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I. (A) Introduction

This report, "Illegal to Be Homeless: The Criminalization of Homelessness in the United States," is the third annual report since 2002. This study documents the widespread trend of violations of the basic human rights of people experiencing homelessness in 179 communities in 48 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. Through the passage of possibly unconstitutional laws, the "selective enforcement" of existing laws, arbitrary police practices, and discriminatory public regulations, people experiencing homelessness face overwhelming hardships in addition to their daily struggle for survival. Instead of spending precious public resources and funding to address the significant lack of affordable housing in this country, local governments in urban, suburban, and rural areas divert these funds to local Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and to policing, which often penalize the very people this money could help. In addition to continuing the documentation of this trend, this report emphasizes the connections between the creation of a public environment of intolerance and the increasing danger of living on the streets that results from this attitude.

This report is an annual summary of continuous investigation with evidence that criminalization is not only a local issue that is duplicated nationwide, but is also a national concern that demands a federal response. We have asserted and continue to assert that a pattern and practice of civil rights violations and unconstitutional behaviors by local government authorities, including the police and other city agencies, exists in many cities around the country. These practices exact enormous economic, social, political and individual costs and do nothing to prevent and end homelessness that plagues individuals nationwide.

With the unemployment rate still near its highest point in a decade, and with even deeper cuts in funding for social services and housing supports than we anticipated, the immediate future for the increasing number of people experiencing homelessness is desperate. For those people forced to live in public spaces without access to shelter, public restrooms, and places to store their belongings, life continues to be disastrous. Sympathy for homeless people depends in large measure on understanding the economic causes of homelessness and the oppressive conditions of living without a private space. Legislating against the behavior and circumstances of people who have no place to go is a giant step backward in the effort to end homelessness.

It is important to note that a number of city governments continue to violate the civil rights of homeless persons. A main goal of this report is to document these policies and show that, while many of the laws criminalizing homelessness are new, and many of the cities are cited for the first time, nevertheless a number of cities cited here have been among the worst cities for civil rights violations since data began being collected. The spread of the pattern and practice of using incarceration and harassment as an apparent attempt to "deter" people from being homeless must be met by a combination of tactics and organized efforts.

(B) A Working Definition of Criminalization

Class discrimination is still legal and acceptable in the United States. There is no protected status for those who are economically oppressed or excluded, much less those who are homeless, although homeless people are very often the targets of discrimination. On the contrary, the growing body of laws passed by local governments criminalizes activities necessary to survival on the streets. Because people without homes often have no option but to perform necessary functions in public, they are vulnerable to judgment, harassment and arrest for committing "nuisance" violations in public. For these people, economic or housing status effectively becomes the cause of their incarceration under "quality of life" ordinances. Instead of providing affordable housing and livable wages, our communities choose to protect themselves from visible homelessness under the guise of assumed threats to public safety.

Criminalization is the process of legislating penalties for the performance of life-sustaining functions in public. It also refers to the selective enforcement of existing ordinances. Both practices are intended to harass and arrest homeless people. Laws against obstruction of sidewalks and public ways such as sitting or lying in public spaces are largely enforced against homeless people. This report focuses on both kinds of criminalization.

Police in many cities commonly conduct "sweeps" in downtown areas before large political, religious, athletic or entertainment events. Police routinely stop people they suspect are homeless, ask for identification and run warrant checks. There have been many reports of police urging homeless people to leave town or face arrest if they are stopped again.

The underlying assumption behind these actions is that homelessness is a "public safety" issue. Therefore, cities attempt to eliminate visible homelessness through enforcing "quality of life" ordinances, which seek to improve the "quality of life" of housed and higher-income individuals by removing from sight those people who look poor and homeless. Arrest and incarceration has become an expedited way of removing individuals from sight. Unfortunately, many people justify criminalization as a "benevolent" means of coercing individuals into treatment and other services that are not voluntarily available.

Desperately-needed voluntary services are diverted into the correction's system, which in some communities have actually become part of the Continuum of Care; the explanation for the diversion is to provide an "alternative" to hard time. The growing tendency to "track" homeless people and their use of services is an insidious means of controlling the actual quantification of need. This tracking system also classifies some people as "service resistant" or not really homeless; the system excludes others as criminals.

