By Joshua Tom, ACLU of MS Legal Director

Despite a decline in the number of homeless individuals in the United States over the past decade, homelessness remains a persistent problem in the country. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report estimates that around 553,000 people were homeless on a single night in 2018.

In Mississippi, 5 in every 10,000 people were experiencing homelessness: 24% were people in families with children; around 8% were veterans; and almost 20% were chronically homeless. More than half of those individuals were staying in unsheltered locations, and of those unsheltered, 64% were homeless veterans.

The causes of homelessness include access to affordable housing, nutritional meals, basic health care, substance abuse care and aftercare, mental health counseling, and job assessment, training and placement assistance. Instead of addressing these causes, many cities turn to police to get homeless people out of sight.

Until 2018, it was a crime in Mississippi to “go about from place to place begging and asking subsistence by charity, and . . . [to] stroll over the country without lawful occasion, . . . [unable to] account . . . [for one’s] conduct consistent with good citizenship.” Vagrancy laws, like this one, enacted as part of the Black Codes after the Civil War served as an effort to suck many black people into the criminal justice system and maintain white supremacy. Today they are used to criminalize homelessness and poverty.

Despite such laws, some homeless people ask for money on the street in order to meet their daily needs. Police officers are often directed to get rid of panhandlers through vagrancy, panhandling or other laws. However, the First Amendment protects the right to ask for money in a public place.

After a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Reed v. Town of Gilbert, which called into question the constitutionality of every panhandling law in the country, cities across the U.S. have begun to voluntarily repeal their panhandling ordinances. Those cities who have refused to repeal have lost when challenged in court. From 2015 to 2018, federal courts declared 25 out of 25 ordinances unconstitutional.

Beyond being inhumane, unconstitutional and ineffective, using the criminal justice system to deal with homelessness wastes money. Various studies have shown that providing a person with a house and a caseworker is cheaper than relying on police and emergency rooms. Philip Mangano, the former homeless czar for President George W. Bush, agrees that housing, not policing, is the best long term-solution to homelessness. 

Cities that provide services have seen successes in solving the problem. The City of Brotherly Love greatly reduced the number of homeless persons asking for change in a downtown subway station recently by donating an abandoned section of the station to a service provider for use as a day shelter.  In opening the center, Philadelphia, PA Mayor Jim Kenny emphasized, “We are not going to arrest people for being homeless,” stressing that the new space “gives our homeless outreach workers and the police a place to actually bring people instead of just scooting them along.” Such programs attack the causes of homelessness, rather than merely addressing its symptoms.

In conjunction with the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and organizations across the country, the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi has pushed jurisdictions in Mississippi and throughout the U.S. to get with the program – Housing Not Handcuffs – and to repeal their panhandling ordinances.

While some cities have voluntarily done the right thing, including Meridian, Ridgeland and Starkville, others have not.  By addressing the causes of the problem, these cities will better address the homelessness of families, veterans and others in Mississippi and throughout the country.   

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This opinion editorial was published in the Clarion Ledger.

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