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Get Ahead of the Courts

Time to end the criminalization of homelessness

My family moved from Long Island, New York, to Falls Church, Virginia, in 1956 when I was about 14. I didn’t realize it then, but Virginia had adopted a policy called “massive resistance” in response to the 1954 Supreme Court decision calling for desegregation of all public schools systems in the Southern and border states. Virginia refused to desegregate and schools remained either black or white, with some white schools closing down entirely and their students enrolling in private “segregation academies.” 

The response of the city of Eugene to calls for the decriminalization of homelessness reminds me of that period of massive resistance in Virginia. In our case the city is resisting responding to statements by U.N. bodies proclaiming criminalization of homelessness to be a violation of human rights, and a Department of Justice Statement of Interest in a court case against a camping ban in Boise, Idaho, that calls camping bans a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, insofar as people are being punished for sleeping in public spaces even though there are not enough legal shelter beds to accommodate them. 

Eugene’s “massive resistance” to decriminalization will end, just as Virginia’s massive resistance to school desegregation was forced to cease by court actions. But how praiseworthy it would be were Eugene to get out ahead of the courts right now and find ways to end criminalization of homelessness in a manner that reflects the humanistic and progressive impulses that drive so many good works going on in our community.

The City Council and city manager must accept that criminalization of homelessness has significantly failed as a public policy in Eugene and elsewhere, that it is ineffective in addressing and reducing homelessness, significantly more expensive for taxpayers than sheltering and housing these same homeless people, and extremely damaging to the mental and physical health of those who are homeless, unsheltered and besieged by police citations for which they do not have the money to pay. 

The police records that result from criminalization make it even more difficult for people who are homeless to be accepted into apartments by landlords or into job openings by employers.

“Massive resistance” to desegregation did not work in Virginia. Similarly, intransigence and resistance to addressing decriminalization will not work in Eugene or in other cities in Oregon. It’s time for the Eugene mayor, City Council and city manager to sit down and make concrete plans for sheltering and housing all people who are homeless and stop expecting the EPD to take care of homelessness as a law enforcement issue.