Homelessness is a pressing problem in many U.S. cities. In response, many local governments have enacted controversial measures such as restrictions on public health services or prohibitions on eating, sleeping, sitting or storing property in public spaces. Sometimes called “nuisance” or “quality of life” measures, such steps seem designed to reduce the visibility of unsheltered individuals and families; and they can be used to forcibly remove unsheltered people from parks, sidewalks, and streets.
Unfortunately, such policies do not offer meaningful solutions to homelessness, and they can actually make the problem worse – by exacerbating instabilities for those without permanent shelter. They also cause distress, stigmatize the homeless, and risk violating civil rights. Consequently, federal agencies such as the Department of Justice and the Interagency Council on Homelessness have criticized laws that criminalize “acts of living.”
How City Ordinances Targeting the Homeless Prove Counterproductive
City ordinances targeting the homeless are counterproductive in several ways:
By increasing financial insecurity. Economic need is a well-recognized cause of homelessness, and official citations or fines can exacerbate financial instability among those without permanent housing. What is more, when city officials enforce anti-homeless ordinances by confiscating property, already struggling households must expend scarce resources to replace food, clothing, medicines, work supplies or household goods.
By limiting access to jobs, services, and social support. Citations may lead to warrants or create criminal records, prompting cycles of criminalization. Moreover, studies have documented that these citations and fines can hinder access to employment and social services. Restrictions on activity in public spaces, especially in downtown areas, can prevent access to services, employment or educational opportunities. And when anti-homeless policies involve forced relocations, they can disrupt social support networks.
By promoting stigmatization and threatening civil liberties. Quality of life laws are often motivated by negative stereotypes and have been found to promote public stigmatization of unsheltered families. They can also heighten mistrust of public officials and service providers by people in need of their support. And in some of these laws have been found to violate constitutionally protected rights – which can lead to costly legal fees and court settlements for municipalities and their taxpayers.
The Example of Anti-Homeless Ordinances in Honolulu
The crisis of homelessness and the damaging impacts of punitive ordinances have been especially visible in Honolulu. In 2015, the state of Hawaii had the highest rate of homelessness in the United States, and Honolulu had one of the highest numbers of homeless people among in small cities. Honolulu has also become notorious for criminalizing actions including legal bans against sitting or lying on sidewalks in several districts and restrictions on storing property in spaces or living in parks. Enforcement of these city ordinances has resulted in “sweeps” or “raids” of homeless encampments in Honolulu.
Officials, business owners and members of the public are understandably concerned about ways in which visible homeless encampments could harm the city’s image, undercutting tourism, real-estate, and other commercial enterprises. But many people are unaware of the public and private costs inflicted by anti-homeless ordinances. A recent study found that the enforcement of Honolulu’s sidewalk property and nuisance ordinances, as well as sit-lie bans, has caused stress, and trauma. Respondents impacted by city ordinances and raids reported feeling violated, hurt, and ashamed — and “less than human.”
Homeless households also reported the loss of medicines, food, work supplies, children’s school materials, and official identification documents like state IDs or licenses. Such losses can create obstacles to accessing services, health care, nutritional assistance, work or income support, and employment. In Honolulu, homeless individuals have often lost their possessions or were forced either to pay up to $250 to retrieve property from a distant location or to go through a difficult and often logistically impossible waiver process.
City enforcement actions have required households to move, relocate, or lose the belongings they depend upon for basic survival. Relocation is especially burdensome for parents with children, persons with physical or mental disabilities, the sick and the elderly. Seizure of property can be traumatic, which is concerning since past experience with physical or domestic abuse is one risk factor for homelessness.
Research finds that Housing First policies provide an effective solution to chronic homelessness. Such strategies couple intensive support services and outreach to homeless people with the provision of stable housing. Honolulu has made wise investments in Housing First, with positive results. However, Honolulu’s raids and sweeps on homeless households or encampments work in opposition to its positive housing initiatives, because punitive measures can create a climate of fear, mistrust, and chaos that undermines engaged public outreach to help the homeless.
