The criminalization of homelessness refers to measures which prohibit life-sustaining activities such as sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and/or asking for money/resources in public spaces. These ordinances include criminal penalties for violations of these acts.
There are multiple types of criminalization measures which include:
- Carrying out sweeps (confiscating personal property including tents, bedding, papers, clothing, medications, etc.) of city areas in which homeless people live
- Making panhandling illegal
- Making it illegal for groups to share food with homeless persons in public spaces
- Enforcing a “quality of life” ordinance relating to public activity and hygiene
Unfortunately, over the past 25 years, cities across the country have penalized people who are forced to carryout out life-sustaining activities on the street and in public spaces; despite the fact these communities lack adequate affordable housing and shelter space. Ultimately, many of these measures are designed to move homeless persons out of sight, and at times out of a given city.
Criminalization measures which punish homelessness and activities necessary to survive on the street are counterproductive to ending homelessness. Associated fines and criminal records provide greater barriers for many to becoming re-housed, and often perpetuate negative sentiments towards people who are homeless.
The US Interagency Council on Homelessness has strongly advised local governments not to enact laws criminalizing homelessness as it fails to increase access to services and tends to create additional barriers for homeless people while also undermining the impact of service providers.
Consequently, many criminalization measures:
Violate homeless persons’ constitutional rights
- 1st Amendment protection of free speech – Laws restricting speech like begging targets speech based on content, or doesn’t allow for alternative channels of communication.
- 4th Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizure – Law enforcement being allowed to destroy a homeless person’s belongings.
- 8th Amendment protection from cruel and unusual punishment – Imposing criminal penalties for engaging in necessary life activities.
- 14th Amendment protecting citizenship, due process, and equal protection – Vague statutes which don’t give a person notice of prohibited conduct and encourage arbitrary enforcement.
Exacerbate the situation
- Having a criminal record adds to the already difficult situation of finding employment, getting housing, or being eligible for certain services.
- Additionally, the criminalization of homelessness adds to an already overburdened criminal justice system by detaining individuals who have not committed serious crimes. One night in jail costs 3x more on average than a shelter, and law enforcement is both unprepared and incapable of handling homelessness and related issues.
Create issues of morality
There is a clear moral issue with punishing someone for carrying out life-sustaining activities in public when there are no alternatives. People who are already suffering are being punished further for suffering.
Furthermore, the criminalization of homelessness is aimed at the visual ramifications of homelessness, not the root causes. Not only does it fail to address the underlying causes, but it further undermines the challenges of homelessness.
The trend of criminalizing homelessness continues to grow. Among the 188 cities reviewed in NCH’s report, the following increases were identified in criminalization measures:
- 7% increase in prohibitions on begging or panhandling
- 7% increase in prohibitions on camping in particular public places
- 10% increase in prohibitions on loitering in particular public places
By focusing on reversing the criminalization of homelessness, the additional obstacles homeless people face can be removed from the already difficult task of helping resolve homelessness.
Many statewide Homeless Bill of Rights have passed or are being considered that provide alternatives to criminalization and protection of the civil rights of people experiencing homelessness.
Publications and Documents
- Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities
- NLCHP - No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities