Film on homeless looks at local laws

Emily Kaiser

When she began her work with the homeless 20 years ago, Margaret Hastings felt the need to increase awareness, she said.

Hastings, a local director, rented out the Oak Street Cinema last weekend to screen her first short film, “Illegal to be Homeless.” The showing drew approximately 100 people to the theater.

Her 26-minute documentary is meant to address problems with Twin Cities laws that make homelessness illegal while not providing the homeless with adequate shelter, Hastings said.

Minneapolis City Council member Dean Zimmermann, Ward 6, attended the Saturday showing and said the laws are stripping homeless people of their rights.

“When people are homeless, their number one right is the right to survive, and they need to find a way to get out of the cold,” he said.

In the film, several homeless people describe police confiscating their tents and makeshift homes. City ordinances prohibit people from setting up temporary housing, such as tents, on public or private property.

Hastings said not enough is being done for the city’s homeless and the laws make it impossible for homeless people to live safely.

“One of the problems is there is nowhere to go,” said Hastings, who spent $6,000 of her own money to fund the film. “Police will break up and destroy homeless camps, and there is nothing being done to help them.”

Zimmermann said the homeless are often caught in a “terrible Catch-22” when they are trying to find a place to stay warm.

“Homelessness is a full-time job, and that takes over your emotions and brain power so you stop looking at long-term solutions,” he said.

Zimmermann said giving the homeless adequate and reliable emergency shelter would allow them to spend more time looking for jobs and getting off the streets.

Simpson Housing Services, located in Minneapolis, houses 45 men and 20 women a night in its shelters, Executive Director Jim Smith said. The spots are usually filled at all times of the year, he said.

Smith said homeless shelters also provide for many young children who are forced onto the streets with their parents. According to research conducted in 2004 by St. Paul’s Wilder Research Center, approximately 10,600 children are homeless or living in temporary housing every night.

Kristen Denzer, president of Habitat for Humanity at the University, said homelessness is not an issue of law but one of affordable housing. The group gives students the opportunity to build affordable housing two to three Saturdays a month.

Meanwhile, Zimmermann said, he blamed the state government for failing to fund affordable housing in cities such as Minneapolis.

“There is no real shortage of housing,” he said. “There is a shortage of money for people to pay for housing, and as long as this dislocation is there, there will be people on the street.”

Steve Johnson, deputy police chief for the University Police Department, said the current laws apply to all people on campus.

Johnson said people caught trespassing or sleeping in University buildings are usually doing more than sleeping or staying warm. He said the people often urinate, create a mess or steal.

Although the film looks to the city government for more assistance, Zimmermann said there is very little it can do.

“Our budget is very tight,” he said. “We are cutting back way beyond what we should because of the tremendous budget hits we have taken.”