In Honolulu, approximately $700,000 per year has been spent on managing and disposing of property and enforcing anti- homeless ordinances. A recent court settlement found that the city of Honolulu violated constitutional rights against seizure of property without due process, making the city and county liable for legal fees and compensation for a class of plaintiffs.
Instead of spending resources on punishment and legal cases, Honolulu and other localities could devote resources to more permanent solutions – by expanding Housing First programs and supplementing them with additional steps such as rapid-rehousing, emergency rental relief to prevent eviction, and investments to increase the availability of low-income rental housing. Honolulu, like many high cost-of-living locales, should seek to maximize investments in public housing maintenance as well as in inclusionary zoning and rental assistance and tax credit programs to encourage more construction of low-income rentals.
Read more in Jennifer Darrah-Okike, Sarah Soakai, Susan Nakaoka, Tai Dunson-Strane, and Karen Umemoto. “‘It Was Like I Lost Everything’: The Harmful Impacts of Homeless-Targeted Policies.” Housing Policy Debate, (2018).
Single Father Adopts Five Siblings from Foster Care System
Back in October of 2020, single father Robert Carter adopted a set of five siblings so that they would never again be separated by the foster care system. Robert became inspired to foster after being split up from many of his own brothers and sisters when he entered the system at the age of 12. Following his emancipation, Robert became legally responsible for two of his siblings, which inspired him to continue to expand his family. He became a foster father to three of the five siblings and quickly realized that it was his purpose to adopt all five children.
A Systemic Issue
There are currently over 400,000 children in the foster care system, two-thirds of whom have a sibling in the system as well. Many of these children are separated from their siblings for reasons including a lack of families able to foster sibling groups, diverse needs of children and lack of resources for finding placements. Other siblings may be more likely to be separated by social workers due to myths that sibling sets will not integrate as well into a new family dynamic or that it is in the best interests of a parentified older child to be removed from their siblings.
Sibling separations, like Carter and his children experienced, often compounds the trauma that children in the system endure. In a foster care system where 63% of children are removed from their homes due to parental neglect, sibling relationships help to provide much needed stability and emotional support. These sustained relationships allow sibling sets to have greater success in school, better relationships with foster parents, more successful permanency outcomes, and better mental health. Yet, until the last couple of decades, the advantages of keeping siblings together were largely ignored from a policy perspective.
In 2008 this changed when keeping siblings together became national priority when the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act was passed. This Act “requires a state plan to provide for reasonable efforts for joint placement of siblings in the same foster care, kinship guardianship, or adoptive placement unless it would be contrary to the safety or wellbeing of any of them.” This act also requires that children who are unable to be placed with their siblings be allowed frequent visits with their other siblings.
While sibling placement is defined as a priority on the federal level, states may interpret the implementation of a plan differently. As of 2018, only 37 states have statutes requiring these reasonable efforts to keep siblings together during the placement process. States may often vary in their definition of “sibling” as well. While children often define their siblings as those who grew up with them, including step-siblings, often state laws only define sibling relationships in terms of blood relations.
Certain states, such as Oregon, have a Sibling Bill of Rights to help protect children in the foster care system. Some of these rights include being able “to live in the same home as (their) sibling if possible” and “to live with foster parents who are trained on the importance of sibling relationships.” Bills like these offer children autonomy and protection when entering the system so that they can advocate for themselves.
As laws continue to evolve to protect children in foster care like Robert and his kids, Robert hopes that foster and adoptive parents will step up to help keep families together. Here’s what he said in an interview with Aol.com:
“A lot of people think you have to be married to adopt or be a foster parent. I want people to know: No matter the situation, as long as you have the means to take care of a child [you can] become a foster parent,” he explains. “We have so many kids still in custody, there are 400 kids in Ohio waiting on forever homes. And I am happy that I was able to help encourage and inspire other people to step up.”
Currently, over 100,000 children are to be adopted, many of which risk being separated from their siblings. You can help to keep these children together by becoming a foster parent for a sibling set and learning more about the adoption process.
