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
(B) A Working Definition
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
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
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 HUDs 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
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,
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
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
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
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 persons
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 CCIs 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.
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