As unemployment and foreclosures continue to drive record increases in homelessness, many cities are stepping up efforts to criminalize it. That's wrong, ineffective and costly. But some communities are bucking the trend, demonstrating that there is a better way.
Rising homelessness and a ruptured safety net mean that more and more people are living in public places, and many cities are responding by criminalizing the public performance of simple, necessary acts of human existence, such as sleeping and eating. According to a national report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, which surveyed 188 cities nationwide from 2009 to 2011, prohibitions on begging and on camping each increased by 7 percent, and prohibitions on loitering increased by 10 percent.
Some cities have gone further, targeting not just homeless people, but charitable groups that are trying to help. Recently, Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, began enforcing a new law restricting organizations from offering food to homeless and poor people in public places.
City officials cite the need to bolster business and tourism, by protecting visitors and city residents from seeing people begging on the streets, sleeping in parks, or lined up for free food on the sidewalks. Others say they are simply acting in the best interest of homeless people: allowing people to sleep in public places "enables" their homelessness, and serving food in public is unsanitary, posing a health risk to poor and homeless people.
Of course homeless people should not be living in public places--and it's disgraceful that in a wealthy country like ours, so many people lack food to eat and a home to live in. But the cities' arguments simply don't hold up. The evidence is clear that even emergency resources to help homeless people are grossly lacking. According to conservative federal estimates, some 40 percent of the homeless population nationally lives on the street due to lack of shelter space. Most people living in public spaces are not doing so by choice, but because they have no other option.
Moreover, even in cases where shelter is available, some homeless people might "prefer" being outside, because what shelter typically means is a bed, cot, or floor mat for a night--with no storage space for their things, early morning departure times, and a 30-day or other time limit. This might be tolerable as a short-term emergency solution, but over the long term it is not sustainable. Shelter is not a long-term solution--housing is. And housing that is affordable for very poor people is in extremely short supply, currently meeting only 30 percent of the need nationally.
Hunger is also a serious problem, and cities themselves confirm that they are severely under-resourced in addressing it. In fact, Philadelphia reported turning away 29 percent of requests for emergency food assistance last year, due to lack of resources. And while ensuring sanitary conditions when food is served in public is important, surely that can be done without simply prohibiting its provision.
Criminalizing homelessness and poverty also does not make fiscal sense. Studies show that placement in permanent affordable housing is significantly less expensive than the cost of placement in jail or prison. In many cities, it was also less expensive than emergency shelter.
Moreover, criminalization makes it much harder for people to exit homelessness. An arrest record can be a barrier to housing, employment, or even shelter--and simply getting caught up in the criminal justice system can have a devastating impact. As described in the Law Center's report, a service provider in Wenatchee, WA told this story:
A family of two parents and three children that had been experiencing homelessness for a year and a half applied for a two-bedroom apartment. The day before a scheduled meeting with the apartment manager during the final stages of acquiring the lease, the father of the family was arrested for public urination. The arrest occurred at an hour when no public restrooms were available for use. Due to the arrest, the father was unable to make the appointment with the apartment manager and the property was rented to another person. Over three months later, the family was still homeless and searching for housing.
This past April, a new federal report condemned laws and policies criminalizing homelessness, calling them potentially unconstitutional, as well as potentially violative of our country's international human rights commitments. Issued jointly by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the U.S. Department of Justice, the report was the direct result of a mandate won by the Law Center and its allies requiring the federal government to address the growing tide of punitive city laws and policies and to urge cities to adopt more constructive approaches to street homelessness.
Constructive approaches exist, and over the past few years some cities have adopted them. At the state level, Rhode Island passed a "homeless Bill of Rights" earlier this month. The first such law in the country, it notes that "many people have been rendered homeless due to economic hardship, a severe shortage of safe, affordable housing, and a shrinking social safety-net," and provides legal protection from discrimination in areas including housing, employment, and voting. It's only a first step, but it's a strong step toward actually ending homelessness.
With enough bad luck, virtually anyone can lose everything and become homeless. When this happens, a fair and civilized society should offer a helping hand, not beat the victim down further. This country can and must do better.