If you are unable to adopt or foster right now, research your state’s sibling protection measures and help advocate for policies that support sibling reunification.
Protecting Children from Harm in the Context of Distance Learning
The nation saw an uptick in domestic violence calls in the midst of the pandemic and the shutdown. The convergence of social isolation, economic pressure, and psychological stress created favorable conditions for abuse to occur. Adults are not the only victims of abuse in the home. Children, too, are vulnerable. History shows that violence against children and child exploitation intensify under conditions of isolation and economic pressure. While the pandemic may be temporary, child abuse often has long-term consequences.
School systems play a vital role in intervening in the lives of vulnerable children. In fact, schools make 21% of the reports to child protective services according to The Washington Post. When COVID-19 forced the schools to close, states saw a drastic drop in the number of children being referred to CPS. Unfortunately, this reduction did not mean that the incidence of abuse decreased. Indeed, as reports to CPS dropped, ER doctors saw a rise in more severe cases of abuse. Child abuse not only persisted, but it went unchecked during the shutdown. Without school personnel, community workers, medical and dental personnel, and other mandated reporters, there was no watchdog to report the abuse until children sustained injuries severe enough to warrant medical attention.
Clearly, schools serve a vital function in protecting children from harm. Now more than ever, they need to be alert and responsive to abuse as children return to school virtually. Distance learning presents unique opportunities and challenges that should be addressed proactively. Social workers can and should play a leadership role in adapting child welfare protocols for distance learning and retraining school personnel to identify and report suspicions of child abuse and neglect. This article outlines a proposed curriculum for child abuse and neglect reporting in the context of distance learning.
School personnel should be well-equipped to spot signs of child abuse and neglect in the context of distance learning. Asynchronous instruction affords teachers a glimpse into students’ homes. In addition to any disclosures of abuse, teachers should be especially attentive to:
- Verbal threats of harm, hidden, unexplained, suspicious, and/or repeated injuries
- Suicidal ideation in students
- Sexually inappropriate behaviors or images
- Weariness when an adult is present or approaches the student
- Excessive dirtiness or lack of proper hygiene in the home or the student
- Illegal substances or evidence of impairment in the caregiver
- Evidence of malnourishment in the student
School staff should also note that it is illegal under most state laws for children to be home alone unless they have demonstrated sufficient maturity, and there are safety structures in place. Young children should not be home alone. Furthermore, children with a record of behavior or emotional problems (e.g. frequent suspensions) should not be in the home unattended. Children who are able to be home alone should be able to access safe adults in case of an emergency, and there should not be hazardous conditions or items present. Children who can take care of themselves may not be mature enough or capable of taking care of younger children. School staff members play a critical role in monitoring these conditions. Clear steps should be outlined for reporting any safety concerns or suspicions in a timely and accurate manner to school personnel (e.g. principal, guidance counselor) and child protective services.
Because teachers will be exposed to the live conditions of the home, they have to be prepared to respond to crisis situations. Crisis management in the context of distance learning is different from that in more traditional settings because the staff person is physically distant from the student, and there may not be another adult present with the child for reinforcement. As a result, they are at a disadvantage in terms of their ability to intervene.
Still, there are measures staff can take to manage the crisis from afar. In the event of an imminent threat to the safety of a student, staff can adapt telehealth protocols such as:
(1) call local 911/EMS while maintaining contact with the student
(2) identify bystanders who may be able to assist by providing information, monitoring the student, and/or intervening, as appropriate
(3) obtain the student’s physical location, an alternate contact in case of a disconnection or other technical issue, and contact information for the student’s caregiver
(4) while maintaining contact with the student, contact the caregiver to advise him/her of the situation
School personnel has an important responsibility in monitoring student attendance. Countless children can be lost to human trafficking and exploitation if schools falter in this duty. As such, the onus is on the schools to locate children who do not report for school. Students should be expected, at a minimum, to check in occasionally so that school personnel can check on their well-being.
