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IV. Problem Statement/Consequences of Criminalization

(A) Economic Consequences

As the country fails to provide money for housing, and as essential funds are cut from social services, the amount of money spent to jail people for "quality of life" crimes increases.

The legal challenges resulting from criminalizing homelessness have proven costly for both homeless people and for those who prosecute them. Judgments against offending jurisdictions are not sufficient payment for the loss of freedom, jobs while incarcerated, shelter spaces and for the difficulty in finding employment once you have a "record."

Although anti-homeless ordinances violate HUD’s Consolidated Plan and should jeopardize any offending jurisdiction’s access to Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), HOME Investment Partnership Program (HOME), and McKinney/Vento federal funds, few charges are brought against those cities because non-profit organizations risk their own funding if they complain. Moreover, local ordinances that discriminate against and criminalize the lives of homeless people often violate local, state, and federal constitutions, thus exposing city governments and police departments to civil liability. Ordinances that criminalize homeless people simply perpetuate the problems of homelessness.

It is more expensive to detain a person in jail than to house and offer services. According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty 2003 report, Punishing Poverty: The Criminalization of Homelessness, Litigation, and Recommendations for Solutions, the cost of providing jail, excluding the cost of the police resources used in the arrest, exceeds $40 per day. Some sources say the daily cost is as much as $140. In comparison, the average cost of providing counseling, housing, food, and transportation for one day is approximately $30.

In most cities there is a desperate lack of emergency and permanent housing and support. Funds that might be used to fund programs addressing the needs of homeless people are diverted to the criminal justice system.

(B) Social Consequences

Criminalization masks the social exclusion of homeless people under the guise of public safety concerns. When cities warn tourists and residents not to give money to panhandlers, they create the fear of homeless individuals that leads to further discrimination. This criminalization then helps to legitimize that fear.

Persons arrested or incarcerated for "quality of life" offenses may lose access to employment, families and friends. This loss also impacts employers who lose faith in hiring homeless people because "they don’t show up," or because they have "records."

Once incarcerated, these homeless individuals face overcrowding, violence, abuse, or disease. The conditions in turn contribute to additional social costs when the person is released and interacts again with society.

Cities might be more successful developing programs intended to reduce homelessness if the level of animosity among police, service providers, and homeless persons was reduced. With a focus on training, police might deal more effectively and efficiently with conflicts that arise, without violating the civil rights of homeless people.

(C) Political Consequences

Laws criminalizing the circumstances of poverty, as well as sanctioned or unsanctioned actions committed by law enforcement officials, may violate both state constitutions and the U.S. Constitution. For example, laws prohibiting or limiting panhandling and begging may violate the First Amendment. The seizure or destruction of homeless peoples’ property may violate the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure. Laws prohibiting sleep and other necessary activities in public spaces may violate the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. In addition, discriminatory enforcement of such laws may constitute a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, which assures equal protection under the law.

(D) Individual Consequences

The criminalization of homelessness makes the struggle to survive on the streets even more difficult, depressing, demoralizing, and frightening, especially as the criminal justice system can itself act as a major barrier to individual efforts to escape homelessness. Regardless of the number of ordinances passed, homeless people still must eat, sleep, and survive in public because often no alternative is available to them.

Once homeless people have been arrested for "quality of life" violations, their criminal records grow, and as a result they may be excluded from jobs and housing. Anyone incarcerated at least 30 days loses Social Security benefits during incarceration. Also, if an individual receiving benefits is found to have an outstanding warrant, she or he can be denied benefits. The Social Security Administration has gone so far as to grant agencies an "incentive" of $400 per person found to be in violation. In addition, when homeless persons do not follow through with the process of criminal justice, such as failing to pay traffic tickets or not appearing in court, warrants are issued for their arrest and they may be subjected to further charges and/or jail time. Money used to pay fines might otherwise be used for housing or other needs. Finally, it may be difficult for homeless people to maintain the mandated relationship with parole officers or with community service organizations.

