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Compassion and the Law: Vagrancy, Homelessness and Property Owners

benchThe recent visit of Pope Francis to New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. required a monumental effort by the cities’ leaders and rank and file in terms of preparation. Massive security details were implemented and all sorts of temporary staging areas and traffic routes were created, curtailing regular commuter routes in the process.

Going along with all of the changes were the homeless of these cities, who were urged or forced to relocate temporarily during the festivities.

The moving of the homeless highlights a consistent issue that crops up in many large cities and suburbs, too. The presence of vagrants and homeless are not considered conducive to retail or commercial establishments. Yet property owners are often unable to force homeless people to find other places to rest.

Different municipalities follow a variety of divergent local judicial interpretations. Certainly in areas where advocates for the homeless have found legal footing, laws prohibiting vagrancy are contested with some success. The advocates have insisted that the homeless have a right to congregate according to 1st Amendment rights governing freedom of assembly. Furthermore, these same advocates have argued that laws prohibiting vagrancy are “excessively cruel” and therefore abridge 8th Amendment rights.

Some cities have maintained that there are an adequate number of beds in shelters and therefore a person should be compelled to go to one of these establishments if homeless, which would obviate the need for a person to sleep at night on a public bench or camped out on a city sidewalk. This claim has sometimes been upheld in courtrooms, which then provides direction to local security personnel.

Each city’s police force follows the dictates of local law, while balancing their mandate to serve the needs of property owners. In addition, local police must allocate the time that they spend on nuisance issues versus other pressing police business.