Hattiesburg arrests of homeless increasing - WDAM-TV 7-News, Weather, Sports-Hattiesburg, MS

Hattiesburg arrests of homeless increasing

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) -

Population under siege might be dramatic - with an estimated 700 and some homeless people living in the Hattiesburg area, there were only 54 arrests for vagrancy in 2011. However that number is spiking in the first half of 2012 and, right now, is on track to total over 100 by years end.

When asked if the Hattiesburg Police Department is cracking down, Public Information Officer Lieutenant Eric Proulx says: "Not true, we have sympathy to their situation, we have a job to do though."

Proulx says no HPD policy has changed; formal or informal orders to crack down were not issued

"No policy change, we've done business the same way that we've done for years," said Proulx.

Chris Wilkes, a member of Mississippi United to End Homelessness, says the number of homeless people in the area has not increased.

It is possible that the higher numbers could demonstrate leniency among officers who are reluctant to slap a $500 disorderly conduct fine on a homeless person, so they choose a $50 vagrancy charge instead.

Wilkes checks city arrest records every morning, but is not focused on the growth in arrests; he's concerned that there are any arrests at all for vagrancy, which is to say, cuffing a person because of their housing status.

"When people think of homelessness, they tend to think of all these behaviors that really aren't homelessness and you don't have to be homeless to commit, like panhandling and begging and public drunk and loitering," said Wilkes. "All of those behaviors can be addressed through laws that specifically address those behaviors, and you'll see it in the arrest record, people are arrested for all of those things."

Wilkes says it's a civil rights issue.

"How are there guys different from a lot of the people who are in poverty in Hattiesburg but have a place to stay," says Wilkes. "We don't need a vagrancy law in Mississippi that arrests people for lack of housing, it's just not necessary."

But state law makes it a crime and the police are enforcers

"We have a whole host of different issues that people call in and complain in regards to these people and when we get out with them, often we will charge them with vagrancy once we realize that they are a vagrant," said Proulx.

Vagrancy arrests are usually paired with other charges like public intoxication, panhandling and disorderly conduct.

"Yes there are laws on the books where we could go and arrest them just because they're homeless and they're not working, but this is not a police state," said Proulx.

If it's a muddled line for police between when to charge someone with vagrancy and when not to, that confusion trickles down. Wayne is a mentally impaired homeless man - he used to have a tent but traded it in

"He's been told somewhere along the way, just don't set up a tent and you'll be left alone," said Wilkes.

So Wayne sleeps in the open - propping two umbrellas together when it rains. An example of the gray area between whether you can and cannot live in the woods, and what living actually means.

Copyright 2012 WDAM. All rights reserve.df

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