Many homeless people lose all their possessions, even difficult-to-obtain IDs, when they are arrested. In addition, police harassment causes homeless people to miss appointments and/or interviews, reinforcing their status as second-class citizens. Homeless persons who are employed at the time of arrest and who are held in jail may lose their current jobs. Even when people are only given citations and are not arrested, the police may use the threat of arrest to intimidate individuals without housing. Thus, there are many hidden effects of these policies.

Policies of criminalization defeat their own goals of removing homeless people from public visibility because they simply create further barriers for survival and undermine individual efforts to escape homelessness. Such policies keep more people on the streets and increase problems related to homelessness. When individuals are released from jail, they are still homeless, and they have even more barriers and obstacles to overcome than before.

(E) Security Guards and the Homeless Community

A few cities in the United States have reached legal agreements with their municipalities to put an end to police harassment of homeless people. A growing problem in the United States is the rise in private security forces that wear uniforms and mistreat homeless people. In a few cities, including Cleveland, Ohio, these security guards are often off-duty Cleveland Police officers. These privately-paid security officers are allowed to wear the uniform of the municipal police force, and have close contact with the police. They have the ability to detain homeless people and, subsequently, have them arrested. When they are off-duty, these officers do not always abide by consent decrees, legal settlements, or even the law with regard to panhandlers or the rights of homeless people. People who spend a large number of hours of the day on the streets report frequent and systematic abuse by private security guards in the downtowns of our urban environments.

There are a growing number of reports of increased tensions between homeless people and security guards from around the United States, ranging from Business Improvement District security in Atlanta, Georgia and Columbus, Ohio with their "Downtown Ambassadors." These guards patrol the streets and intervene when they see infractions of メquality of lifeモ laws. In Reno, Nevada, conflicts arise between the downtown casinos and homeless people. Fort Worth, Texas, has made a significant effort to curtail panhandling, and has drafted neighborhood associations into the fight.

In many communities, security guards are indistinguishable from municipal police officers. Often, they wear the same or similar uniforms, carry guns, and threaten arrest. It may be impossible for homeless people to distinguish between an on-duty municipal police officer and an off-duty security guard, and to negotiate the legal landscape enforced by these guards.

For example, in Cleveland, despite an agreement with the Police Department since 1999 not to "arrest, or threaten to arrest or detain, any individuals, including homeless individuals for performing innocent, harmless, inoffensive acts such as sleeping, eating, lying, or sitting in or on public property," homeless people are still being harassed by security guards, who are, typically, off-duty police. These individuals are known to keep their CPD uniforms on, while working as security guards for private businesses. This is especially a problem in the urban core where finding access to transportation, food, and a place where one can rest without being harassed becomes a difficult task.

These security guards, who patrol private buildings in their uniforms, have been engaged in harassment against homeless individuals that they encounter on public sidewalks and around the private businesses they are to guard. Phoenix, Arizona, has combined police and security outreach into one unit.

The security guards, especially since the events of 2001, play a greater role in both numbers and visibility in most American cities. Despite efforts to focus funding and attention on those who live on the streets, the number of homeless people has increased in most American cities. The security guards are employed to secure buildings and businesses, but they often become much more. Security guards provide the illusion of security to a fearful population. They are used to assure cash registers do not stop ringing because of a perceived unsafe environment. Security guards are highly visible, and many buildings pay a premium for the guards to look like law enforcement officers. Unfortunately, they have a much different mandate that is essentially a profit motive, with little responsibility to serve the public good, as well as less accountability than on-duty officers.

Although security guards may be highly trained and respectful law enforcement officers during the day, they are paid to keep a certain appearance within a building. Homeless people are viewed as a threat to public safety. Media distortions, fear of the unknown, and misguided information often turn homeless people into the scapegoats for problems downtown. People who choose not to access the shelters, when shelters exist, are blamed for high crime rates, the flight of wealthy pedestrians and residents from the city, and the closing of businesses. Security guards are often told in no uncertain terms to move homeless people out of sight at all costs. They ignore the freedom to ask for money or the freedom to be left alone.

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