As Sacramento Press readers know, I moved to California about four months ago, based on a personal decision. I was ready to start a new chapter in my life so I left my lifetime home of Kenosha, Wis. I arrived here after a fairly comfortable 50-hour trip by Amtrak. I didn’t know it then, but about two months prior to my arrival here, another individual, James Flavy Coy Brown, arrived in Sacramento from Las Vegas after a 15-hour Greyhound bus trip. No disrespect to Greyhound, but as anyone who has ridden one of their buses knows, one becomes uncomfortable and cramps very quickly. Brown’s relocation to Sacramento was not a personal choice, but was part of a plan by Nevada mental health and government officials to clear out whole groups of undesirables, such as drug addicts, the homeless, and mental patients without insurance, from their state. Information uncovered by the Sacramento Bee indicates that these individuals were shipped out all over the country during the past five years. The locations besides Sacramento include two cities near my hometown (Milwaukee, Wis., and Chicago, Ill.). (For those of you who are geographically challenged or who don’t have an atlas handy, Kenosha is located on Lake Michigan about 30 to 35 miles south of Milwaukee, and about 60 to 65 miles north of Chicago.)
As I read the follow-up stories in the Sacramento, San Francisco and Los Angeles newspapers, the extent of the issue became clear as it pertained to the Nevada dumping cases. Investigations and litigation in the Brown case and others are ongoing.
What surprised me in doing further research is that the Nevada case is not the first such instance of criminalizing homelessness or government agencies exporting undesirables, nor is it soon to be a thing of the past. A copy of the National Housing Institute’s Shelterforce magazine from the July-August 1999 issue documents cases from across the country, going back to at least 1991 as reported by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. News reports and US Department of Justice litigation reveal that places as diverse as Detroit; Columbia, S.C.; and the “Aloha State,” Hawaii, are currently active in working to either criminalize the existence of those deemed undesirable, or working to export them to other locations. Hawaii appears to be trying to put a fig leaf of respectability on their actions by having it appear that those participating in their export program are doing so voluntarily. As we all know, fig leafs leave very little to the imagination when they are used to try and cover up things.
Adoption of laws and policies that punish homeless people rather than addressing the problems that cause homelessness is an ineffective approach. Penalizing people for engaging in innocent behavior – such as sleeping in public, sitting on the sidewalk, or begging – will not reduce the occurrence of these activities or keep homeless people out of public spaces when they have no alternative place to sleep or sit, or no other means of subsistence. With insufficient resources for shelter and services for homeless people, imposing punishment for unavoidable activities or actively seeking to export the problem is not only futile, it is inhumane.
Both public policymakers and nonprofit groups have to work together to address the issues involved, and not just ease the individuals involved down the road.