bust you.
    I shared a paddy wagon with one guy. God he drink stank. I mean bad. Like short and BO. Saw him a few hrs later, he'd had a shower and was wearing clean clothes. This was still in the "waiting room" where you can try to meet bail and they haven't processed you into the jail and jumpsuit yet.

  • DenverJ||

    Jesus, I'm not even going to try to correct ask the auto spell errors.

  • buybuydandavis||

    Lockean Proviso


    Nor was this appropriation of any parcel of land, by improving it, any prejudice to any other man, since there was still enough and as good left, and more than the yet unprovided could use. So that, in effect, there was never the less left for others because of his enclosure for himself. For he that leaves as much as another can make use of does as good as take nothing at all. Nobody could think himself injured by the drinking of another man, though he took a good draught, who had a whole river of the same water left him to quench his thirst. And the case of land and water, where there is enough of both, is perfectly the same.


    — John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, Chapter V, paragraph 33

  • reasontert||

    Where's the Band-Aid Nose Man when you need him?

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