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Opinion: Should It Be Illegal To Sleep Outside?

A person sleeps on a sidewalk near New York's Times Square this past week. A new report says more and more American cities are passing laws that make it illegal to sleep outside, on the street, in a park or in your own car.

A woman lived in her car in front of our apartment building for a couple of weeks. Our family brought down some food, clothing and a blanket, but the woman hesitated to open her door when we knocked and smiled.

After all, who were we? Why should she trust us?

We did not call police or a city agency to say, "There's a woman living in a car on our street." I've reported stories where I've spent the night in city homeless shelters. They can feel crowded and unsafe, and have little privacy. I can see why someone would choose to stay on the street or in their car.

Neighbors told us that city social workers came to speak with the woman in the car, and days later, the woman was gone. We hoped she had been brought someplace safe.

A few days after that, my wife saw a city worker hook up the woman's car to be towed. He said that he didn't know where the woman in the car had been taken — it was a different department — but that she could reclaim her car after she paid several thousand dollars in fines.

My wife pointed out that the woman had probably taken shelter in her car because she couldn't afford to pay for a place to live, much less any penalties to recover her car. The city worker was courteous and seemed concerned, but he emphatically explained: He was just there to tow the car.

A report this week from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty says more and more American cities, large and small, are passing laws that make it illegal to sleep outside, on the street, in a park or in your own car.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says homelessness has dropped over the past decade, but the number of homeless people who don't have anywhere to stay is beginning to grow and become more visible. In cities like Seattle or San Francisco that are home to high-tech headquarters, housing costs keep rising. There are many people who work and have families and still wind up living in their cars. They drive to work, or to look for work, but don't earn enough to afford a place to live.

I understand that cities don't want encampments in their neighborhoods. They want public spaces to be open and safe.

But passing laws to make it illegal to sleep outside or in your car doesn't resolve the problems of people who have no place to live. It just relocates them, in a season that exalts a family that 2,000 years ago, couldn't find room at the inn.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.