The housing and homelessness crisis in the United States has worsened over the past two years, particularly due to the current economic and foreclosure crises. By some estimates, more than 311,000 people nationwide have been evicted from their homes this year after lenders took over the properties.

People being evicted from foreclosed properties and the economic crisis in general have contributed to the growing homeless population. As more people fall into homelessness, local service providers are seeing an increase in the demand for services.

An unfortunate trend in many cities around the country has been to turn to the criminal justice system to deal with the homeless people living in public spaces.

This trend includes measures that target homeless people by making it illegal to perform normal activities in public. These measures prohibit activities such as sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and begging in public spaces, usually including criminal penalties for violation of these laws.
The criminalization of the homeless includes:
• Legislation that makes it illegal to sleep, sit, or store personal belongings in public spaces in cities where people are forced to live in public spaces;
• Selective enforcement of more neutral laws, such as loitering or open container laws, against homeless persons;
• Sweeps of city areas where homeless persons are living to drive them out of the area, frequently resulting in the destruction of those persons’ personal property, including important personal documents and medication; and
• Laws that punish people for begging or panhandling to move poor or homeless persons out of a city or downtown area.

Sarasota, FL
In February 2005, the City Commission unanimously approved an ordinance prohibiting “lodging out of doors.” The previous “no-camping” law was ruled unconstitutional by a state court last year because it was too vague and punished innocent conduct. A new law prohibited using any public or private property for “lodging” outdoors without permission from the property owner.

In June 2005, a state court found the “no lodging law” unconstitutional. County Judge David L. Denkin said the ordinance gave police officers too much discretion in deciding who is a threat to public health and safety, and who is just taking a nap on the beach. City commissioners have long insisted that the ordinances are about protecting people, but the ordinance has been used to arrest homeless persons.

Nonetheless, in August 2005, the city commissioners passed yet another ordinance, strangely similar to the previous two that were ruled unconstitutional. The new ordinance makes it a crime to sleep without permission on city or private property, either in a tent or makeshift shelter, or while “atop or covered by materials.” The city commissioners invented a list of criteria to determine if a person violates the new law.

One or more of the following five features must be observed in order to make an arrest: “numerous items of personal belongings are present; the person is engaged in cooking activities, the person has built or is maintaining a fire, the person has engaged in digging or earth-breaking activities, or the person is asleep and when awakened states that he or she has no other place to live.”

Advocates were shocked that the ordinance actually includes being homeless, or having “no other place to live” as itself a criterion for arrest. Advocates argue that this ordinance, like its predecessors, targets homeless people. The new law has been challenged in state court by defendants who were charged under the law. The court upheld the law, finding it constitutional.

Little Rock, AR.
The city’s agenda with regard to homeless people has become more aggressive and blatant in the following incidents:

The only day shelter, and only place where homeless people could wash their clothes, Saint Francis House, closed in 2005 after a long history of police harassment of homeless people using that facility, as well as a withdrawal of funds for its operation. When asked to comment upon the closing of Saint Francis House, Sharon Priest, a spokesperson for the Downtown Partnership, said that she was “glad” it was gone, but was still not satisfied, because of “that soup kitchen [Stewpot] which is right there.”

Other reports compiled by Hunger-Free Arkansas indicate the criminalization of homeless men and women throughout the city. In a case of illegal search and seizure, a state trooper illegally searched and detained a homeless man, by claiming he suspected the homeless man was dealing drugs. The state trooper arrested the individual, who spent the night in jail and missed work the next day. The homeless man had no record of any drug-related offenses. Upon release from prison, only his driver’s license was returned. He did not receive his wallet or other property before he was told to leave. Due to the arrest, the homeless man was suspended from work for 30 days and was taunted by employees for having to spend the night in jail.

In another incident, two homeless men reported officers of the Little Rock Police Department, in separate incidents, had kicked them out of the Little Rock Bus Station. Both men were holding valid tickets and transfers. Despite showing the police their tickets, both men were told that although the buses they were awaiting would arrive within 30 minutes, they could not wait on the premises because they were loitering. The police subsequently evicted the men. In some instances, others have been told that they could not wait at the bus station “because you are homeless.”
For more information on cities that persecute the homeless click here.

On March 30, the Congressional Caucus on Homelessness hosted a briefing on family homelessness:”A Growing Epidemic: Homeless Children, Youth and Families.” The briefing was held in collaboration with a coalition of advocates including The National Center. Highlights included newly introduced legislation, the “Educational Success for Children and Youth Without Homes Act of 2011.” This bill amends the McKinney-Vento Act’s Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program and Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It promotes school stability; improves access to transportation; increases school districts’ ability to identify and serve homeless children; and increases access to early childhood education, summer school, before and after-school programs, and other educational opportunities. Learn more from NAEHCY.

Under McKinney-Vento, school districts must: appoint a McKinney-Vento liaison; identify homeless children and youths; implement a coordinated system for ensuring that homeless children and youths are advised of their rights, are immediately enrolled, and are provided necessary services, including transportation to and from the child’s school of origin, as well as special education, gifted and talented services, etc.; document that written notice of rights has been provided; prohibit schools from segregating homeless children; and identify and remove barriers that may cause difficulties in the educational success of homeless children and youths.

The McKinney-Vento Act also guarantees that homeless students have the right to continue attending their school of origin. School of origin is defined as the school that the child or youth attended when permanently housed or the school in which the child or youth was last enrolled. For example, if a child was attending school in District A while permanently housed but during the school year became homeless and was living in a shelter in a different district, the school in District A would be the school of origin.

