Column: Columbia anti-homeless laws must change

Most USC students probably don’t have a reason to know it, but we live in a city that has historically done almost everything possible to criminalize homelessness. 

We were briefly brought into the national spotlight in 2013 when our city passed a measure that would make homeless people in Columbia choose between being shipped off to a shelter 15 miles from downtown or being shipped off to jail. The measure was hailed, even on Fox News, as an attempt to make it illegal to be homeless. The Director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty described the law as “extreme, [and] highly disturbing.”

Fortunately, the city council came to their senses on that front after pushback from both advocates for the homeless and city officials and voted to reverse the measure they had approved unanimously only a month before. Unfortunately, we’re in just one of many cities that’s been trying to make it even harder than it already is to be homeless — and all the laws that made up the framework for our “extreme and highly disturbing” attempt to detain homeless people in a remote shelter against their will are still on the books.

The 2013 law incentivized going to the shelter by essentially threatening homeless people with enforcing parts of the municipal code that were already, and still are, law in Columbia. The National Coalition for the Homeless names several common types of laws that are used to criminalize homelessness — and Columbia is guilty of five out of the six: anti-panhandling laws, anti-camping laws, loitering measures, curfew laws and feeding restrictions.

Sections 14-3 and 14-97 of our municipal code both prohibit begging — the former makes it illegal to beg in several specific ways and places, and the latter prevents begging while loitering. There are some reasonable restrictions in the two laws, of course — one makes it illegal to touch someone without their consent while begging or purposefully put yourself in the way of a car while begging to make someone stop. But when all the restrictions are combined, they make it difficult to panhandle at all. While begging is obviously not an ideal form of income, criminalizing it can have very negative effects: In Toronto, they found that outlawing panhandling led to a 2000 percent rise in tickets issued to homeless people, as well as pushing male youth into prostitution and drug dealing.

Under Sec. 14-152, we also impose a curfew on youth under 14 being in public places after 8 p.m., which can be a tough citation to avoid if you’re a kid with nowhere else to go. Sec. 14-105, our anti-“urban camping” law, makes it illegal to sleep, lie or sit down for an extended period of time, or store your belongings on public property like streets, sidewalks and parks — so it’s technically legal to be homeless, as long as you stand up all the time. Or at least it would be, if we didn’t have sec. 14-97, which prevents loitering.

Last but not least, in 2014 we enacted a law that — while it doesn’t specifically target organizations that feed the homeless — certainly impacts them heavily, requiring groups of more than 25 people to request a permit for public space in advance, as well as pay a fee of $120. For small organizations that still draw more than 25 homeless people who need a meal, that fee can be prohibitive, particularly if they want to do it more than once.

So, while the 2013 measure was quickly voted down, the fact remains: Not only did our city council vote for it unanimously (and three council members who voted for the 2013 law still sit on the city council today), but all of the laws that allowed it to be enacted in the first place are still a reality for homeless people in this city.

I am not saying that there shouldn’t be certain reasonable restrictions on things like loitering and begging — as I pointed out earlier, there are definitely some sections of the laws I’ve named above that are necessary. Nor am I implying that every section of the municipal code I cited is currently religiously and brutally enforced — police officers who refused to enforce the 2013 anti-homeless law were one of the main reasons it was scrapped. 

But even if parts of the code are necessary, all of these laws taken in combination mean that, even if police officers aren’t enforcing them all the time, there’s a constant legal threat to homeless people in the city of Columbia. They can’t legally sleep in public. They can’t legally hang around too long in public. They can’t legally ask for money or food in most situations.

But most of them have nowhere else to go. Sometimes, shelters are full or otherwise inaccessible. Sometimes, you can’t find a friend who will let you crash on their couch. So the combination of all of Columbia’s anti-homeless laws — particularly the anti-urban camping law — means that they are constantly forced to be in violation of the law, at the mercy of police discretion. And having an arrest on your record makes it even more difficult to get a job, or it can get you fired from a job you have. A conviction is even worse. Either can make it a challenge to find housing or qualify for help. 

So being homeless even for a night can keep you homeless for a long time to come, when you’re in Columbia, South Carolina.

It’s a high-stakes game to be visibly poor in this city. And it’s past time to stop implementing laws that make it even worse and start repealing the ones that criminalize homelessness in the first place.

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