A photo showing two Alabama police officers bragging about a "homeless quilt" made from confiscated panhandling signs raises questions about the constitutionality of panhandling.
- In a photo posted to Facebook, two Alabama police officers can be seen holding a collection of signs that police had ostensibly taken from homeless people.
- By Monday afternoon, the photo had been shared thousands of times on social media, where some people were calling for the officers to be fired.
- The incident raises questions over an unclear legal question in the U.S.: Is nonviolent panhandling a form of protected speech?
The constitutionality of panhandling laws<p>Should panhandling be a crime? Should police have the power to confiscate panhandling signs? To answer those questions, you have to consider how the courts have viewed panhandling in the framework of the First Amendment.</p><p>For decades, many U.S. cities have passed — and have been sued over — panhandling laws. Supporters of these laws generally frame panhandling as a public safety issue. Meanwhile, opponents argue that the laws infringe on free speech rights. In any case, panhandling laws vary. For example, ordinances that ban aggressive panhandling (solicitation that includes menace or intimidation) aren't controversial. But more restrictive laws are — such as those that ban panhandling in certain areas: subways, airports, state fair grounds.<br></p><p>The courts have generally recognized that "solicitation for money is closely intertwined with speech" and that "solicitation to pay or contribute money is protected under the First Amendment," as the Supreme Court wrote in <em>Schaumburg v. Citizens for a Better Environment</em> (1980). The key constitutional question among these cases is whether panhandling laws are content-neutral — meaning they don't ban a specific type of speech or message — given that content-based restrictions are considered to violate the First Amendment.</p><p><a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/04/02/709251256/judge-throws-out-panhandling-law-says-physical-interaction-is-free-speech" target="_blank">In 2015, the Supreme Court ruling reaffirmed this content-based interpretation</a>. The ruling, from <em>Reed v. Town of Gilbert, </em>found that laws can't treat signs differently based on their content. That case dealt with church signs, but the ruling has since been cited to help strike down numerous panhandling laws across the country.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"[The <em>Reed</em> case] has placed literally every panhandling ordinance in the United States at least under risk," First Amendment scholar Enrique Armijo, associate dean for academic affairs at Elon University School of Law, told <em><a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/04/02/709251256/judge-throws-out-panhandling-law-says-physical-interaction-is-free-speech" target="_blank">NPR</a></em>.</p><p>The case has led some cities to try other ways of criminalizing panhandling. In April, for example, a federal district judge struck down an Arkansas city's law that banned physical interaction between pedestrians and vehicle occupants. Judge Robert Dawson wrote that the law infringed upon speech.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The Court can think of no reason why a pedestrian would intentionally attempt physical interaction with a motor vehicle or its occupants other than to communicate a message."</p><p>However, unless the Supreme Court issues a clear ruling on the constitutionality of panhandling, it seems these kinds of laws will remain legally contentious, given that they're currently on the books in hundreds of cities across the U.S.</p>
It's a victory for homeless advocates on the West Coast, who say criminalizing homelessness is cruel and ineffective.
- The Supreme Court let stand a ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which deemed homeless anti-camping laws unconstitutional.
- Opponents of the ruling argue that local governments need more power to manage homeless populations, which are growing, especially on the West Coast.
- Homeless advocates argue that criminalizing homelessness does not solve the root issue.
Image source: The Washington Post / Contributor<p>"I think a lot of jurisdictions were hoping that the Supreme Court would enable a much greater level of enforcement activity around the unsheltered homeless, and that won't be the case," said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who is co-chair of California's task force on homelessness.</p><p>Homeless advocates hope the ruling will spur governments to create more shelters and housing programs.</p>
Image source: Portland Press Herald / Contributor<p>"Our hope is that communities won't be nickel-and-diming this decision and figuring out the bare minimum so they can be legally compliant," <a href="https://www.kpvi.com/news/national_news/supreme-court-leaves-cities-with-only-one-option-on-homelessness/article_3a5c0d75-5bf4-5868-a94a-16e75c0efa18.html" target="_blank">said</a> Eric Tars, an attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, who represented several plaintiffs in the initial Boise case. "We hope they take this opportunity to alter a completely unsuccessful way of dealing with homelessness."</p><p>But opponents of the ruling claim it leaves governments unable to manage a public safety problem.</p><p>In court documents, lawyers for Boise said: "Public encampments, now protected by the Constitution under the Ninth Circuit's decision, have spawned crime and violence, incubated disease, and created environmental hazards that threaten the lives and well-being both of those living on the streets and the public at large."</p>
Image source: Smith Collection / Gado<p>It's unclear exactly how cities covered by the 9th Circuit Court will change their approach to managing the homeless population. Las Vegas, for example, recently passed a law that makes it illegal to sleep on downtown streets only if there are beds available at local shelters.</p><p>What's uncontroversial in this case is the fact that homelessness, especially on the West Coast, is a significant problem. In Los Angeles County, as many as 60,000 people are homeless on any given night in 2019, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. In San Francisco, the homeless population has soared by <a href="https://abc7news.com/society/homeless-population-history-in-bay-area/5260657/" target="_blank">30 percent since 2017</a>. Sacramento <a href="https://www.sacbee.com/news/local/homeless/article231944253.html" target="_blank">reported</a> this summer that its homeless population is the highest on record. And across the U.S., about 500,000 people go homeless each night.</p><p>As more American cities are starting to pass anti-camping ordinances, homeless advocates argue that these kinds of laws fail to effectively address the root issue.</p><p>"Housing, not handcuffs, is what ends homelessness," Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, told <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/12/16/788435163/supreme-court-wont-hear-case-to-ticket-homeless-for-sleeping-in-public-spaces" target="_blank" style="">NPR</a>.</p>
Are tiny homes just a trend for wealthy minimalists or an economic necessity for the growing poor?