Finally, school administrators should be cognizant of the increased risk of exploitation by school staff when supervision and monitoring are lacking. Clear codes of conduct should be put in place or adapted to guide online interactions between students and school staff. Outside meetups should be prohibited unless they occur at school during school hours with proper supervision. Administrators should ‘‘float’’ from class to class to monitor interactions and conduct in the virtual classrooms. Caregivers should also be encouraged to monitor online learning. An adult should be present at all times during synchronous sessions to supervise and provide support.
Schools play a critical role in protecting our most vulnerable population. Critical attention should be given to adapting child welfare protocols for distance learning so that school personnel can make the necessary efforts to be effective in this capacity under these unprecedented conditions. Social workers should proactively address this issue and retrain school staff in child welfare protocols.
Morgan State University School of Social Work Secures Contract to Support Baltimore City Pediatric Primary Care Providers
Program Will Provide Critical Aid to the Maryland Health Department’s Effort to Address Disparities and Better Serve the Behavioral Health Needs of Underserved Communities
The primary goal of the project is to support pediatric primary care providers, strengthening their capacity to meet the behavioral health needs of young people in their care. To accomplish this goal, Morgan State and its M.S.W. program participants will engage in training, telephonic and telepsychiatry consultation, information gathering and dissemination, referral for specialized services available statewide and additional activities designed to support primary care providers.Morgan State University School of Social Work (SSW) has been awarded a $960,641 subcontract from the Behavioral Health Administration (BHA) of the Maryland Department of Health (MDH) to provide frontline support in assessing and treating mental health needs of Baltimore City families and youth.
Teaming with the Behavioral Health Integration Program for Pediatric Primary Care Program (BHIPP), faculty and students from Morgan’s Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) program will conduct critical field work focusing exclusively on underserved minority communities, many of which have experienced long-term trauma and great disparities in mental health treatment. The effort will establish a collaborative learning community to support behavioral integration and foster interprofessional learning opportunities for next-generation social work clinicians.
“For our future clinicians who aspire to affect the communities they serve in bold, meaningful ways, programs like these offer invaluable field experience that will inevitably help bridge gaps and enhance service within our most underserved populations,” said Anna McPhatter, Ph.D., LCSW, dean of the School of Social Work at Morgan State. “As an anchor institution in Baltimore, we are proud to carry the mantle by addressing critical issues in behavioral health and creating new pathways for rehabilitation.”
The Morgan State BHA/MDH subcontract in coordination with BHIPP places a significant emphasis on urban areas and populations suffering from shortages of child psychiatry practitioners and other health-related disparities. Working collaboratively with primary care providers, Morgan M.S.W. program participants will be instrumental in early intervention, reducing long-held stigmas associated with mental illness and increasing the population’s general knowledge of mental health services.
“To utilize the expanding knowledge base of the social work profession and address the growing complexity of the population it serves, it is important that all social workers be equipped with practical field work related to their academic pursuits,” said Laurens G. Van Sluytman, Ph.D., LCSW, associate professor and assistant dean of SSW and co-principal investigator for the program.
SSW will identify and supervise students to serve as social work interns, Dr. Van Sluytman said. The interns will conduct field placements within primary care settings and establish working relationships with pediatric offices to coordinate mental health screenings and psychiatric consultations and better understand the overall goal of integrated care. Dr. Van Sluytman anticipates that, through this advance practicum, Morgan students will gain deeper insights into the implementation process, identify strengths and weaknesses within the program design and improve upon the program in future scale-up efforts.
The expanded minority health component secured by the Social Work program at Morgan through this subcontract is part of an ongoing statewide interagency initiative that has enlisted the support of advanced-year M.S.W. students from Maryland higher education institutions. The project was initially forged as a partnership with the University of Maryland School of Medicine and The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and was broadened to include Salisbury University, which placed interns in rural pediatric primary care practices in Western Maryland and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Morgan State’s involvement and its emphasis on urban/minority health further broadens the scope of the project.
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