The Toll That Curfews Have Taken On Homeless Americans
The country’s homeless population was already struggling to access services during the pandemic.
As protests broke out across the country over police killings of Black Americans, some mayors and governors, fearing property destruction, were quick to declare nightly curfews. Advocates say those measures made life even harder for unsheltered people across the country who were already struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“Things were horrible for homeless people before COVID, they got even worse during COVID, and now they’re even worse with the curfew,” said Jacquelyn Simone, a policy analyst at New York’s Coalition for the Homeless.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared an 8 p.m. citywide curfew nine days ago, giving police a pretext to brutalize protesters who stayed out later. It expired on Monday morning.
Homeless youth in New York, who are already disproportionately burdened by police violence and the systemic inequalities that sparked the protests, were met on June 2 with large police presences outside the two drop-in centers in the South Bronx and Queens that are open past curfew, said Jamie Powlovich, executive director of the Coalition for Homeless Youth. She said she fears that many were deterred from services because of the police. And as the curfew was enforced, homeless youth, who often don’t present physically as stereotypically homeless, were at risk of false arrest or police aggression, she said.
“The vast majority in New York City of homeless young people are brown and Black,” she said. “That just generally is the demographic that’s targeted by police. … We are concerned that they will be lumped in with everyone else who is being stopped by police, lawfully or unlawfully, even if they weren’t part of whatever the larger group was being stopped for.”
Homeless people across the country have been affected by the curfews. In Los Angeles on June 2, police fired a hard rubber bullet at a homeless man in a wheelchair who was out after curfew, hitting him above his eye and causing him to bleed. The American Civil Liberties Union sued the city and county over their “draconian” curfews on June 3; no curfews were imposed the following day.
Although there are exemptions for homeless people in most of the city and statewide curfews, advocates questioned whether police will take the necessary time to question and verify people’s housing status before making arrests or using aggressive tactics to clear the streets. Roughly 40 percent of the country’s homeless population is Black.
Because New York didn’t give any “guidance or further explanation around how the police were going to be enforcing” curfews with exemptions for homeless people, groups were unable to do outreach or provide information in advance about how unhoused people can assert their rights, Powlovich said.
The Legal Aid Society and Coalition for the Homeless created fliers for unsheltered people to carry, explaining the exemption and their rights. Beth Hofmeister, an attorney with Legal Aid’s Homeless Rights Project, said some New Yorkers have been using the flier as a certification of their homelessness when approached by police.
But Simone said she is not confident that police are aware of the exemptions, or that they have an effective way to verify a person’s housing status. “Homeless New Yorkers do not have identification designating their status as an unhoused person,” she said.
Simone’s organization has called for private hotel rooms to be made available to homeless people in New York since March, and the city has “moved far too slowly,” she said. She reiterated the urgency of that demand in a letter to the city and state after de Blasio announced the curfew, but people are still living on the streets without anywhere safer to go.
“Without a plan, the homeless will be subject to violence,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter last week, asking what city leaders are doing to protect them.
The curfews came at a time when homeless people are already facing risks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and cities haven’t done enough to house and safely protect them from infection, said Maria Foscarinis, founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. She said she’s concerned about what policing could mean for already vulnerable people.
“Increased police presence increases the likelihood of homeless people being caught in that enforcement,” she said.
Early on June 2, Melissa, a homeless woman who typically sleeps near New York’s Herald Square, told a reporter for Gothamist that she feared for her safety because of the city’s curfew and unrest.
“Where do I have to go? There’s nothing open. I can’t even buy a drink or something to eat,” the woman said.
When San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced an 8 p.m. curfew May 31, the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco shared its concern that unhoused people will be targeted by police.
“This will result in increased surveillance, targeting & criminalization of unhoused San Franciscans—who are disproportionately black—who have no choice but to sleep on the streets,” the coalition wrote.
While Breed said homeless people would be exempt from the curfew and that the city was working on setting up safe campsites to allow them to safely shelter, there was no mention of using the city’s empty hotel rooms which would provide a safe place for them to spend the night, the coalition said.
The group also pointed out that public bathrooms, which homeless people rely on and which are even more essential during a pandemic, closed early at 6 p.m. because of the curfew.
When Los Angeles’ curfew was moved earlier with little notice, Street Watch LA expressed concerns. “We are out speaking to our unhoused friends who are not sure how they are supposed to get food, water, or other necessities once tonight’s order goes into place,” its representatives wrote.
Not all curfews take homeless populations into account. Arizona’s curfew, declared by Republican Governor Doug Ducey, did not include an exemption for people living on the streets and prohibits people from standing, sitting, traveling, or being on any public street or public place.
But Amy Schwabenlender, executive director of Arizona’s Human Services Campus, which helps organizations aid homeless individuals, told The Appeal in an email that the organization did not see “any direct or anecdotal impact of the curfew on unsheltered people on or near the campus.”
Reverend Deborah Chambers, vice president of development and partnerships of Central Union Mission in Washington, D.C., said homeless people who sleep in shelters would already be in place before a curfew, and police know where others live so they would not bother them.
“That’s what we are hearing and seeing,” she said. “This does not really have an impact on the homeless that we have observed or suspect.”
Kelly Miller, a homeless woman who sleeps in Northwest Washington, D.C., told The Appeal that the curfew itself doesn’t concern her because she’s usually bedded down by 7 p.m. and believes police wouldn’t bother her and those who sleep around her. But she said that rioters busted into the area where she sleeps on Saturday night.
“It was awful,” she said. “There was just a huge crowd. They were looting it and there was nowhere for me to go. I just had to sit there and hope they didn’t see me and decide that I was collateral damage.”
In south Minneapolis, in an effort to avoid violence, homeless people have taken action to protect themselves. The Minnesota Reformer reports that more than 200 homeless people took over a former Sheridan hotel in the neighborhood at the center of the protests. Abu Bakr, one resident of the hotel, told reporter Max Nesterak that he had been living in his car for most of the past year until it burned down in the recent unrest. Together, the residents are organizing themselves and making sure that people have a place to go when the curfew hits.
But in many cities without that kind of support, homeless residents are left contending with multiple crises at once.
“First, the coronavirus pandemic, and now the impact of the curfew has really shed a light on the underlying vulnerabilities faced by our homeless neighbors on a daily basis,” Simone said.