(C) The Income/Employment Crisis

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there is no state or local jurisdiction in this country where a person who works a minimum-wage job can afford housing at HUD’s Fair Market Rents. The continuing decline in real value of minimum wage income, as well as the dramatic reduction of income supports like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), without the subsequent availability of public housing units, creates and increases homelessness.

Forty-two percent (42%) of homeless people, nationwide, work. However, the income they earn is not sufficient for accessing safe, affordable and appropriate housing. In many cities the majority of available emergency housing or shelter costs at least $7 per night. Labor Pools become the trap for homeless people who must pay for their shelter and take whatever income-producing work is available. Making the transition from labor pool to living wage employment is the only way into permanent, reliable housing.

For women and families who live on TANF benefits (Temporary Aid to Needy Families) and must work for their monthly allowance, housing in the private market at 30% of income is impossible to find.

(D) The Health Care Crisis

Access to health care for individuals experiencing homelessness is limited and difficult to obtain. Homeless people with chronic illnesses often do not continue receiving treatment or medication in jail. Incarceration also poses deeper health care dangers. With incarceration comes an increased risk of contracting chronic illnesses or serious health problems such as tuberculosis and hepatitis.

Because of the limited availability of mental health care facilities, many individuals with mental health problems live on the streets or are incarcerated in jails where they are unlikely to receive the treatment they need. Due to the lack of long-term residential care services and the number of people with mental health problems living on the streets, police officers often assume the role of determining the need for treatment. Following the model Memphis has developed, some cities are training special units to specifically deal with people with mental health problems. These programs seem to be successful, but not without sufficient housing and supportive services.

In many cities residential treatment and recovery for addictions are not readily available. As a result, cities often jail substance abusers. The cost of jail time far exceeds the money spent for residential treatment with supportive housing.

(E) The Lack of Emergency Housing and Services

Most communities in this country lack enough shelter beds for the number of homeless people. Many shelters charge between $5.00 and $10.00 per night for a bed or even a mat on the floor. An overwhelming majority of communities lack sufficient social services to meet the needs of all their low-income/homeless individuals and families. And the recent economic recession has caused major cutbacks in funding to non-profit and service organizations. Already shelters operate above capacity and some have had to close for lack of funds. Thousands of people across the country need shelter and cannot get it. According to the 2003 U.S. Conference of Mayors Report, requests for emergency shelter increased by 13% over the previous year, with requests from homeless families with children increasing by 15%. Of the number of people requesting emergency shelter, 30% of homeless people and 33% of homeless families were turned away.

Every year hundreds of people die from exposure or from illnesses associated with long-term exposure.

(F) Political Rationale for Criminalization

Criminalizing the life-sustaining acts of people experiencing homelessness without offering legal alternatives is supported by conservative think tanks like the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (CJLF), www.cjlf.org, and the Center for the Community Interest (CCI), formerly the American Alliance for Rights and Responsibilities, www.communityinterest.org. These think tanks apply the rules of private ownership to public space. These groups advocate anti-homeless policies under the guise of preserving the "common good."

The CJLF has especially targeted "begging" under the justification that whatever is good for private development is good for all urban residents. In addition, the CCI publishes anti-panhandling guides and defines itself as "a leading advocate for urban quality-of-life and safe-streets measures" that work "to get guns out of schools, gangs off of street corners, drug dealers out of housing projects, porn shops out of neighborhoods, aggressive panhandlers out of ATM lobbies and put mentally ill substance abusers into treatment and off the streets."

Bans on aggressive panhandling are viewed as a means of severely restricting panhandling without violating a person’s freedom of speech. Laws or ordinances that include the language "aggressive" panhandling or solicitation are common. Most aggressive panhandling laws restrict locations where panhandling is permitted and the way in which individuals ask for money or goods.

Public spaces like streets, sidewalks, and parks are by definition "common property" and may be used by anyone. Private property owners are often able to persuade city officials to limit the use of public space and establish Business Improvement Districts, or BIDs. These areas exclude people with no access to private property from public property. The CJLF and the CCI’s recommendations for regulating public space limit the use of common property and seek to justify exclusion by calling homeless people criminals and threats to public safety.

Full report in .pdf form | Introduction | Background | Methodology | Problem Statement/Consequences of Criminalization | Model Programs | Conclusions & Recommendations | The Cities Included in this Report | Meanest Cities | Narratives of the Meanest Cities | Narratives of the Other Cities | Prohibited Conduct Chart | Survey Questions | Incident Report Form: English & Incident Report Form: Spanish | Sources