Were Jesus born in Tampa, he’d have been born in jail

Were Jesus born in Tampa, he’d have been born in jail

Or Palo Alto, or Chicago. American cities don't try to help the homeless, but to punish them. That's un-Christian, but it's also economically irrational.

Salt Lake Temple Square nativity / Image: Zechariah Judy, used under Flickr Creative Commons license
Salt Lake Temple Square nativity / Image: Zechariah Judy, used under Flickr Creative Commons license

WASHINGTON, December 24, 2014 – According to the Gospel of Luke, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

Had Bethlehem been Tampa, Mary might have given birth to Jesus in jail. The Tampa City Council passed an ordinance last year that allows the police to arrest people for sleeping or storing personal property in a public place.

In Hawaii, State Representative Tom Bower (D) took a sledgehammer and went out to smash shopping carts used by the homeless to carry their possessions, then went to roust those he found sleeping at bus stops.

The Columbia, South Carolina City Council passed an ordinance requiring the homeless to relocate or be arrested.

New York’s Mayor Bloomberg banned individual food donations to the homeless; he said that the city had on way to ensure that the donated food’s fat and salt content.

Tampa is one of a growing number of cities that have criminalized homelessness. According to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, 100 of America’s largest 187 cities has passed anti-homeless laws. These laws criminalize everything from sleeping in cars to lying down in public; 30 percent of American cities ban sitting or lying in public. In 2011, 37 cities banned sleeping in cars; that’s now illegal in 81 cities.

These laws carry penalties that the homeless can rarely pay; sleeping in your car in Palo Alto, California can result a fine of $1,000. The alternative is jail – up to six months.

If the homeless can’t afford the fines, neither can they afford housing. The average price of housing in Palo Alto is two-and-a-half times the national average, and the median home price is over $2 million. The median rent is $3,295, while the San Jose metropolitan area median rent is over $2,700.

Similar situations are found across the country. National stocks of low-income housing have declined by over 12 percent in the last ten years. Some cities, like San Francisco, have seen influxes of high-income workers whose arrival has pushed rents sharply upward and gentrified medium and low-income neighborhoods out of existence. Combined with lack of homeless shelter beds – Palo Alto has 15 beds for an estimated 150 homeless people – the message to homeless people is clear: Go away or go to jail.

This hostility to homeless people is not irrational. In many cities, residents are tired of not being able to use public parks. Bans on feeding the homeless in public can be based on real public health concerns, and sleeping under highway overpasses presents dangers to both the homeless and to motorists.

The idea that the homeless need the incentive of anti-homeless laws to gut of their lazy rear-ends and find jobs is misguided, however. One contingent of the homeless is those diagnosed as mentally ill, who because of misguided social policies in the 1960s were deinstitutionalized in large numbers. “Deinstitutionalized” is in fact the wrong word; there are now more mentally ill people in jails and prisons than in hospitals. One type of institution was substituted for another. And others ended up on the streets.

Other homeless people are among the working poor. When a family lives paycheck-to-paycheck, the loss of a vehicle by accident or mechanical breakdown may cost more than they can pay, resulting in loss of job and loss of shelter. Many unexpected expenses that are an annoyance to middle and upper-class families can be catastrophic to the working poor, and those catastrophes can destabilize them into homelessness.

We often think that the poor are poor because they are financially unstable and unable to plan, when in fact instability is more often the result of poverty, not its cause.

Whatever the reasons for homelessness, it can be costly to communities that reasonably want the homeless gone. In 2005, Utah state officials calculated an annual cost of $16,670 per homeless person; other estimates were close to $20,000. This included E.R. visits, jail stays, and the efforts of social welfare agencies to deal with the problems of homeless people.

Had Utah been New York, Tampa or San Francisco, it might have responded by placing “anti-bum” spheres and spikes in public spaces where the homeless might sit, putting the homeless on busses to other states, or arresting them. Instead, conservative, Republican Utah did something unexpected: It decided to give the homeless homes.

For free. Without drug tests. Regardless of criminal background. Without requiring them to get a job.

The estimated annual cost of the program is under $10,000 per homeless person, and that includes a dedicated case worker assigned to help the former-homeless person become self-sufficient. That’s $5,000 less than the per-person cost of tolerating or criminalizing homelessness.

When the program began, Utah had an estimated 2,000 chronically homeless people. That number is expected to be zero in 2015, with an estimated annual saving to Utah taxpayers of $20 million.

The chronically homeless are a minority of the total homeless population, but the Utah program shows that more humane, compassionate approaches to homelessness can be hugely effective. Utah didn’t go that route because its leaders are bleeding-heart liberals, but because they are pragmatic conservatives. Their goal wasn’t to punish the homeless, but to end homelessness, which is costly.

The Utah program – sometimes referred to as “Housing First” – isn’t the only one in the country. Colorado officials estimate that this approach can save them an average of over $25,000 per homeless person. Moore Place, a housing experiment in North Carolina, saved the state $1.8 million in medical costs in its first year. Phoenix eliminated chronic homelessness with a Housing First program last year.

The national push for Housing First programs began with the Bush Administration’s housing czar Phillip Mangano, and has continued under the Obama Administration. The programs have been effective by just about every measure. They do not only reduce the per-person costs of homelessness. The stability they provide helps overcome many of the problems faced by programs that attempt to help the homeless become self-sufficient while they’re still on the street. The programs reduce the rate of drug and alcohol abuse, and they make it much more likely that people will take their medications.

In short, it’s much easier to help people if you first give them the stability of permanent shelter.

Homelessness has a variety of causes, ranging from bad decisions to bad luck. Homelessness is not a sin and should not be a crime; our treatment of the homeless often is, by any Christian standard, a sin. It is heartless, contemptuous, and usually self-serving. By economic standards our treatment of the homeless is often inefficient, not as self-serving as in our heard-hearted blindness we might hope.

Compassionate policy requires dispassionate analysis. Once that analysis has been done, though, a good society will be compassionate.


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