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Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities

Published by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, July 2009


OVERVIEW OF THE NATIONAL PROBLEM

The housing and homelessness crisis in the United States has worsened, and many cities report an increase in demands for emergency shelter. On March 27, 2008, CBS News reported that 38 percent of foreclosures involved rental properties, affecting at least 168,000 households. [1]  The Sarasota, Florida, Herald Tribune noted that, by some estimates, more than 311,000 tenants, nationwide, have been evicted from homes this year after lenders took over the properties. [2] In 2008, 19 of the 25 cities surveyed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported an increase in the number homeless persons, with homelessness increasing an average of 12%. 11 of these 25 cities noted an increase in homeless people who are also employed, and 16 cities reported an increase in the number of homeless families, which according to the survey account for a quarter of all homeless people. [3]  In consideration of additional requests for emergency shelter, most cities have made efforts to expand their capacity, and yet many cities do not have adequate shelter space to accommodate their needs. Many of the 25 cities surveyed in the U.S. Conference of Mayors Hunger and Homelessness Survey for 2008 noted that they had to turn people away because of a lack of capacity often or always. [3]

The lack of available shelter space - leaves many homeless persons with no choice but to struggle to survive on the streets of our cities. Over the course of the year, 3.5 million Americans will experience homelessness,[4] and this number is only expected to increase over the next year due to the foreclosure crisis, increases in poverty, and a pattern of steady increases in family homelessness. [3]

AN UNJUST RESPONSE TO THE PROBLEM

It is an unfortunate trend of the past 25 years that cities around the country have turned to the criminal justice system to respond to people living in public spaces. This trend includes measures that target homeless people by making it illegal to perform life-sustaining activities in public, including prohibitions on sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and begging in public spaces. There are often criminal penalties for violation of these laws. 

TYPES OF CRIMINALIZATION MEASURES

The criminalization of homelessness takes many forms, including:

  • Legislation that makes it illegal to sleep, sit, or store personal belongings in public spaces, though in many instances people are forced to live in these areas of a city
  • Selective enforcement of more neutral laws, such as loitering or open container laws, against homeless persons
  • Sweeps of city areas where homeless persons are living to drive them out of the area, frequently resulting in the destruction of those persons’ personal property, including important personal documents and medication
  • Laws punishing people for begging or panhandling in order to move poor or homeless persons out of a city or downtown area

CRIMINALIZATION ON THE RISE

City ordinances frequently serve as a prominent tool to criminalize homelessness.  Of the 235 cities surveyed for our report¹:

  • 33% prohibit “camping” in particular public places in the city and 17% have city-wide prohibitions on “camping.”
  • 30% prohibit sitting/lying in certain public places.
  • 47% prohibit loitering in particular public areas and 19% prohibit loitering citywide.
  • 47% prohibit begging in particular public places; 49% prohibit aggressive panhandling and 23% have citywide prohibitions on begging.

The trend of criminalizing homelessness appears to be growing. Of the 224 cities surveyed by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) and the National Law Center for Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP) in both 2006 and 2009:

  • There has been a 7% increase in laws prohibiting “camping” in particular public places.
  • There has been an 11% increase in laws prohibiting loitering in particular public places.
  • There has been a 6% increase in laws prohibiting begging in particular public places and a 5% increase in laws prohibiting aggressive panhandling.

Another trend documented in the report is increased city efforts to target homeless persons indirectly by placing restrictions on providers serving food to poor and homeless persons in public spaces.

While many cities are cracking down on homeless persons living in public spaces, the latest U.S. Conference of Mayors Hunger and Homelessness report states that many cities do not have adequate shelter to meet their needs. [3]

THE MEANEST CITIES

The top 10 Meanest Cities have been chosen based on the number of anti-homeless laws in a city has, the enforcement of those laws and severity of penalties related to them, as well as the general political climate toward homeless people, local advocate support for Meanest City designation, history of homeless criminalization measures, and the existence of pending or recently enacted criminalization legislation. Although several of the report’s top 10 Meanest Cities have made efforts to address homelessness in their communities, the punitive practices highlighted in the report impede progress toward solving the problem. 

1. Los Angeles, CA
2. St. Petersburg, FL
3. Orlando, FL
4. Atlanta, GA
5. Gainesville, FL
6. Kalamazoo, MI
7. San Francisco, CA
8. Honolulu, HI
9. Bradenton, FL
10. Berkeley, CA

 

The Criminalization of Homelessness report comes out every two years.
The entire report is available on NCH’s website: (www.nationalhomeless.org).

 

Source: National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) and National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP), Illegal to be Homeless: The Criminalization of Homelessness in the United States (2002); NCH, Illegal to be Homeless: The Criminalization of Homelessness in the United States (2003); NCH, Illegal to be Homeless: The Criminalization of Homelessness in the United States (2004);  NCH and NLCHP, A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities (2006); NCH and NLCHP, Homes not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities (2009).

 

1 National Coalition for the Homeless, NCH Public Policy Recommendations: Foreclosure and Homelessness Prevention, available at www.nationalhomeless.org/publications/facts/2008Policy/Foreclosure.pdf; National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, Indicators of Increasing Homelessness Due to the Foreclosure and Economic Crises (2009), available at http://www.nlchp.org/view_report.cfm?id=288.

2 Kate Spinner, You’re Paying; Is Your Landlord?, Herald Tribune, Dec. 1, 2008, available at http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20081201/ARTICLE/812010376/2055/NEWS?Title=You_re_paying__Is_the_landlord_.

3  U.S. Conference of Mayors, A Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness in America’s Cities: A 25-City Survey (2008).

4 Martha Burt et al., Helping America’s Homeless 49-50 (The Urban Institute Press, 2001).

National Coalition for the Homeless
2201 P Street NW
Washington, DC 20037-1033
202-462-4822
info@nationalhomeless.org

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