Making Kansas Cities Enforce Vagrancy Rules Would Make The Poor And Us Look Bad


Being poor is the one sin that can’t be forgiven in America.

Recent events like the war on homeless people show this. This effort aims to make sleeping on the streets illegal and give police power they haven’t had in 50 years.

For example, lawmakers in Kansas want to give $40 million to cities to help fight homelessness. But there is a catch: cities must police local laws against sleeping on the streets and camping without permission on public land.

This kind of language makes being homeless a crime and tries to take us back to a time before the Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that vagrancy laws were too vague and broke the 14th Amendment. Before that, police often used vagrancy laws to shame and control people they thought were bad for society, like hobos, tramps, drug addicts, rogues, vagabonds, the jobless, jugglers, loafers, nightwalkers, alcoholics, buskers, anarchists, dissenters, and people who talk on a soapbox. According to the law, police could arrest anyone who stood out to them as being different.

Because of the decision in 1972, towns either made it clearer what it meant to be a “vagrant” or got rid of the laws that defined them. For example, searching the Topeka municipal code for “vagrancy” doesn’t turn up anything, but it does turn up a few laws about “loitering” with the plan to break the law.

The Kansas bill would require cities to police laws against sleeping on the streets, which assumes that cities already have these kinds of laws in place. It makes sense that you can’t camp on state or municipal land without permission, but calling the way homeless people live in our towns “camping” is a sanitized way to describe the daily fight for the survival of thousands of Kansans.

House Bill 2723 was written with help from several politicians, including the Cicero Institute, a think tank in Texas. The institute has proposed bills all over the country, including one last year in Kansas that would make it a misdemeanor to camp on public land without permission.

Takes a moment to talk about how the summer heat wave in 2023 hurt him and other homeless people who were camping in tents in north Topeka. The National Weather Service says that the heat index at the time this picture was taken was 111 degrees Fahrenheit. The Kansas Reflector’s Max McCoy

It is not a crime to camp without permission under the current bill, which the House Committee on Welfare Reform recently heard. Supporters say that people who break the rules could just be kicked out of a public place for a while. But don’t get it wrong—it would be up to the police to execute such punishments, just like it has been up to the police for decades to deal with mentally ill, drug or alcohol addicted, or just radical iconoclasts who don’t have a place to live.

Government bodies and city councils all over the state are in a “get tough” mood. Topeka has recently started using heavy machinery to destroy homeless camps along the Kansas River to enforce its “no camping” law. The city said it was because of public health worries, but the death of 5-year-old Zoey Felix, who was killed after being taken by a parent to live in one of Topeka’s homeless camps, may have sped up the move.

According to public radio station KMUW, the City of Wichita and Sedgwick County support the Kansas House bill requiring unauthorized camping enforcement in exchange for millions in matching grant money. The bill includes language about camping and vagrancy because it had to get through the GOP-controlled Legislature. The $40 million was already planned into the budget that Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly released. It would be given to cities and towns as matched funds to help build shelters for the homeless.

A Derby Republican named Rep. Leah Howell said, “As I have learned more and more about the horrible things that happen in encampments, I have become more and more convinced that we have to make getting rid of encampments themselves a top priority.”

Howell stated that not having a home is not a crime. But Howell’s idea of telling someone they can’t pitch a tent and taking them to a shelter instead raises the same worries that the Supreme Court put to rest in the 1970s. It also brings back a feature of vagrancy rules from the last century: they would pick out a certain type of undesirable person and then move them to a different place. In the past, that meant one night in jail and a bus ticket to the next town.

People who are against the bill are worried that it will punish people who are weak and have to camp. The bill also says that people who live without a home should be forced to change the way they live to fit in with society’s rules.

Kansas should use the $40 million to help the homeless, especially by building safe places for women and children to stay. But it shouldn’t punish people who are homeless or bring back old ideas about being homeless.

As the number of homeless people in our towns grows, people have good reasons to be worried about their health and safety. This is especially true since unemployment is at or near all-time lows. Some people who don’t have a place to live are dangerous to themselves and others, just like some of us who do. Zoey Felix, on the other hand, had a bad home life and the state body that was supposed to help her kept failing. The fact that her last house was a homeless camp is just one of many horrible things that happened that led to her death.

A legal historian named Risa Goluboff said in a 2013 talk at the Library of Congress that vagrancy rules have been an important part of society’s efforts to protect establishment society for hundreds of years. In the end, the Supreme Court threw them out because of a series of court challenges that were sparked by the 1960s social movements, she said. She said that many cases before the important 1972 ruling had involved people protesting the Vietnam War, hippies, cross-dressers, interracial couples, gays and lesbians, and more. The point at which things started to change was when police were given full authority to use vagrancy rules to set social norms.

A group called the Cicero Institute helped write the Kansas House bill. On its website, it says that it provides “the strongest reform package to state leaders who want to fix bad incentives, hold service agencies accountable for results, and get the homeless the help they need instead of doubling down on failure.” The institute says the first two steps are to make it illegal to camp and to move money to “short-term shelter and sanctioned, policed encampments.” These suggestions are in line with Donald Trump’s claim that if he wins again, he will ban homeless people from camping outside and separate those who break the rules in government-approved tent cities.

There are many types of “sanctioned, policed” camps, and some of them are not good for civil rights. But the suggestion that camping without permission is a good way to help people who are homeless is also scary.

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