WASHINGTON – Baltimore ranks among the country’s 12 “meanest cities” for its treatment of the homeless, according to a report released Tuesday by two national homeless advocacy groups.
The city has effectively criminalized homelessness by enforcing disorderly conduct, loitering and panhandling laws more strictly against homeless residents, said Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, a partner in the study.
Prosecution of these minor crimes is particularly offensive because Baltimore has failed to provide adequate funding to organizations that help the homeless with job training, housing assistance and health care, he said.
“Because there (are) inadequate resources for treatment and there is a lack of livable-wage jobs, people have no choice but to do activities in public that would normally be done in the comfort of one’s own home,” Whitehead said. “But sitting on the sidewalk should not be a crime.”
The study, which ranked more than 75 communities nationwide, judged cities based on their number of anti-homeless laws — including anti-panhandling regulations and prohibitions on camping in public parks. It also considered the severity of prosecutions, the general political climate related to homelessness and the incidence of homeless-related hate crimes.
Maryland homeless advocates said they were not surprised to learn that Baltimore ranked high on the list, with New York City, San Francisco, Atlanta and Chicago.
“We have had clients tell us that they were in `abando-miniums’ — abandoned buildings which they had fixed up with blankets — and they continually get rousted and locked up by the police,” said Esther Reaves, executive director of Manna House, a Baltimore soup kitchen that serves 175 people daily.
“They get hassled when they’re leaving here,” she said. “It’s just a constant hassle for the clients all the time.”
City police said they do not seek out homeless residents when enforcing trespassing or loitering laws. The department has no special regulations for dealing with the homeless, said Baltimore Police Sgt. Kevin Daniels.
“As far as targeting of the homeless by the Baltimore Police, that’s not true, Daniels said. “If someone violates the law then we have to affect the arrest.”
Baltimore also ranked high on the list because city officials have failed to implement recommendations of the 1999 Mayor’s Task Force for the Homeless, Whitehead said.
The committee made several recommendations on how the city could decriminalize homelessness, including one to direct homeless residents charged with petty crimes to social service outreach teams rather than throwing them in jail.
The study’s authors commended the task force’s work, but said the fact that the recommendations have been shelved for more than two years helped boost Baltimore’s ranking as a “mean city.”