Friday, January 30, 2009

Hiding the Homeless: Super Bowl Edition

by Shannon Moriarty

Published January 27, 2009 @ 08:52PM PST

With the country abuzz about this weekend's Super Bowl, Tampa Bay is busy cleaning up the streets to host out-of-towners for the big game. That is, by conducting homeless sweeps and "aggressively" jailing unhoused people.

Shame on Tampa Bay... seems we've got another case of "hiding the homeless" on our hands.

According to the St. Petersburg Times:

"It's happened during other big events when there are a lot of out-of-town visitors," said Rayme Nuckles, chief executive officer of the county's Homeless Coalition. "But we know it's occurring now because some of our providers heard from a (police) captain at a meeting that they were arresting homeless people and holding them in jail."

Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said there is no such mandate.

"Our primary mission is the safety of our visitors," she said. "So the homeless wouldn't rank high on that. We arrest people for breaking the law, not for being homeless."

The sheriff's office, of course, vehemently denies the targeting of homeless people. And the mayor backs him up. But advocates on the ground have seen an increase in arrests of homeless people for petty crimes, like loitering and trespassing.

In fact, advocates perceive the problem to be so bad that they are pushing back this week's bi-annual "Point In Time" count (a one-night census of homeless people). They fear that so many homeless people have been arrested in the past week that the count will be inaccurate. The count has been rescheduled for next month... when city officials are no longer embarrassed about their unhoused citizens.

These stories seem to pop up every time a city is hosting a high-profile national event. Common though they may be, we should never become desensitized to them. It takes a lot of unabashed cruelty for a city to use their paternalistic forces, herd up vulnerable unhoused people, and stash them away until the party's over.

For future reference, cities like Tampa Bay should take a cue from Washington D.C. during last week's inaugural events. While they may have laid on the compassionate language a little too thick, at least they understood the importance of treating homeless people with dignity by finding ways to include them in the week's events, instead of herding them out of sight like cattle.

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