Unfortunately, many school districts ignore the McKinney-Vento Act and continue to discriminate and criminalize homeless students and their parents.

Homeless woman prosecuted for enrolling son in Connecticut school

Connecticut authorities recently filed theft charges against Tanya McDowell, a homeless woman, alleging that she used a false address to enroll her son in a higher-income school district, The Stamford Advocate reported. If she’s convicted, McDowell may end up in jail for as many as 20 years and pay a $15,000 fine for the crime.

McDowell is a homeless single mother from Bridgeport who used to work in food services, is now at the center of one of the very few false address cases in the Norwalk, CT, school district that is being handled in criminal court–rather than between the parent and school.

Authorities are accusing McDowell of enrolling her 5-year-old son in nearby Norwalk schools by using the address of a friend. (Her friend has also been evicted from public housing for letting McDowell use her address.)

McDowell says she stayed in a Norwalk homeless shelter sometimes–but she didn’t register there, which would have made her son eligible to attend the school. “I had no idea whatsoever that if you enroll your child in another school district, it becomes a crime,” the 33-year-old told The Stamford Advocate.

According to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, if a dispute arises between a school district and a homeless family regarding school placement, the child must be immediately enrolled in the school of the parent’s choice (usually, the school of origin) until the dispute is resolved.

It is very important that the child not be kept out of school while the dispute is being resolved. Each school district must have a written dispute resolution policy in place. For more information on this issue in your state please click here.

Tonya McDowell, 33, whose last known address was 66 Priscilla St., Bridgeport, was charged with first-degree larceny and conspiracy to commit first-degree larceny for allegedly stealing $15,686 from Norwalk schools. (The amount the school alleges is the cost for her 5 year old son’s education.)

She was released after posting a $25,000 bond. McDowell’s babysitter, Ana Rebecca Marques, was also evicted from her Roodner Court public housing apartment for providing documents to enroll the child at Brookside Elementary School.

She said she knew a man who owned a home on Priscilla Street and he allowed her to sleep at the home at night, but she had to leave the home during the day until he returned from work.

She also acknowledged that she stays from time to time at the Norwalk Emergency Shelter when she has nowhere else to stay.
McDowell also admitted that Marques was her son’s babysitter from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. after the boy got out of school.

After the Norwalk Housing Authority became aware that Marques helped McDowell by providing documents needed to get McDowell’s son into Brookside, Marques was evicted from her apartment in January.

The school system always speculates that students are attending Norwalk schools from outside the district, and they hire private investigators to look into the allegations. This is the district’s way of cracking down on this.

Norwalk Board of Education Chairman Jack Chiaramonte expressed surprise at McDowell’s arrest and the investigation that led to it. “I don’t get that at all,” Chiaramonte said. “Usually when they find a kid out of district, they send him back. I have never heard of people being arrested for it, but I am not sure of the law. For my understanding, whenever we find someone from another district we send them back.”

Mayor Richard Moccia said that he was aware that an investigation was proceeding in the case and that an arrest was possible and said, “This now sends a message to other parents that may have been living in other towns and registering their kids with phony addresses.”

Homeless Children Denied Equal Access to Education in Hawaii

Homeless parents and children face innumerable barriers when they try to access education in the Hawaii public school system. Alice Greenwood, is one of eight plaintiffs named in a lawsuit who is a homeless parent with physical disabilities whose 6-year-old child missed 33 days of school last year because state officials failed to provide transportation. She said, “Every child deserves an education. He shouldn’t be punished just because he’s homeless. It’s not his fault.”

Olivé Kaleuati and Venise Lewis reported similar problems. School officials refused to allow Kaleuati’s children to enroll because they were unable to provide a permanent address or moved out of the school area. As a result, the children were forced to miss school or change schools. Lewis reported numerous incidences where her children had to skip school because she had no money to pay for bus fare.

Plaintiffs repeatedly plead with school officials for help – only to be threatened or ignored. Tragically, these examples are typical of the problems reported by homeless parents and children throughout the state.

Calling the state of Hawaii’s treatment of homeless children a travesty, the American Civil Liberties Union joined other civil rights groups and attorneys in filing a class action lawsuit challenging the state’s failure to provide homeless children with equal access to public education.

The lawsuit – filed on behalf of the homeless parents and their children – charges state officials with ignoring their legal obligations to provide homeless children with equal access to a free and appropriate public education in violation of the McKinney-Vento Act. The lawsuit also charges state officials with violating constitutional requirements to provide equal access to public education without regard to the status of homelessness.

All of this points to one of the biggest reasons why we must overhaul how we fund the American public education system. It makes no sense to deny children — especially those from the poorest households — the ability to get a high-quality education. Yet this will continue as long as school funding remains in a black hole in which the state funds large portions of the cost, while the flow of local dollars allows for districts to oppose expansive school choices and shortchange children.

In Connecticut, for example, state revenues account for only 38 percent of all school spending, well below the 48 percent national average (in Norwalk, the state contributes just 22 percent).

If Connecticut took over full funding, it could allow for more-expansive school choices and ultimately, hold failing districts such as Bridgeport accountable for its academic neglect.

We all want better lives for our children than what we had. Parents deserve the ability to give their children opportunities for success in life. De-criminalization of homeless parents, expanding school choices, and ending zip code education is needed as part of homelessness reform.

The Criminalization of Homelessness report comes out every two years, in January. The entire report is available on NCH’s website.

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