The California mayor joins a long list of mayors who are attempting to crack down on homelessness by cracking down on the homeless themselves.
Four homeless men warm themselves on a steam grate by the Federal Trade Commission, blocks from the Capitol, in Washington, Saturday, January 4, 2014. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Gary Phillips, mayor of San Rafael, CA, has closed a public park for at least a month in an effort to drive away the homeless population that has been residing there.
In his announcement, Phillips said that the closure is “to allow response to the health and security issues created by chronic littering, illegal behavior, the presence of abandoned drug paraphernalia suggestive of illegal narcotics activities, and vandalism.” But in speaking with the press, he highlighted the fact that it’s aimed at moving homeless people away. “I want to break the cycle so this is not a place for them to hang out,” he told one newspaper. He claimed that the homeless people in the park aren’t interested in improving their life situations. “They sit here, have their methamphetamine and go get a meal at St. Vincent de Paul [a local services organization],” he said. He also says that the homeless come from other areas and that many have criminal records.
Some homeless residents pushed back on that idea. Bill Lima, who has been homeless for about 20 years, said most of them are law-abiding. “When one person messes up, the [police] blame it on everyone,” he told Marin News. Chris told ABC 7 News, “There are a lot of us out here that are sober, you know? And we never asked for this life at all.”
While the park is closed, the city says it will enforce local ordinances, clean it up, and communicate with the public. Phillips also said the city is working with St. Vincent de Paul to offer services to those causing problems. But it has made no mention of opening up more places for the homeless to get housing. Lima noted that most will just be forced to go to other parks and city locations, with no lasting effect on getting the homeless off the streets.
San Rafael isn’t the only city cracking down on homelessness by cracking down on the homeless themselves. A handful of cities have passed ordinances banning them from sleeping outside. Some have bans on sitting or lying down on sidewalks, while others have criminalized panhandling. Still others go after those who try to help the homeless by handing out meals. There has recently been an uptick in every kind of ordinance that criminalizes homelessness.
Other cities take a different approach. In response to rising homelessness, Seattle’s mayor has proposed building more tent cities as a temporary way to give them somewhere to live. And three cities have actually eradicated homelessness among certain groups of people by focusing the root cause: a lack of housing. By taking a housing first approach, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and New Orleans have eliminated forms of homelessness among veterans. Different places around the country have found that housing the homeless is much more cost effective than leaving them without shelter.
Bill Lima of San Rafael also points out that the homeless themselves would be happy to help clean up the park they sleep in. “If they want to clean it up, why don’t they give us some brooms?” he asked.