NB Politicus

Stewart’s New Policy: Criminalizing The Homeless, Jeopardizing Building Hope Together

Posted in city politics and government, downtown, Poverty by nbpoliticus on May 1, 2016

By John McNamara

The common council meeting of April 27th began on a hopeful note for a community that has been dubbed the “city for all people.”

Ward 4 Alderman Bobby Smedley moved a unanimous resolution to adopt a Compassion Charter, having New Britain join with other cities and countries around the world affirming a belief “to honour (sic) the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”

The commitment to a compassionate city, however, was short-lived.

Within minutes  Smedley and the Common Council voted 10 to 5  to adopt an ordinance to prohibit aggressive panhandling,   imposing a $99 fine for “aggressive” begging or lying to obtain money.

The move — hastily pushed by the Stewart administration — is intended to more quickly sweep indigent and homeless persons from  Central Park and the downtown area now  that the refurbished, brick-laid park has been made safe for food vendor trucks.

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A controversial ordinance to impose $99 fines for aggressive panhandling that criminalizes the homeless was adopted April 27th. It may make Central Park safe for food trucks but could jeopardize federal funds and invite legal challenges.

The controversial penalty drew near unanimous opposition in public testimony over three meetings at City Hall from the homeless, formerly homeless, advocates and city residents.  Ward 3 Alderman Manny Sanchez called the ordinance a “poor judgment” by the Council, opposing the measure as”loosely written, likely unenforceable and probably inconsistently enforced from officer to officer.”

The Council majority, adhering to Mayor Stewart’s demand for a quick vote, insist that the $99 fine for “aggressive” panhandling is not “criminalizing” the homeless at all. It just gives the Police Department another “tool” in their “tool box” to crack down on individuals soliciting money in ways that threaten others.

But Police Chief James Wardwell, addressing the issue at an April 26th Consolidated Committee meeting, was diplomatically neutral when Republican aldermen, including Ward 2’s Kristian  Rosado, unsuccessfully went fishing for an official endorsement by the Chief.  They didn’t get one. Wardwell indicated his officers use an array of existing laws already on the books, issuing warnings before they escalate situations into arrests.  The criminal code includes a range of enforcement options for menacing behavior including disorderly conduct, threatening or even robbery that would appear to cover the definition of “aggression” that would result in a $99 fine and no criminal action.  For true hustlers and bad actors that would amount to a slap on the wrist when the full weight of the law should come down on them. That makes the new ordinance at best redundant and at worst an official policy to target and criminalize the homeless.

For Wardwell and some members of the Council the larger issue for public safety is that NBPD may need more than one cop walking the beat downtown as the best antidote to “aggressive” behavior that , as defined in the ordinance, infringes on the rights of others in public places.

New Britain has  now joined other communities which have inserted the word “aggressive” into ordinances to skirt constitutional issues. Courts have routinely thrown out anti-panhandling ordinances because they “impinge on protected speech and behavior.”

A recent study No_Safe_Place (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty) found the adoption of ordinances such as New Britain’s as counterproductive to both public safety and combating homelessness.

Criminalization measures do nothing to address the underlying causes of homelessness and, instead, only worsen the problem. Misusing police power to arrest homeless people is only a temporary intervention, as most people are arrested and incarcerated for short periods of time. 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. Moreover, criminal convictions – even for minor crimes – can create barriers to obtaining critical public benefits, employment, or housing, thus making homelessness more difficult to escape.

The new ordinance directly contradicts the city’s workplan on homelessness — Building Hope Together — posted on the city’s web site.  First adopted in 2007 by former Mayor Timothy Stewart and promoted by Erin Stewart in her 2015 campaign for re-election, the plan with city government and agencies working together is committed to supportive housing, eviction prevention, employment and access to mental health and wellness services for the homeless population.

Passage of the ordinance has potential to deny New Britain federal funds to continue to implement the goals of the plan to reduce homelessness. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which provides $1.9 billion in federal funds to local Continuums of Care, now requires cities and their partners to “describe how they are reducing criminalization of homelessness.”  In the very competitive process for these funds New Britain could become a loser because of an ordinance that targets homeless persons intentionally or not with fines they will not be able to pay.

Unfortunately the Stewart Administration’s push for the ordinance fits a pattern of taking resources away from those who are most in need in a cash strapped city with high pockets of poverty.  That has been painfully evident  over the last three years in the elimination of Community Development Block Grant funds for food pantries and other aspects of the city’s social safety net relied upon by low-income families  and homeless persons. Instead,  those federal funds have been put back into the municipal development bureaucracy or remain unused in addressing community needs.

 

The Mayor and the Council majority would do well to read the “Compassion Charter” they so enthusiastically embraced on April 27th “to treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”  Following that principle would require reversing an unnecessary, costly and punitive measure against the least among us.

 

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