Politics

The Smell of Public Disorder

Homeless advocates threaten to unravel laws that have made cities livable

Everyone agrees that homelessness is tragic. But recent moves to decriminalize some of the behaviors of homeless people threaten to make cities a demoralizing place for their hardworking, taxpaying citizens. That ultimately makes cities less safe, more unsightly, and even smelly.

The Department of Justice this month sided with a homeless advocacy organization that is challenging a 2009 ordinance against camping in Boise, Idaho. The move sent shockwaves across the country among cities with large homeless populations and similar policies designed to combat public nuisances.

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, which filed the lawsuit, contended that Boise and other cities have unfairly sought to criminalize homelessness.

In New York City — where the nation’s largest homeless population lives — a serious effort is underway to re-evaluate nuisance laws, the aggressive enforcement of which has been credited by some with significantly reducing crime since the 1990s. The so-called “broken windows” philosophy holds that by cracking down on minor offenses, more serous crimes can be prevented.

But City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has proposed decriminalizing public urination, as well as subway turnstile-jumping, loitering in a park after dark and other infractions. That prompted the New York Post to proclaim bluntly: “20 years of cleaning up New York City. Pissed Away.”

Well-known liberal George Washington University Law School professor Jonathan Turley, generally a critic of over-incarceration and heavy-handed policing, questioned the proposal on his blog last month.

Ironically, in famously liberal San Francisco, public officials are battling homeless advocates in an effort to maintain public order.

“I am honestly mystified why politicians like Mark-Viverito would see public urination as something for decriminalization with such obvious negative implications for the city,” he wrote.

Ironically, in famously liberal San Francisco, public officials are battling homeless advocates in an effort to maintain public order. The National Coalition for the Homeless lists San Francisco among the “meanest” cities because of its policies toward the homeless.

A report by the Coalition on Homelessness said that police in 2014 issued roughy 11,000 citations for violations of various ordinances pertaining to the homeless. These include a camping ban and a prohibition against blocking sidewalks. The city last year also adopted a law allowing authorities to force the mentally ill into treatment programs, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The city has tried to reduce public urination by purchasing roving pubic toilets and even has experimented with covering some buildings with special paint designed to repel urine. The city copied a program employed in Hamburg, Germany.

Problems have persisted, though. One light pole recently was so corroded by urine it collapsed, nearly hitting a passing motorist. In one part of the city, a stretch of unused road has been turned into a homeless encampment, with couches, tents and piles of refuse.

Consider Los Angeles County: It has one of the highest rates of unsheltered homeless people in the nation among major metro areas. Of the 34,393 homeless counted last year, 65.7 percent had no shelter. The city also is among the nation’s most polluted, battling smog. LA Weekly put together a list of smells last year that included marijuana on Venice Boulevard and skunks off of Highway 5

Based on data from several reports, here are nine of America’s foulest smelling cities:

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