Criminalization of Homelessness on the Rise in U.S. Cities

By: Kristen Sherman

In July 2009, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (“NLCHP”) and the National Coalition for the Homelessness (“NCH”) published a report entitled “Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities.” According to that report, “the trend of criminalizing homelessness continues to grow” during the same time our economic crisis has been creating a larger homeless population.

There are a variety of criminal ordinances that either directly or indirectly target the homeless community. These measures include laws that prohibit: (1) activities such as sleeping, sitting or keeping personal belongings in public spaces; (2) begging or panhandling; (3) sharing food with homeless people in public spaces; and (4) the exercise of certain “quality of life” or personal hygiene (public urination) practices in public spaces where no public facilities are available. In addition, law enforcement may use selective enforcement of certain (outwardly or apparently) neutral laws or conduct sweeps of areas where homeless people congregate to drive them out of an area or a city and away from service providers.

The report concludes that the use of criminal enforcement to deter or punish homeless people fails for several reasons. Such measures never address the underlying causes of homelessness. On the contrary, criminal punishment only exacerbates the problems of homeless. Those homeless individuals who are sent to jail and develop a criminal record are further hindered in their efforts to get jobs and housing. It is also more expensive to jail an individual than provide permanent supportive housing.

In addition, courts around the country have found that some criminal laws are unenforceable because they violate the federal and state constitutional rights of homeless individuals. These rights include the right to free speech under the First Amendment, the Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment and the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Other courts have invalidated criminal laws applied to the homeless on the grounds that the language of the ordinances is unconstitutionally vague and fails to offer the accused sufficient due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.

The NLCHP and the NCH suggest a host of alternatives to criminalization. For example, rather than punish individuals for panhandling, some cities and towns such as Denver, Colorado and Baltimore, Maryland have set up “donation meters” that are similar to parking meters in the hopes of reducing the amount of panhandling. Donors can deposit money into the meters and the proceeds are distributed to local homeless service providers. Other cities have launched initiatives that are designed to provide homeless individuals with greater access to food, temporary housing and jobs so that they do not need to engage in potentially criminal activities such as panhandling.

While it is not listed among the top 10 “meanest cities” in the report, the City of Providence has ordinances that have the potential to disproportionately impact homeless people. Loitering at certain places such as bus terminals is prohibited. In addition, the City ordinances prohibit aggressive panhandling. Finally, the City ordinances that limit or prohibit obstruction of particular public places may impact the ability of the homeless to rest or camp in certain spaces.

The President recently signed the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act of 2009. The federal Interagency Council on Homelessness has been tasked to devise constructive alternatives to criminalization measures that can be used by cities around the country.

For the complete report please visit www.nlchp.org

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