Sanctuary districts were created by the American government in response to serious social and economic problems that had resulted in an increased rate of poverty and social destitution during the early 21st century. By the early 2020s, every major city in the United States had a sanctuary district.
Sometime prior to 2024, the Federal Employment Act of 1946 was repealed, which had stated, at least in theory, that the United States government bore the responsibility for ensuring economic stability in the country. Symbolically, this meant that society had washed its hands of responsibility for combating the endemic poverty resulting from a global economic depression.
Sanctuary districts were originally established as places of sanctuary for those without jobs or homes. People with a criminal record were not allowed. In the beginning many people entered the districts voluntarily because of the promise that the administration would help them get jobs so they can find a way out of their destitution. Despite the benevolent intent, however, conditions inside the camps quickly degenerated to the point where by 2024 overcrowding was a pervasive problem throughout the Districts. More people were taken to Sanctuaries than buildings could accommodate, so many of them were sleeping on the streets, often on sidewalks or in tents or cardboard boxes. The government had also begun to forcefully locate people there, including people with mental health problems, or "dims", who could not afford health care services as well as the financially destitute. Laws prohibiting sleeping on the streets were further used to justify the forceful relocation of residents to the Sanctuaries.
Internment in the Sanctuaries amounted to nothing less than imprisonment, as Sanctuary inhabitants were legally forbidden to leave "for their own protection". Sanctuaries also did not provide any meaningful job placement services so that people could find a way out. By 2024, with a bad economy and employment levels at record lows with no end in sight, residents rarely, if ever, obtained the employment opportunities they needed to leave the Sanctuaries, de facto guaranteeing that the "residents" of the Sanctuary Districts remained life-long inhabitants, detained without due process. These inhabitants were often derogatorily referred to as "gimmies" – as in "give me food, shelter, a job, etc." – even by Sanctuary case workers and employees.
Children whose parents had become unemployed were sent as a family to Sanctuary Districts. While the Sanctuaries were theoretically meant as a stop-gap measure, in reality people stayed there on a long term basis. This meant that children growing up on the inside had even less of a chance of finding a way out of the destitution than their parents.
Before long, Sanctuary Districts had essentially become the twenty-first century version of medieval debtors' prisons where the poor, homeless, and mentally ill were kept out of sight. Once they were out of sight, they were forgotten by the rest of society.
Operation and living conditions
If someone could not provide an identification card, proof of employment and/or residence, they were automatically relocated to the Sanctuary District. New arrivals were brought to a processing station where they would wait for hours to be identified and registered. Typical processing of internees consisted of response to a questionnaire to determine whether the internee was mentally ill – or as they called it a "dim" – or a "gimmie". A resident that had failed to adjust to life inside the sanctuaries was called a "ghost". After determining their status, incoming residents were then given ration cards with which they could obtain food and water at various distribution points in the Sanctuaries. Specific housing was not provided. Instead, residents were asked to simply occupy any building they wanted.
Physically, the Sanctuary Districts were what were formerly run-down neighborhoods of major cities, which were closed off by erecting cement perimeter walls, literally separating the rich from the poor. Within the Sanctuary District itself no one actually owned a specific building or property, as in theory they "belonged to everyone". In practice, this meant that people detained inside the Districts lived as squatters, with the strong pushing the weak onto the street. Even comparatively well-organized buildings, defended by local gangs, suffered from rampant overcrowding, with so many people simply squatting in hallways that it was difficult to move. On the streets, crude shantytowns were erected with people living in tents, or some families living out of cardboard boxes. Security guards – the Sanctuary District Police – were over-stretched and underpaid due to budget cuts, and while they did some basic patrols, it did little to curb internal violence. Their main duty was to keep people from trying to escape.
Food was rationed, but even with those measures there were regular shortages. Additionally, medical treatment, both physical and mental, was inaccessible, and the threat of physical violence from other inmates or the cynical and hardened guards was a constant threat. Even so, many people seeking to hide from law enforcement, creditors, or other social elements sought to lose themselves in the hidden depths of the Sanctuaries, often aided by the administrative staffs who felt sympathy for them, despite the conditions of the camps.
Surprisingly, the upper classes of the United States had convinced themselves that they had actually solved their nation's massive social and economic problems, with the Sanctuary Districts serving as a means to "sweep under the rug" people who were suffering economically, and simply ignore them.
As even Benjamin Sisko admitted, economic conditions were so bad that they could not be changed overnight, and there were no new jobs to simply give to the Sanctuary District residents. Even so, social and governmental elements had simply stopped trying, feeling that their economic problems were too big to ever fix.
The Bell Riots
On September 1, 2024, residents of Sanctuary District A in San Francisco, led by Gabriel Bell, took over an administrative processing center, holding six employees hostage and gaining access to the Net in order to broadcast to the world the horrid conditions inside the Sanctuaries.
The Bell Riots, as they were later named ended when California Governor Robert Chen ordered National Guard troops to retake the processing center by force. Hundreds of sanctuary residents were killed, including Bell himself, although none of the hostages were harmed.
Before the riots, the public had mostly remained unaware of how bad the conditions were in sanctuary districts, as their records were not posted on the net. But in the wake of the Bell Riots and the senseless deaths of so many people, American public opinion turned against the Sanctuary policy, and the districts were eventually abolished. By the 24th century the Sanctuary Districts, and with them lack of empathy and public apathy toward the plight of the masses, were seen as one of the darkest chapters of Earth history. The Bell Riots were of such historical significance that had they not happened, the United Federation of Planets might not have ever been formed. (DS9: "Past Tense, Part I", "Past Tense, Part II")