Roanoke City Council Spreads Holiday Cheer By Proposing to Criminalize the Homeless

The Grandin Holiday Parade, with local school bands, community groups and others, was last week and some of Roanoke City Council walked in it. What many people watching it on the sidewalks may not have known or realized is that while councilpersons were waving and spreading holiday cheer that day the city had also just proposed an ordinance to criminalize homeless people in two weeks (12.6.21), incidentally right before the holidays.

In the latest illustration of Roanoke City officials’ shamefulness, lack of support for the most vulnerable residents here, and whose interests they really serve (not the working class), they have proposed making it illegal (a Class 4 misdemeanor with a $250 fine) to sleep or even lay down on sidewalks Downtown. They claim the reason for this proposal is that the city has received more complaints about homeless people on the sidewalks, and they are trying to justify or legitimize it because the local homeless shelter (The Rescue Mission) apparently has some open beds/rooms right now. However; as one might guess and as many have told us, there’s a plethora of reasons why some homeless people don’t stay at The Rescue Mission or don’t feel that it’s adequate shelter, not to mention that adding another reason for which homeless people can be arrested and driven further into debt is in no way beneficial or any type of a solution.

The Rescue Mission (which received $5.8 million in 2020) is no doubt helpful and a semi-safe place to sleep temporarily for some people, but it is also inadequate shelter for many others. We talked with some homeless folks who have stayed there but won’t anymore (who also wanted to remain anonymous) and these are some of their criticisms: there’s too much interpersonal conflict & drama there, personal items have often been stolen, there’s a general lack of response to abusive situations people are dealing with, it’s tied to a religion and there’s a requirement to attend church nightly, they hold 75% of your income in an account you have limited access to while you stay there and have unreasonable requirements for what it can be used for (you can’t buy a car before housing for example), they demand sobriety from all substances and don’t have substance use support (like if you even “smell” of alcohol they kick you out), they kick you out during the daytime and there are significant hours when you aren’t allowed to be there.

For a further look into why this ordinance needs to be trashed and what the city should do instead, check out our piece on the state of housing in Roanoke from 2019 (“Homes For All“), as well as the two recent letters to the editor of The Roanoke Times. Kiesha Preston’s touches on how the camping ban would violate constitutional rights (specifically the 8th Amendment) and how investing in “Housing First” models have worked in other cities, and Bethny Barrett’s forces us to remember the humanity of people without housing. Both letters acknowledge what numerous studies have concluded: it is far more cost-effective and decent to simply give people housing, no strings attached.

This camping ban is cruel & inhumane and does nothing to help get homeless people into adequate shelter. Almost anything would be more helpful than criminalizing people who don’t have housing and further legally shrinking where they’re “allowed” to publicly exist. This is extra gross in a city that has 43 empty homes for every 1 homeless person. If city council wants to criminalize something via an ordinance how bout they start with making it a crime to own empty private property. Housing is a human right. Stop the camping ban and house the homeless.

Here’s the proposed sidewalk camping ban ordinance:

– from Roanoke Peoples Power Network

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