Search This Blog


Kenner can enhance park, encourage homeless

While Kenner has abandoned plans to introduce an anti-loitering law, it and other Louisiana municipalities can pursue other means to reduce problems created by vagrancy.

The city council had considered passing an ordinance that would have prohibited “remaining in essentially one location for no obvious reason, to linger, to saunter, to dawdle, to stand around ... or to otherwise spend time idly” in any public place. The effort came in response to complaints about individuals, presumably homeless, lingering around areas of a city park including full-blown camping, who also trundle over to the nearby parish library to use the bathrooms.

However, anti-loitering laws have a high constitutional burden to overcome, compounded by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in the related area of panhandling, at least concerning outdoor public spaces. Laws against loitering in indoor public spaces, such as the library under an existing Jefferson Parish statute, have faced a much lower constitutional burden of proof. Simply, such laws typically criminalize way too much potential behavior to withstand constitutional challenge.

Yet having the homeless make the park their living rooms does diminish its value to other members of the public as well as subvert the intention of a public park. Especially as a portion of the homeless typically abuse alcohol and drugs – data are hard to come by on this account, but apparently about a fifth have substance abuse problems, another fifth suffer from mental illness, and the rest involuntarily or otherwise don’t have a residence, with some overlap – the city has every reason to wish to prevent that element from congregating there out of public safety concerns.

Thus, policy should create conditions that not only provide for the public’s needs, but do so in a way that encourages the individuals involved to address whatever causes them to end up homeless. So, while governments can’t make homelessness criminal, they can do their best to make it as uncomfortable as possible that steers people to avenues out of it.

The segment of mentally ill homeless aside, a few simple measures would accomplish with regards to the other three segments of the homeless – addicts, those who have experienced absolutely unforeseen economic difficulties, and those pursuing the lifestyle by choice. With these measures, raising the costs of a homeless lifestyle reduces its seeming value and increases their receptivity to engaging in behavior that takes them away from living on the streets.

For example, Kenner could, as the city said it has investigated, simply close and lock the park during certain hours. This would reduce dramatically the homeless there since they could not sleep in the park and would be separated from their stuff for a good portion of the day. An anti-camping ordinance also may work, and an allied law that would disallow any kind of shelter or display.

Not only do these kinds of measures enhance the value of a park for public use, they also make it more difficult for people to take hits or to make themselves more comfortable relative to this lifestyle. It would encourage them to sober up (by using their own will or by seeking help), to look for work (only about a quarter of the homeless are employed), to access charitable and social service agencies (especially needed for many homeless youth), or even to accept temporary shelter (some chronic homeless resist shelters even with the most minimal rules).

In short it helps the homeless try to help themselves (many try regardless, as the average period of homelessness last only two months, although long-term homeless people typically have several bouts of short-term experience prior to that). If Kenner or any other Louisiana municipality wishes to improve quality of life in their boundaries and push people onto a path that improves their lives, this approach will do that.

No comments: