Homeless People Are Facing More Punishments For Existing, Report Finds

People without permanent housing are subject to an increasing number of laws that are nearly impossible for them to obey.

As the number of people without stable housing in the U.S. grows, laws criminalizing homelessness have also been on the rise for more than a decade, a report published Wednesday found.

The report from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, the only one of its kind to survey the entire country, looks at data from 2006 to the present.

The picture it paints is one of homeless people facing more laws that are nearly impossible for them to obey, resulting in fines and punishments that only perpetuate the cycle of poverty and make it more difficult for them to find housing.

Here are some of the biggest takeaways from the report:

The criminalization of homelessness is on the rise.

There’s been a nationwide rise in laws prohibiting sleeping in public, even as emergency shelters are unable to meet the demand for beds. As of 2019, 51% of cities have at least one law banning sleeping in public. Thirteen of those laws have been introduced since 2006.

Tent camping in public is prohibited even more often. Currently, 72% of cities have one or more laws on the books banning it, with cities enacting 33 of those laws since 2006.

The biggest uptick in bans affecting the homeless concerns sleeping in vehicles, which 50% of cities currently ban. Since 2006, 64 laws banning vehicle sleeping have gone on the books. A whopping 22 of them were put into effect in the last three years.

There has also been an uptick in laws banning begging, sitting or lying in public, rummaging and dumpster-diving and loitering.

A Los Angeles homeless encampment.
A Los Angeles homeless encampment.
MattGush via Getty Images

Plus, there are more laws stopping other people from helping the homeless, such as a rise in bans on sharing free food in public.

“Restricting access to free, safe food will do nothing to end homelessness, which is rooted in a lack of access to affordable housing; instead restrictions on sharing drive hungry people to search for food in unsanitary places or causes them to spend their meager income on food rather than saving it for housing,” the report argued.

Criminalizing homelessness helps perpetuate it.

Impounding the possessions of homeless people or fining them costs them money they could otherwise spend on food or shelter ― and could even land them in jail.

“There is no comprehensive data on the extent of criminal justice debt owed by poor people, but experts estimate that these fines amount to billions of dollars,” the report found. “These fines, if unpaid, can result in incarceration, even though so-called debtor’s prisons have been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

It’s a financial loss for cities, too, the report argued. Studies in multiple municipalities have found that governments save money when they help house homeless people instead of spending money to incarcerate them or hospitalize them with conditions linked to living unsheltered.

The Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, for example, reported that between 2012 and 2015, its permanent housing program saved the county more than $6.5 million dollars.

Some cities have especially cruel policies.

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty places some cities and states on a “Hall of Shame” for their homelessness policies in recent years.

Among them is Kansas City, Missouri, where in November 2018, health department officials poured bleach on chili, soup and sandwiches offered to homeless residents by the group Free Hot Soup, stating they were deterring people from eating food that officials considered to be a safety hazard.

A tiny house community for formerly homeless people in Denver.
A tiny house community for formerly homeless people in Denver.
Hyoung Chang/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images via Getty Images

In Sacramento, California, and Ocala, Florida, the report noted, police used aggressive anti-homeless sweeps and injured people in some instances.

The City of West Palm Beach, Florida, was not on the “Hall of Shame” list, but it was noted elsewhere in the report for continually blasting the children’s song “Baby Shark” outside an event center this summer to ward off homeless people at night.

There’s one big takeaway from the success stories.

The report comes out in favor of “housing first” solutions to homelessness, which are based on the idea that first getting people into stable homes allows them to next address other issues ― addiction, mental health challenges or joblessness ― and avoid falling into homelessness again.

In Marin County, California, chronic homelessness dropped by 28% and overall homelessness dropped by 7% after the county adopted a “housing first” approach.

Seattle has found success with building tiny houses to quickly house homeless people in small, prefabricated dwellings complete with kitchens, bathrooms and sleeping areas. Seattle and Denver have both established entire tiny house villages.

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