(Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel
How do you keep one group of people from using public facilities in a way you don’t like when it is so similar to the way those facilities are used by people you don’t want to upset? It’s the eternal dilemma of the law, which is supposed to treat all people the same way, but usually ends up being the pivot point of the criminal justice system’s great balancing act. And sooner or later, somebody’s going to get sued.
We’re seeing this balancing act play out across the country with the homeless, as communities try to balance that group’s constitutional rights with the greater community’s desire not to be put upon. The party being sued right now over the issue is Indianapolis, where the homeless allege that the city unconstitutionally prohibits them from standing and gathering on certain public sidewalks downtown, while exempting those who are not homeless.
A sweep recently cleared the homeless from areas they were congregating in under downtown overpasses. An emergency notice said that cluttering of the area from personal belongings or people in the public right of way inhibits safe passage by pedestrians and emergency first responders, blocks evacuation routes and allows for concealment of threats targeting pedestrians and first responders.
The ACLU of Indiana said that safe passage was not prevented and, furthermore, that people not perceived as homeless were left alone, which violates the homeless’ right to equal protection under the Constitution.
How do you keep homeless people from sitting for hours in the library when that is what ordinary patrons do too? Pass a law banning offensive smells? How do you keep beggars from panhandling in the middle of the street when that’s what local firefighters do? Last year, Fort Wayne was sued on behalf of the homeless whose personal property was seized when police raided the camps they were staying in. The suit put the city in a difficult position.
Jurisdictions dealing with this issue will try to balance the rights and expectations of both groups. That’s an appropriate approach, and they won’t always get it right. We should not expect them to.
But we need to remember that “the homeless” are not a distinct group when it comes to constitutional rights. We all have the same rights, and what is done to or for one of us can be done to or for all of us. However we expect the government to treat the homeless is how we should expect to be treated.