- The tiny home movement has been popular on social media sites, often portraying an idyllic lifestyle that's cheaper and better for the environment without sacrificing aesthetics.
- But tiny homes may become the answer to a growing population and growing inequality.
- As the movement continues to build up steam, one has to wonder whether it's a housing crisis solution with a new coat of paint.
Tiny homes. They're the watchword of the Home & Garden network, at once an Instagrammable, envy-inducing lifestyle and an unfortunate necessity for a generation struck by a recession, historically high inequality, and loans taken out for an ostensibly necessary education that's failed to really net any benefits.
But the question is, which are they? A symbol of a smarter, more environmentally-conscious, humbler generation — or a symbol of one that's had to make do with less than its predecessors? (See: "Millennials buy the things their parents did — but they're much poorer.")
Downsizing housing and hubris
Will tiny homes look like this in the future -- smaller and more efficient but still beautiful?
Image source: Mike Morgan / For The Washington Post via Getty Images
In the U.S., things are just bigger, and houses are no exception. The median size of a single-family home in the U.S. peaked in 2015 at 2,467 square feet. Compared to other parts of the world — particularly Europe — this is a massive figure. There's a variety of reasons for this; one, for example, is that Americans began driving early and often, which transformed the design of their cities and suburbs. Developers could build outside of urban centers where the land was cheaper and more plentiful, enabling bigger houses to be bought.
In addition, the idea of having a lot of space seems to be an appealing one to the former European colonies — where Europeans have often lived in more cramped, repurposed older buildings, Australians, Canadians, and Americans had the opportunity to seize land (despite it already being occupied) and build new, sprawling settlements throughout it. The prosperity that the America saw in the 20th century didn't hurt, either; why not build big if you've got the money to spare?
But a considerable amount of this space is wasted. A UCLA study found that the majority of people spend their time in the kitchen or around the television and very rarely use the living room or porch. As a result of these extra, unused spaces, more resources are wasted on construction, and energy consumption is double what a family would need if their house only had the rooms that they actually use.
Smaller, more energy-efficient houses are appealing to a growing population of minimalists and resource-conscious individuals. In 2017 alone, the sales of tiny homes increased by 67 percent. Coming in at under 400 square feet on average, these houses are also understandably cheap — for tiny homes on wheels, the average cost is $46,300, while those with a foundation cost on average $119,000. As a result, 68 percent of tiny homeowners don't even have a mortgage.
Downsizing out of necessity
A community of tiny homes for homeless people known as "Nickelsville" in Seattle.
Image source: George Rose/Getty Images
On the other hand, the group of people drawn to tiny homes isn't just homogenously composed of wealthy minimalists looking to reduce their consumption while still appearing trendy. In 70 percent of the U.S., the average worker can't afford a home, one-third of adults are a $400 bill away from financial difficulty, and a quarter have no retirement savings whatsoever.
Under these conditions, downsizing may be the only viable method to survive. Consider, for instance, how cities such as Seattle, Detroit, and Denver are constructing tiny homes as emergency shelters or transitional housing for the homeless. There are also the many retirees that had their savings wiped out by the Great Recession who now live nomadically in RVs and modified vans. This tiny-living trend also has its Instagram cheerleaders, but the reality of it is less idyllic. Journalist Jessica Bruder and author of Nomadland related an anecdote to MarketWatch illustrating the nature of nomadic tiny living:
"I talked to one couple, Barb and Chuck. He had been head of product development at McDonald's before he retired. He lost his nest egg in the 2008 crash and Barb did, too. One time, Barb and Chuck were standing at the gas station to get $175 worth of gas and the horror hit them that their account had $6 in it. The gas station gentleman said 'Give me your name and driver's license and if you write a check, I will wait to cash it.' He waited two whole weeks before he deposited it."
This might become a reality for more people in the future as well. Inequality widens when the rate at which wealth grows — say, your stocks or the price of your house — grows faster than the rate at which wages do. Research suggests that wealth is growing at a breakneck pace, keeping in line with economist Thomas Picketty's prediction of a dramatically inequal future.
Solutions for this will need to be found, and many municipalities or private individuals may find such a solution in constructing tiny homes. Homelessness is a powerful, self-perpetuating force, and having shelter is an obviously necessary step to escape poverty.
