Report to the U.N. Committee Against Torture – Criminalization of Homelessness in the United States of America

A Report to the U.N. Committee Against Torture - Criminalization of Homelessness in the United States of AmericaA recent report to the United Nations Committee Against Torture titled “Criminalization of Homelessness in the United States of America” was recently published. The report was drafted by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, National Coalition for the Homeless, and Southern Legal Counsel, as the U.S. Human Rights Network Convention Against Torture (CAT) Homelessness Working Group.

Among many issues discussed, the report cited (briefly) one of my previous articles about a homelessness “consultant” hired by the City of Pensacola for $30,000 (see citation 39). The particular point cited was that some of these “homeless outreach programs,” while claiming to not “criminalize” homelessness, actually do just that. The consultant discussed using homeless outreach teams, consisting of a police officer and social worker team, as the “primary tactical engagement tool for street level ‘engagement’ of individuals into 24/7 service programs.” Some programs essentially work such that when a homeless person is charged with a crime, usually some form of a local ordinance violation, the person is then given the “choice” of going to jail, or into a “homeless facility” (see pictures) which is essentially a “pre-trial diversion” program where they can have the charge(s) dismissed, if the person “complies.” Once in the program, the homeless may be placed in an outdoor “penalty box” for non-compliance. As the “consultant” said, “the ‘penalty box’ is an outdoor mat…whether it’s raining in the summer time like now, or very cold in the winter, it’s amazing how many people want to get out of the ‘penalty box’ and get indoors.”

The report notes: “If the person “chooses” to go to Safe Harbor, they are transported to the jail-like facility 10 miles from downtown St. Petersburg…Residents start by sleeping on mats on the floor inside or outside in the courtyard with no air conditioning or protection from the elements. They must comply with rules to “earn” their way to a place inside or a bed. A rules infraction, such as not putting away your mat fast enough or taking an extra towel, will get a resident placed outside and they will have to “earn” their way back in. Residents sleeping outside do not have access to showers every day and instead are permitted showers every three days. If a person agrees  to an evaluation for mental health or substance abuse, or completes community service, the original charge is dropped through a county jail diversion program.”
As for the “homeless facilities,” for example, the Pinellas Safe Harbor, is described as a “jail diversion” program, and is operated by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, and is partnered with the Florida Department of Corrections and other organizations. Among the participating agencies are the Public Defender’s Office. According to the Pinellas Safe Harbor website, five deputies conduct roving shifts at Pinellas Safe Harbor and the perimeter is patrolled by county jail staff in conjunction  with the county jail perimeter patrols.

The report to the U.N Committee Against Torture goes into a bit more detail while addressing the issue of criminalization of the homelessness.