It’s no secret that the unhoused population in Roanoke has grown. Tents and camps have popped up in multiple places throughout the city. I think it’s safe to say that everyone agrees this is an issue that needs to be resolved. The question is, are we going to solve it with empathy and compassion, or do we solve it by violating human rights?
On Monday, local news reported that in response to frequent complaints from Roanoke residents about the homeless population, City Manager Bob Cowell is now working with the city attorney to find solutions; one of which could be expanding the city’s “No Camping in Parks” ordinance to include sidewalks as well. Noncompliance would result in possible misdemeanor charges and up to a $250 fine. Criminalizing homelessness in such a way, however, is not a solution at all. In fact, it further contributes to the problem while simultaneously violating constitutional rights.
In 2018, the Martin v. Boise court decision ruled that a similar ordinance in Boise, Idaho, was unconstitutional on grounds that citing people for sleeping on sidewalks when no other options were available to them was cruel and unusual punishment: a violation of the Eighth Amendment. If such an ordinance were passed in our city, similar lawsuits would likely arise, and the Martin v. Boise decision has already set the precedent for the plaintiffs to win. However, the unconstitutionality of such an ordinance is not the only reason it’s flawed.
Fining and arresting people who are already in financial distress only creates more financial distress and decreases their likelihood of affording a place to live. Contrary to belief, many unhoused people do, in fact, have jobs. Fines take money they could be saving for housing, and time in jail means time spent away from work and possible termination of employment. This also creates additional burden for police because they will be the ones tasked with enforcing this, when their focus should be on violent crime: specifically, our ongoing gun violence crisis.
In addition, numerous studies conducted all over the country have concluded that it is significantly more cost effective to address the issue of homelessness with compassion than it is to criminalize. Some other cities have responded with measures such as installing portable toilets to address the issue of public urination. They’ve invested in “Housing First” models that focus on housing people first and addressing additional challenges, such as unemployment or substance abuse, once they’re in a stable home.
In the coming weeks, stakeholders will be meeting with city leadership to discuss the possible options, before a city council vote in December. I don’t know who those stakeholders will be, but I write this in hopes that at least one of them will consider more humane options to explore.
Housed or unhoused, the people in these camps and tents are Roanoke city residents, and human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Other cities in the US are acknowledging that and Roanoke should too.
Kiesha Preston is a local activist and Roanoke native.