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What happens when cities crack down on the homeless?
Madison, Wisconsin, recently introduced new laws aims at diffusing the high concentration of homeless that gather in its downtown. The city's detractors argues policies like this only make it harder to administer needed services. - photo by Daniel Bendtsen
Advocates on homelessness have viewed Madison, Wisconsin, as a beacon of social justice for its compassionate approach to dealing with its most fragile population.

The city council labelled the homeless as a protected class in June to reaffirm the citys commitment to its generous social services and food-sharing programs, The Wisconsin State Journal reported. But Madison is now shedding this image as it caused a surge in homelessness.

Parts of the citys downtown have also become a gathering place for the homeless, who are free from the anti-loitering laws other cities have implemented to keep people from sleeping in public spaces.

Amid public frustration, Mayor Paul Soglin is now pushing legislation to crack down on the homeless, The New York Times reports. Hes already passed a ban on sleeping outside the City Council Building, which The Times labeled Madisons most public de facto homeless shelter. Soglin said the homeless often gathered there because they expect to find shelter beds or other social services.

Whether its New York or Madison or Portland, the cities that generally do the most to help people are now rewarded with the problem increasing, Soglin said. The cities who are the most compassionate and the most generous are rewarded with other peoples problems. Im not in the business of creating spaces for people to relieve themselves, have sex and sleep and do drugs.

The city council blocked another proposal this week that would have extended a ban on sitting on all city sidewalks between 5:30 a.m-1 a.m., according to Wisconsin Public Radio.

The ban puts Madison in line with the 27 percent of cities that have criminalized sleeping in particular public spaces, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Eighteen percent of cities ban people from sleeping in cities at all.

The laws are often contested in court. The Department of Justice says it is unconstitutional to ban sleeping in public when there are not available beds in homeless shelters.

There was a 43 percent increase in bans on sitting or lying down between 2011 and 2014, according to the NLCHP, that says ultimately, arrested homeless people return to their communities, still with nowhere to live and now laden with financial obligations, such as court fees, that they cannot pay.

They contend it is easier and less expensive to simply provide more shelter for the homeless. Soglin said the city is working to construct more affordable housing in Madison.

Los Angeles has also taken steps to combat its homeless problem in recent weeks. The citys homeless population has grown 12 percent in the last two years, prompting the city to declare a state of emergency on homelessness last month and dedicate $100 million to the issue, The L.A. Times reported.

Despite LA's expanding homelessness, it maintains some of the strictest laws in the country. It is among the 9 percent of cities with ordinances that ban sharing food with homeless people. Food-sharing programs are popular in many cities where churches and other groups set up food stands in parks or city squares.

Cities claim these programs deter the homeless away from food banks that connect the homeless to comprehensive services.

But advocates contend providing food shouldn't be quid pro quo.

Programs that meet homeless individuals where they are, generally in public spaces, are paramount, the National Coalition for the Homeless argues. Not only are people generally more comfortable accepting help, but they save time and energy, which they may use to address their other needs.

Proponents of anti-homeless laws prefer to crackdown on panhandling, that they see as an economic drain because panhandlers deter tourists from certain parts of cities.

But banning panhandling may no longer be an option. A federal court ruled last month that laws against panhandling violate the First Amendment right to freedom of expression, Forbes magazine reported. So when cities want to ban panhandling, the next step is keeping the homeless out of sight altogether.
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