This question came from an anonymous reader via our latest website survey: What is known about the extent and experiences of being banned for people who are homeless? Both banning from organizations directly serving homeless persons (sometimes an unfortunate necessity), and being banned from community organizations or business-owned spaces such as malls. Are there any known best practices for banning persons who are homeless to best meet their needs, and the needs of other service users?
I’ve looked high and low and, unfortunately, there appears to be no comprehensive studies on the experience of being banned by people experiencing homelessness. (If you find one, please email us!)
We already know that homelessness is highly criminalized through laws that ban trespassing, camping, sleeping, panhandling and squeegeeing. These laws, in effect, ban people experiencing homelessness to be visible, ask for money, perform a task for money, sleep and in some cases, even be fed in public. One example: Last year in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, city council placed restrictions on the public distribution of food to discourage people from feeding those experiencing homelessness. The city also sanctioned police to confiscate belongings stored in public spaces.
In many places, people experiencing homelessness find that their access to public and some private spaces is restricted, sometimes under the guise of helpfulness. A Vancouver study of area restrictions for people who use drugs found that such restrictions simply displaced drug-related activities, resulting in increased vulnerability and a variety of risks. Similarly, legislation like the Safe Streets Act (SSA) in Toronto has not made city streets “safer,” it has saddled already impoverished people with fines for panhandling. Criminalization doesn’t help us solve the homelessness problem, it simply shifts it around and punishes people for being in the situation – and some organizational/business bans function similarly.
Banning by businesses/private owners
Private businesses usually have their own rules and regulations. These are not necessary public, but many businesses have rules around trespassing and “loitering,” sometimes placing limits on how long people can remain within the building – these are often displayed as posted signage. Some rules are more informal. I was sitting in Starbucks once and watched as one employee asked a person sitting outside to move. As the employee came in, she was flustered because she’d asked this person to move before and being on a busy urban street, she was told to call the police and cite trespassing/loitering bylaws. “It just doesn’t look good,” she said. Unfortunately, even though the person wasn’t being rude or disruptive in any way, his mere presence was cause to consider a call to the police.
Similarly, according to a CBC article, the Edmonton Public Library recently banned people from sleeping for prolonged periods of time, stating that it “unsettles” other patrons and that the library is not an adequate replacement for a day shelter. While this is true, it is unclear what the goal of the ban is aside from encouraging people to sleep somewhere else. (But where?)
Other policies focus on employees of businesses, threatening them with disciplinary action for engaging with people who are homeless and/or otherwise impoverished. One example occurred recently in France: After an unspecified altercation, a McDonald’s in Marseille banned its employees from giving away meals to “vagrants” and stated that doing so could lead to dismissal. McDonald’s ultimately apologized, realizing the policy was overly punitive and not addressing the situation properly. Unfortunately, these kinds of policies are often the first resort taken by business and property owners, who are usually not equipped to deal with the complexity of experiences that come with homelessness and poverty.
Banning in community organizations
I couldn’t find studies on this, but my experience talking with social workers and being in training in a community organization has showed me that in many cases, banning is a last resort and is usually enacted only in cases of extreme violence, aggression and/or threatening behaviour. Attempts are often made to mediate and resolve the situation between providers and service users before someone is outright banned from receiving service. Some organizations simply ask a service user to leave for the day (or another imposed time period) and come back another time, at which point providers ask them to sign an agreement that they will be respectful.
Many organizations also have rules around substance use and weapons possession, which can result in service restriction or outright banning. BC Housing lists their various policies and procedures, if you want to see a full example of how an organization might approach such situations.
There are usually many steps between being warned and being banned, but it is possible that banning can be used too quickly. And while banning a service user is sometimes necessary to ensure the wellbeing of staff and other service users, it does not address the issues that the banned person is experiencing. (For those, we need much more comprehensive solutions.)
Many youth feel like they have banned for inconsistent and/or unfair reasons. Some youth organizations have curfews and punish service users for not adhering to them, which we explore here. Youth in general are negatively impacted by banning, as indicated in studies in Vancouver and Waterloo (pg. 33). Banning can undermine openness and trust, and according to a 2010 study, more negative consequences:
Permanent consequences such as a ban from the center do not allow youth the opportunity to shape their behavior with feedback and reinforcement. Permanent consequences only reinforce their impression that they do not fit into the mainstream and that street life is their only option.
Although there should be an expectation of rule compliance, breaking rules should not be a reason to discharge someone into homelessness. Many organizations have learned how to work differently, for example the Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary. Their programs serving homeless youth "operate on the principle that housing and shelter is a human right. Youth do not earn home or shelter through good behaviour". This "zero discharge into homelessness" policy can be challenging but necessary for the sector to avoid becoming part of the problem.
In some cases – situations that threaten the safety of staff and other service users – banning policies may be considered necessary. It is ultimately up to the organization or business in question on how to resolve situations.
In Invisible Victims: Homelessness and the Growing Security Gap, Laura Huey (2012) suggests (p. 106-106) that one way to address security in communities is to establish collective responses, for example: restorative justice programs that involve people within and outside organizations; both service providers and service users. Such programs ensure everyone in the community takes part in decision-making, and encourages people who have broken rules or been violent to contribute to the community in a meaningful, reparative way instead of simply being removed from it.
This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will provide a research-based answer.
Photo credit: James Cridland