The Dow Jones is up 169 percent since it hit bottom in early 2009, but you wouldn’t know that walking down State Street, where homelessness is still a very visible problem. Homelessness across the country has grown 8 percent since last year, and as part of a national trend, many local business and municipal groups have responded by working to criminalize behaviors that are part-and-parcel to a life lived on the street. Homeless people face harassment from police officers for sitting, sleeping, and panhandling in public spaces. In our town, the Downtown Organization has made it a priority to redesign benches, trash cans, alleys, and public parks to discourage their use by the homeless.
In an effort to stem this nationwide assault on the homeless, social justice groups have developed a relatively novel tactic designed to alleviate the difficulties of living homelessness: the Homeless Bill of Rights. The Homeless Bill of Rights (HBR) defends the rights of people to sit and eat in public, sleep in legally parked cars, exchange food, and access 24-hour hygiene facilities. In essence, the HBR aims to decriminalize the daily necessities of homeless life. Knocked down but not out by the defeat of California AB 5 at the hands of the Appropriations Committee earlier this year, over 125 social justice organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Western Regional Advocacy Project are working to develop a new bill, which they hope will be up for debate in Oregon, Colorado, and California by January 2015.
Thus far, proponents of the bill have cast the HBR as a stopgap measure to protect the homeless from excessive incarceration. However, some of the most vocal opponents of the bill, comprised most notably of development-minded organizations, argue that by legalizing homelessness, we tempt urban decay. Underpinning the specific debate as to whether or not to criminalize homelessness, there’s a broader issue at stake worth debating on its own merits: how we define our public spaces. By promoting public policy designed to expunge the homeless from the public square, business and development groups aim to cherry pick what kinds of people get to occupy our parks and sidewalks, thus restructuring our public spaces such that only those with money to spend are invited to the party.
Locally, the Downtown Organization has made it a priority to render the homeless less visible in our commercial and public spaces. They’ve replaced our roomy benches with ones that are impossible to lie down on, and they are concerned that even these benches create space where the homeless can gather. They plan on redesigning the park in front of the library so that the homeless will have fewer nooks and crannies to find shelter in, and they want to design rummage-proof trash cans such that the hungry cannot forage for food scraps. Still, the organization couches all of these measures in well-meaning rhetoric, suggesting that the homeless pose a threat to public health and warning that a small minority of panhandling youth intimidates shoppers. By exaggerating the actions of some of the homeless on State Street, our development-minded Downtown Organization is able to cast homelessness as a threat to the general public.
For the Downtown Organization, safety is not the main issue. Its members’ concerns are economic and therefore aesthetic. When developers descend on a downtown community, their goal is to bring in money, and they will support any initiatives that will increase profits. Corporate policy supports the criminalization of the homeless because the homeless are bad for business. They upset the aesthetics of consumption. Capitalism works because the corporate culture is able to present the public with advertisements that stoke our hunger for bigger, better, faster, more, all the while shielding our eyes from the real human cost of consumption and convenience. It’s bad for business if homeless people are panhandling outside department stores. Our experience of seeing homeless people changes the way we spend money, and the corporate structure has a lot to gain by ridding our commercial landscape of the down-at-the-heels.
In restricting the use of public spaces to those who have money to spend, groups like the Downtown Organization will convert our public places — where we might gather with friends, get some fresh air, or exchange ideas — into simple conduits connecting nodes of commerce. Their goal is to create a consumer culture reverie without a homeless person in sight to tarnish the moment or inspire a twinge of guilt. By reshaping public spaces for the benefit of business, they are redefining the public itself as something no longer defined by community but by whether or not you have money to spend. The underlying message of our corporate-backed consumer culture is clear: This land is your land, if you can ante up and pay the price of admission. With income inequality at an all-time high, we must ask who will be able to pay that price in the future. What social consequences will issue from limiting homeless people’s use of the public square? Do we, by saying nothing, risk our own eventual exclusion?
By allowing certain business and municipal groups to control who gets to occupy our sidewalks and parks, we allow monied interests to optimize profits by radically redefining our public spaces. As such, it’s not enough to see measures to protect the homeless such as the Homeless Bill of Rights as simply a way to prevent homeless people from getting thrown in jail. We need to view the Homeless Bill of Rights as a way to defend free use of the public square for all of us.