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Homelessness should not be a crime

Aside from the illegality of criminalizing homelessness, it is deeply immoral, employs dangerous fear rhetoric and shows a great lack of sympathy. There is a crucial discussion about homelessness going on now in Wayne County, and all students should be paying attention to it, if not actively engaging with it.

At 7:30 p.m. on Monday night, City Council held a meeting at City Hall to discuss a range of community issues, particularly the second reading of a proposal to address homelessness in Wooster. The ordinance proposed to fine individuals living on the streets of Wooster $150 for refusing to sleep in shelters. 

So why don’t they just sleep in shelters? What’s the problem? Wouldn’t that be better for them anyway? The first problem is that access to shelters is severely limited — shelters can only accept a limited number of individuals, individuals are only allotted a maximum number of nights and staying in the shelters is often dependent on conditions that are almost impossible for people to meet. So, it’s not that people are opting out of staying there for fun. Nobody chooses to be homeless. 

For those who aren’t aware, this is part of a larger, ongoing discussion about homelessness in Wayne County. For example, The Daily Record recently published an article titled, “Downtown merchants want Wooster to address safety, security issues — now,” in which store owners expressed their frustration about people living on the streets. However, the merchants were not articulating grievances because of their sympathy for those without a place to live; they were complaining that they scare away customers. Specifically, one store owner claimed that Wooster students do not shop downtown because of the homelessness levels. While I believe there are many reasons students don’t go downtown, I have never heard anyone invoke concern about those who are homeless as one of the factors.

The language of fear used to encourage the city to “take action” is as dangerous as it is unhelpful. Proposals such as this one not only fail to address the true issue in Wayne County — an extreme shortage of affordable housing — but are also legally questionable. As The Daily Record mentioned briefly in their article, federal law prevents the criminalization of homelessness and the city could face a legal challenge if they tried to make laws that penalize people for sleeping on the street. Even Assistant Wooster Police Chief Scott Rotolo was quoted in the article saying, “Someone’s sleeping on a bench; that’s not a crime.”

Nevertheless, the article quoted Wooster Police Chief Matt Fisher as describing trespassing as something “we can seek our teeth into.”  Policies criminalizing trespassing in public areas or fining people for sleeping on the streets are very thinly veiled attempts at criminalizing homelessness itself. 

The discussion revolving around homelessness in Wayne County has emphasized the need to do something about it, but does not to address the root of the problem. Everyone wants the problem to go away, but mostly they just want it out of their sight. 

Maggie Dougherty, a News Editor for the Voice, can be reached for comment at MDougherty21@wooster.edu.

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