Pope Francis reminds us to shelter the homeless
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Pope Francis made a statement last monrth by feeding the homeless instead of lunching with members of Congress.

The pope’s actions are a reminder at a time when homeless encampments are growing in U.S. cities. Los Angeles recently declared a “state of emergency” on homelessness with more than 26,000 people living on the streets and pledged $100 million to address the growing crisis.

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Cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Miami have passed laws against sleeping outside which have been challenged in the courts for violating the eighth amendment prohibition of cruel and usual punishment on the basis of status.  

Homeless encampments are a growing problem from Honolulu to Dallas, where we live.  

The state of Hawaii ranks second only to Nevada in the percentage of the state’s population that is homeless. Texas, with more than 37,000 homeless individuals, ranks 23rd

In New Orleans officials have established a controversial policy that allows the city to clear away the property found in encampments in an effort to end the practice.

In Dallas, a homeless man we know who calls himself “Cuppa-Joe” can be seen every day standing or pacing his favorite spot on a street corner next to a highway overpass near downtown. He doesn’t display a sign, just a milkshake cup in which he often collects money.  

He is occasionally given a sandwich which he will throw on the ground already littered with coupons, business cards, plastic bags, or scraps of paper containing scriptures given him by well-meaning motorists. After sunset, he makes his way down a well-worn trail that winds through a jungle of vines to his makeshift small encampment beneath the bridge. This has been his home since his release from a nearby behavioral health clinic.  

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, encampments have become de facto waiting rooms for mental health treatment or affordable housing programs. Cities across the U.S. are quickly becoming overwhelmed by the numbers of homeless encampments while trying to develop strategies to find funding for more low income housing.  

At an encampment in Honolulu a state representative was assaulted this summer while taking photos at the encampment. In Maui a controversial proposal that would set up campgrounds that would serve the homeless side-by-side with commercial campers has been presented to the planning commission.

A growing number of homeless “tent or box cities” are popping up in Dallas under highway overpasses and vacant lots. When there is a shortage of available beds in shelters, more encampments appear. They can be found deep within heavily wooded areas or along isolated streams and creek beds.

Like “Cuppa Joe,” people who live in encampments are most likely to be suffering from chronic mental health or substance abuse disorders, and have significant health problems, therefore making them more likely to utilize hospital emergency rooms rather than clinics.

There are few or no mental health professionals available after regular business hours, so the safety of residents lies with security officers who complain that maintaining order is akin to guarding prison inmates.

The criminal justice approach to addressing homeless encampments often consists of legal sanctions that result in disproportionately high arrest rates for sleeping or urinating in public, trespassing, loitering and public intoxication. Enforcement actions create the perception of criminalization of the homeless, and have proven to be an ineffective method for transitioning them from a harsh life on the streets back into society.  

Therapeutic outreach teams should be deployed to assist homeless persons in obtaining the services that will help them to move off of the street.

Increasing the amount of available housing for homeless individuals should be one of the first steps in devising a solution to the problematic growth of homeless encampments. Cities will need to explore every potential source of funding, including grants through HUD or even taxes, to aid communities in addressing the issue of housing for the homeless. 

Tent cities now stand as an unwanted testament to an ongoing inability to effectively respond to the concerns of homelessness. Housing and integrated mental health and social services are the answers.  

Ron Cowart is a retired Dallas police officer who has received several national awards and recognition regarding innovative community policing programs and is an advocate for the homeless. He is currently an adjunct criminal justice professor at Dallas Baptist University.  Melinda Cowart is professor of Bilingual/ESL Teacher Education at Texas Woman’s University and an OpEd Project Public Voices Fellow.