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.
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 food, sleeping 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.