Illegal to be homeless

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January 31, 2005 // UPDATED 1:51 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Kristopher Wenn
Kristopher Wenn

A push is building to change ordinances criminalizing camping and vagrancy

Many 19-year-olds are busy studying for college exams or saving up cash for their first apartment; Mackenzie Black is fighting for a place to lay her head each night, as she has for nearly two years.

Black currently lives at Elliot Park's Archdale Apartments, 1600 1st Ave. S., where she has lived for three months. Black said she became homeless after her mom threw her out of their northwest suburban house. She says she's had to do things that she knew were illegal - such as camping Downtown - because she had no other option available.

"The shelters were full, so I had to camp outside on the river near Nicollet Island," Black said. "We stayed over there for a night until the cops came by to tell us to leave," she said.

Trying to survive while remaining on the right side on the law is a complicated maze for locals who are homeless. Said Black, "I know the police are trying to do their job, but sometimes it's like they don't care that I'm homeless."

Homeless advocates are now pressing to change city ordinances - such as the no-camping law - that they say "have the effect of criminalizing homelessness."

A joint city-county advisory committee contains many members who want the city and Hennepin County to repeal the no-camping ordinance. They also want both local governments to support repealing the state vagrancy law. The group - known as the Community Advisory Board on Homelessness (CABH) - would also amend the city's trespassing, panhandling/begging, loitering, disorderly conduct and public urination ordinances, among others.

The report also advised that police give the homeless a 72-hour notice to move from campsites and be referred to social services to address their problems.

A CABH task force is working with Minneapolis Police to analyze the costs of enforcing existing ordinances against homeless people. The group has met with a Loring Park neighborhood committee and wants to meet with others.

Joan Pearson of Legal Aid Minneapolis, one of the group, said members have, so far, met with five Councilmembers about the changes. She said most Councilmembers have received them well, without making any specific commitments.

Councilmember Dean Zimmermann (6th Ward) supports the recommendations; Councilmember Dan Niziolek (10th Ward), who chairs the Council's Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee, has no position on changing city law but supports evaluating a proposal.

Pearson said her group "has a lot of groundwork to do" before asking the City Council to approve changes. For example, she said, many group members want the anti-camping ordinance repealed, but no decision has been made. The group, she said, is "also working to bring other protections" to those who camp outside, short of upending the ordinance.

Many people agree that homelessness is a problem; however, some feel that decriminalizing camping, loitering, panhandling and other crimes would create a less-safe environment where the homeless would be free to cause disturbances around town.

"This is not a slam dunk," said Zimmermann of decriminalization. "Many people have the view that 'if it's out of my ward and out of my sight, then there's nothing wrong.' The panhandling ordinance is a tough one. If human survival means begging, then they should be able to do it, but at the same time it's not OK [for passersby] to be bothered."

Zimmermann, who has recently spoken to advocates, said that local government is doing a good job housing families, but individuals who are homeless struggle to find refuge. He suggests housing people in areas such as Ft. Snelling, where they could more easily take public transit to the city for jobs but stay out of trouble with police because they would have a place to stay.

"It's bad enough to be homeless, not to mention having to deal with police," he said.

Stories of struggle and confrontation for people who are homeless is nothing new for Margaret Hastings, director of the short film "Illegal to be Homeless."

Hastings' work looks at the conflicted relationship between the city's homeless and their government. It depicts the city as a scrooge-like bureaucracy that would rather spend money erecting rods to keep people from sleeping under bridges in order to force campers to fork over cash to underfunded Downtown shelters, while hundreds of people sleep outside every night.

"I believe that people are basically good and they don't want to see other people suffer," Hastings said. "Most people don't know about the bridges and the shelters and all of those things, but after they have seen the film, they start to realize what's going on."

Despite her history of homelessness, Black would not repeal all laws associated with vagrancy; she said bad-behavior ordinances should remain: prohibitions against loitering, public urination and possessing open liquor bottles on streets and in parks. She believes that the camping and panhandling laws only make survival tougher, but that the other laws are necessary to keep a civil society.

"For people who have been on the streets for a long time, [prohibiting camping] doesn't make a difference," she said. "But for young people trying to adjust, [allowing camping] would help."

Still, she would rather the city concentrate its energy helping homeless people than on rewriting laws.

People without housing have "a serious lack of knowledge about shelters, where to look for jobs and other worries. It took me a month to figure this out, and even then it was all by word of mouth," Black said.

Ordinance changes could lose traction if public sentiment is too mixed or if most citizens believe that the laws on the books are effective. Minneapolis Police spokesman Ron Reier had no opinion on the decriminalization proposal but said that the Department's Crisis Intervention Team already receives homelessness training and its work accommodating homeless issues is ahead of the curve compared to other American cities.

"Police officers can only enforce the law; private citizens create the laws," he said.

Getting the ordinances altered could happen on a case-by-case basis even if public opinion remains against it. In March, a homeless man in court successfully challenged the city's panhandling ordinance. The judge in the case ruled that the difference between a person begging on the street and a charity seeking donations was minimal and that the man's right to beg was protected by the First Amendment. Consequently, in May, the City Council eliminated the clause "or any other act prohibited by law" in the panhandling and loitering ordinances because that change would clarify the constitutionality of both laws.

A homeless man sitting in front of Marshall Field's Downtown last week said that he has had no problems with city police officers, and they have actually tried to help by telling him where he could stay and eat. He had lost his home in Illinois to a demolition several months ago and has been hanging out in front of the department store ever since. He says the only problem he's encountered is with the store manager who doesn't want homeless people in front of his business.

For Black, the police are not an immediate worry; she has found a home at the Archdale and has received support for her job search.

"I don't care about all of the stuff going on in the city that has nothing to do with my life," she said. "It's when the things that affect me the most are decided that I want to get involved."