Regrettably, if tiny homes are being driven primarily by resource-conscious but fundamentally economically secure individuals, we can expect the trend to remain just that; a trend. In a few years, fewer and fewer tiny houses will be constructed and sold, and eventually there will just be a small contingent of diehard proponents of the lifestyle. If, however, the tiny home trend is being driven primarily by economic inequality, then we can expect it to stick around for a while.
How can Innovation Central not manage to solve its own sprawling homelessness?
- The housing crisis in California has reached new heights, with more than 100,000 people without homes.
- To some, the dichotomy between the innovation the state is known for and its denizens ongoing inability to solve the problem is boggling.
- A couple of famous philosophers can show us how this problem isn't actually as odd as it seems.
Philosophy to the rescue!<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="3STR9C08" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="6223f2d9d3e7451a0880cb3b9b042cb8"> <div id="botr_3STR9C08_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/3STR9C08-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/3STR9C08-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/3STR9C08-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>The go-to thinker for when something seemingly contradictory happens in capitalism is <a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/marx/" target="_blank">Karl Marx</a>, the father of modern communist thought.</p><p>In his book <em>Das Capital</em>, Marx discusses what he sees as the two values of commodities, their value for use and their value for exchange. He suggests that capitalism is unique in that people will use capital to transform commodities into others which can command a higher price in exchange for the sake of a higher profit. </p><p>Thus, for Marx, there is no contradiction in a place being innovative and not being able to serve the needs of the poor. He would see it as a feature of capitalism. The fact that the people there are considered innovative doesn't change this at all. In fact, it might lead them to create stupid products that are both <a href="https://gizmodo.com/silicon-valleys-hottest-overpriced-juicer-apparently-wo-1794454649" target="_blank">useless and quite profitable</a> while total ignoring a social problem that offers little profit if solved. </p><p>Since housing demand far outpaces supply in <a href="https://www.bizjournals.com/sanfrancisco/news/2018/11/01/housing-costs-california-bay-area-production.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">California</a>, landlords can keep raising prices and still find people willing to pay that much for a place to stay. Since it is more profitable to do this rather than keep rents low forever, they do so. It doesn't matter how innovative your landlord is, they are still going to act this way if they can. Marx, being a commie, sees these features of capitalism as unsolvable. </p><p>His solution would be to toss the whole thing out. If you don't want a revolution tomorrow, one could also look into <a href="https://medium.com/@silje/decommodification-of-housing-1c2917a007f1" target="_blank">decommodifying </a>housing in general and remove the profit motive entirely. </p>
Which philosophers have passed the test of time?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="FRdxIajk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="523617327bc16b0232f3b316f8677e4f"> <div id="botr_FRdxIajk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/FRdxIajk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/FRdxIajk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/FRdxIajk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
All of this philosophy is great, but what are we doing right now to fix this?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="uHiyxtzb" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="75c3109c7045ff8fd994b95a3010e1e1"> <div id="botr_uHiyxtzb_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/uHiyxtzb-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/uHiyxtzb-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/uHiyxtzb-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>California lawmakers have just implemented a rent cap to try and control the skyrocketing costs of <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/11/business/economy/california-rent-control.html" target="_blank">housing</a>. One of several around the country in place to try and correct the housing crisis through price controls, it limits yearly rent increases to inflation plus five percent for millions of units of housing and increases tenet protections against eviction. </p><p>"<a href="https://www.investopedia.com/terms/r/rent-control.asp" target="_blank">Rent control</a>," the name for this kind of legislation, works by limiting how quickly rents can rise on certain units of housing. Expert opinions on it are mixed. Economists of both the left and right agree that it can reduce the amount of housing available in the long run. One study even found that it might cause gentrification as innovative landlords turn less profitable rental properties into owner-occupied <a href="https://web.stanford.edu/~diamondr/DMQ.pdf" target="_blank">housing</a>. Many economists suggest, instead that longer-term options that will increase the housing supply <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/12/business/economy/rent-control-explained.html?module=inline" target="_blank">overall</a> be considered. </p><p>Proponents of the policy argue that it is effective in preventing evictions in the short run. While that may seem short-sighted, remember that people don't eat in the "long-run" — they need solutions to current problems now. Creative ideas to help increase the affordable housing stock have been tried with some <a href="https://bigthink.com/politics-current-affairs/old-hotels-are-being-converted-to-affordable-housing-and-its-changing-communities?rebelltitem=2#rebelltitem2" target="_blank">success</a>, but more is needed. </p><p>For a place so filled with brilliant people, piles of money, and a creative energy that has earned the love and ire of the rest of the country, California has had a difficult time solving its homelessness problem. While different philosophers can offer us insights as to why this is, they can only point us in the right direction. We have to go about fixing the problem ourselves. </p>
Until the use of prison labor is banned, many stakeholders will be incentivized to prevent felons from being rehabilitated.
- The Thirteenth amendment prohibits slavery in the U.S. except as punishment for a crime.
- A considerable number of public institutions, private companies, and individuals benefit from prison labor.
- Is true prison reform possible when some many stand to gain from this legalized form of slavery?