Loitering and the Homeless
One Montgomery County municipality is considering a new loitering ordinance in response to a situation involving a homeless person.
Whitpain Township was preparing on Tuesday evening to vote on a loitering ordinance that would outlaw "lingering aimlessly" without "lawful business," which Township Manager Roman Pronczak said was spurred by the township's recent experience with a man who was sleeping in a bus shelter.
"It's clear that these laws are specifically targeted at a particular class of people," said David Kairys, a professor of Constitutional Law at Temple University, who called the proposed Whitpain ordinance "constitutionally questionable."
Across the country, loitering laws and other measures taken by municipalities in response to highly visible homeless populations have had mixed results.
In February, a federal court ordered New York City to pay $15 million in damages to about 22,000 people who had been improperly arrested under a 1965 loitering law that courts had previously found unconstitutional.
In Austin, TX, city officials were considering the removal of park benches from a recently beautified streetscape because homeless people had begun sleeping on them, according to a report by local ABC affiliate KVUE.
Closer to home, a controversial ban on feeding homeless people in Philadelphia was blocked by a judge this summer.
The National Coalition for the Homeless has decried such laws as efforts to "criminalize homelessness," claiming that people who are cited or arrested under these laws gain criminal records that make it more difficult for them to find jobs and housing.
Kairys said laws of this type surface more often during difficult economic times, when homeless populations tend to spike. The population of unsheltered homeless people in the United States increased two percent between 2009 and 2011, according to a report issued earlier this year by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.