We live in a country whose historic legacy as a democracy is the unalienable right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness, and the role of government is to protect those rights against alienation. Apparently, however, these rights and freedoms are all contingent upon whether an individual is sheltered.
The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution say nothing about the condition of homelessness, but they both address the requisite conditions under which it is possible for an individual to flourish: freedom, ownership of the one’s self and the fruit of one’s labor, and the pursuit of well-being. Neither the Declaration nor the Constitution stipulate that one must have a domicile to benefit from these conditions — they are, after all, unalienable rights — but apparently, having these rights and exercising them in a sustainable way require having a place of residence. Without a residence, these rights are indeed alienable.
Increasingly, local governments are passing ordinances and laws that deny the rights of those who are homeless and criminalize necessary behaviors of anyone who does not have a permanent or “regular” home. Homeless persons are dependent on public spaces, but local governments increasingly impede the use of such spaces for life-sustaining behaviors.
These efforts to control the life-sustaining behavior of homeless persons neither eliminate homelessness nor address its fundamental causes. Instead, criminalizing these behaviors raises the question of whether such efforts may violate the constitutional rights of homeless persons. Not having a conventional “home” does not mean a person surrenders his or her right to be “secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” (Fourth Amendment), nor does it mitigate the right to free speech (First Amendment), the freedom from “excessive fines” and “cruel and unusual punishments” (Eighth Amendment), or the guarantee of “due process” and “equal protection of the law” (Fourteenth Amendment).
It is inconceivable that, as a function of government, criminalizing and punishing life-sustaining behaviors can secure fundamental God-given rights of life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness, to say nothing of establishing justice. What exactly is the point of “arresting” a homeless person for the crime of, say, camping or sleeping in public, if they can’t pay the fine? Are they to be ticketed or worse yet, incarcerated, for criminal disobedience?
Not only does criminalization accomplish nothing in terms of eliminating homelessness, it actually ends up being a drain on otherwise limited public resources; it is a bold and brazen misuse of law enforcement. The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty reports that “criminalization is the most expensive and least effective way of addressing homelessness.” And yet, local governments continue to try to control the visibility of homelessness by adopting laws against its public manifestation.
The causes of homelessness are many and varied, and the resolution to the circumstances that contribute to homelessness is and will continue to be complex and difficult. What is needed is more compassion and commitment, and less indifference and self-righteousness.
We would be doing well and living well if our political and social will demonstrated tenacity in remedying this plight rather than continuing in a state of denial and detachment. We would do well to honor and respect the dignity and worth of those whose circumstances in life alienate them from themselves and the larger community of which they are inextricably a part. There is no reason we cannot solve this situation that dehumanizes everyone, homeless and homed alike.
If Aristotle is right to contend that the virtues are moral excellences whose embodiment exhibits doing and living well (i.e., the pursuit of happiness), then perhaps we ought to consider that advocating for those whose liberty, property, and happiness are constrained by homelessness and its causes is also a pursuit of happiness, a hunger and thirst for justice, a condition that Jesus marked as … blessed.
The Rev. Dr. Douglas R. Sharp is a retired professor of theology, religion and society who lives in Colorado Springs