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Homeless dragged down by belongings, as cities view keepsakes ‘trash’

Having to lug around possessions for fear of theft or confiscation keeps individuals from social programs, opportunities

For Americans experiencing homelessness, finding a safe place to store belongings can prove daunting and be a major barrier to overcoming poverty.

“Imagine if you lost your home. How on earth could you simultaneously manage your life’s possessions and handle the next chapter in your life?” said Nick Fish, city commissioner of Portland, Oregon. “The answer is you can't. You can’t expect someone to be successful if they’re carting around their life’s possessions.”

Portland, known more for its green initiatives than its work with the poor, has recently invested millions in several plans aimed at tackling homelessness, including free storage services, he said.

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An estimated 600,000 Americans are homeless on any given night, yet there are few city-funded projects that offer them free and safe places to store their belongings, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

These often include their most cherished or valuable possessions, such as family photos, medications and important documents like birth certificates and Social Security cards.

But in many cities, such belongings are treated like rubbish, said Paul Boden, director of the San Francisco–based Western Regional Advocacy Project, which aims to eliminate human rights abuses associated with poverty.

“This is garbage, as far as the cities are concerned. This is trash and an unsightly mess. If you can’t lug it when you take off, it’s going in the trash. Period,” he said.

From his experience working with homeless people in Los Angeles, Eric Ares of the L.A. Community Action Network said the lack of free and safe places for the homeless to store their belongings affects their ability to take advantage of public programs, find jobs and even find places to live.

“The problem with homelessness and property is that when you are accessing services in Skid Row, whether it’s mental health, food or case management, they don’t allow in shopping carts, or they say only one bag is allowed,” he said. “So you have to leave it outside at great risk, knowing that many times … your property can be taken. It’s a huge barrier in Skid Row and in Venice Beach.”

Deborah Lashever, a volunteer with Occupy Venice — which works on several homeless programs, including storage projects — said city authorities often spend more money throwing away people's property than it would cost to set up storage facilities.

"Instead of doing storage, they're spending [thousands] every month just taking people's stuff and putting chlorine bleach out," she said. "The next day, people have their stuff out there because there's nowhere else to go."

She said piles of possessions in Venice Beach create a Skid Row atmosphere that wealthier residents have said looks bad and can affect their property values. In 2012, the city put a shipping container on the beach for storage of homeless individuals’ belongings. That sparked a fierce community debate. One night, someone put extra padlocks on the container, which required the city to send someone to cut them off. The incident caused delays for people trying to collect their things and increased friction between the homeless and local residents.

A Venice Beach neighborhood group, the Venice Stakeholders Association, headed by Mark Ryavec, has said the homeless presence creates dangerous conditions and a public nuisance. The group has successfully advocated for overnight parking restrictions and curfews in the area.

Arguments against offering storage to the homeless often follow the same logic as that used by the Venice Stakeholders Association, which says the presence of homeless individuals goes hand in hand with increased crime, noise and other nuisances.

“On that same logic, no one should get a [driver’s] license because they might speed,” said Boden. “When you talk about people who are homeless, it’s always the worst-case scenario of what anyone might do, and it gets applied to them as a class. You’re saying these are not equal human beings to the rest of us — they’re a little bit less than.”

Homeless advocates say such fears are unfounded and counterproductive and contribute to the wider issue of local authorities’ criminalizing poverty and homelessness in the United States. Across the country, states are making even the most essential, life-preserving activities illegal — including eating, sharing foodsleeping and even standing in public.

In response, a coalition of over 125 social justice groups in California, Oregon and Colorado is working on a Homeless Bill of Rights to be introduced to state legislatures. The project aims to assert homeless Americans’ constitutional and human rights and end the criminalization of life-sustaining activities, coalition members say.

While proponents of criminalization argue that such laws help end homelessness by forcing people off the streets, Ares said they serve only to further marginalize the community from vital services.

“Ironically, they are implementing strategies that prevent folks from accessing services to try to get off the streets,” he said. “It does nothing but punish folks who are already struggling and trying to stabilize their lives.”

Ares said there are several temporary storage options that have been set up by the L.A. Homeless Services Authority and volunteers in Los Angeles’ Skid Row and Venice Beach neighborhoods. But space is limited, and there’s often a wait list.

Similarly, Portland invested in transforming a downtown retail space into a storage center for the homeless to store their belongings as part of its 10-year Plan to End Homelessness, launched in 2004. The storage project was a pilot program that city officials used as a test run for a much larger project that, in addition to providing free and safe storage, would help people find jobs and places to live. 

City Commissioner Fish said that prior to embarking on the pilot program, he didn’t know how vital storage was to helping homeless people get their lives back on track.

“One of the things that I learned early on is that it’s virtually impossible for a homeless adult or family to find an apartment, interview for a new job or access health care services if they have to carry their life’s possessions around with them,” he said.

He explained that the much larger center, called the Bud Clark Commons which opened its doors in 2011, has been a boon to the homeless community.

“An adult experiencing homelessness can go there to store their possessions, do their wash, take a shower and then go out and interview for a job,” he said. “What we’ve learned is that to be successful, you have to focus on all of these issues.”

"If we’re serious about getting people off the street and into permanent homes … you have to meet all of their needs,” Fish added.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series being published by Al Jazeera America to highlight different aspects of the Homeless Bill of Rights and the plight of those living on the streets in the U.S.

Estimates of Homeless People, 2007–14

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