Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Cheyenne PD Turns Up the HEAT on the Homeless

This week, the City of Cheyenne launched its new program entitled, “Operation HEAT” (Homeless Empowerment Action Team), with the stated goal of empowering the homeless, transient population living on the streets of Cheyenne to become law-abiding and productive citizens. The program will increase coordination among law enforcement, the courts and the COMEA House private shelter.

Here’s how Operation HEAT is supposed to work: A Cheyenne Police officer along with a COMEA House counselor will team up to make contact with homeless individuals who are violating the law to explain to them their three options:

1) Enter the COMEA House shelter and follow the case management program
2) Become law abiding or leave the jurisdiction
3) Be arrested and face criminal penalties

Emphasizing a recent increase in public intoxication citations of transients in the downtown Cheyenne area, the program aims to reduce these citations by 30% over the next year. At a press conference announcing the start of Operation HEAT last Wednesday, Cheyenne Police Chief Brian Kozak stated, “Whether it’s trespassing, panhandling or threatening people, those people will be held accountable through the court system and will receive enhanced sentences to go to jail. That’s the program.” Defendants who are arrested more than once for the same type of offense within six months will be sentenced to a minimum of thirty days in jail.

Here at the ACLU of Wyoming, we are deeply concerned that Operation HEAT does little address the root causes of homelessness, and will likely burden our criminal justice system which results in higher law enforcement costs, courts costs and jail costs. A culture should be measured by how we treat those that are most vulnerable, and this is not saying anything good about our culture here in Cheyenne.

Many cities have found that criminalizing homelessness is much more costly than developing long-term solutions for society’s most vulnerable, the homeless, who live in extreme poverty. What’s more is that homeless folks often times have a mental illness, disability or are veterans of the armed services.

Despite claims from the Cheyenne Police Department that Operation HEAT is designed to divert people from the criminal justice system, this is, in fact, exactly what the program does. When a city enforces a law that imposes criminal penalties on a homeless person for engaging in necessary life activities, such as sleeping in public, that law could violate that person's Eight Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

Criminalization of homelessness tends to be one of the most expensive “solutions” to the problem. According to a study published in 2011 by the National Law Center of Homelessness and Poverty, cities spend an average of $87 dollars a day to jail a person, compared to $28 per day for shelter. Robin Zimmer, executive director of the COMEA House shelter in Cheyenne stated at last week’s press conference that the shelter has approximately 70 residents and is already near capacity. And while she did point out that they are seeking funds to add 12 more beds, the shelter is almost always full. A recent analysis estimated that there are approximately 500 homeless individuals living in Cheyenne. Even with added beds, it’s tough to see how COMEA plans to accommodate the influx of cliental as a result of HEAT.

When homeless shelters are closed or full, it is terribly unfair, and possibly unconstitutional, to impose fines and jail sentences on persons who have no choice but to sleep outdoors. Furthermore, laws that restrict or penalize begging may raise free speech concerns, as courts have found begging to be protected speech under the First Amendment. Most importantly, incarcerating homeless individuals at the expense of taxpayer’s dollars is counter-productive and does not address the underlying problem of homelessness in our community. People who are homeless should be afforded all the rights and protections guaranteed to all people by our Constitution, and should not be treated as criminals simply as a result of their misfortune.