Painting Over the Leak

The following is a guest post from Paul Boden, executive director at Western Regional Advocacy Project in San Francisco:

People are nervous these days. Unemployment is at the highest level since the depression, foreclosure rates continue to rise despite massive bailouts to banks and lenders, and almost everyday another factory is closing or laying off workers.

The current proliferation of “nuisance crime laws” in public spaces is a manifestation of people’s fears about the increasing visibility of poverty. Unfortunately, adding to the litany of laws that criminalize poverty and homelessness isn’t going to change a thing.

Every night on the news are stories of people and families who never thought they would eat at a soup kitchen, get food from a pantry, or sleep in a shelter alongside the “regular homeless.” And yet, amazingly enough, across the country new laws are being proposed to protect the rest of “us” who still have a job, a business or a home from having to see this misery.

No matter the focus of the nuisance crime law, the premise is the same:  people don’t feel safe, and they don’t feel comfortable with visibly poor people on our streets.

The message is this:  If your city is seen as tolerant of poor people being visible, tourists will stay away, families won’t come downtown to shop, small businesses will go under, tax revenue will go down, budget deficits will increase, and more services will be cut.  This will mean more people will become poor, destroying our quality of life and causing people to feel less safe and more uncomfortable.

This argument has worked surprisingly well with the mainstream media and local legislative bodies. It suggests a clear cause – “these people”- and provides a specific answer – get rid of them.

We know there are constructive solutions that will end homelessness, but criminal enforcement advocates keep saying that one more law or police sweep will make everything better. These kinds of solutions only create more work for cities in the long-run. It’s like painting over the stain caused by a leaky drain pipe. The paint looks okay for the moment, but it doesn’t fix the leak. You’re left with five minutes of satisfaction for a job well done, but soon get wet all over again and find your house waterlogged.

Local governments can continue to pass all the anti-sitting, anti-feeding, anti-camping and anti-panhandling laws they want. But the drain pipe is still leaking and the water level continues to rise. We all know we’re going to have to address it at some point and we’re running out of paint.

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