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Criminalization of Homelessness

By definition, people who are homeless live in public. A lack of housing forces them to do in public what everyone prefers to do in private. This indignity is one of many reasons we seek to end homelessness. Unfortunately, it has also become the battleground for the most fundamental defense of people who happen to be homeless: the right to exist.

In cities with an admitted lack of available shelters and few jobs that pay a living wage, people who do not have housing sometimes rest at bus stops or on sidewalks or in public spaces, or are forced to carry their worldly goods with them wherever they go. But instead of responding with added housing resources, some cities have increased criminalization of life-sustaining activities:

  • Police in Seattle, Washington, have been instructed to fine or arrest people who are homeless for sitting on the sidewalk.
  • In Myrtle Beach, the city requires a permit to share food in a public park. One has to obtain a permit each time to share food with the homeless population. Permission is also needed each time from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Coalition. An individual or group also needs to furnish a $1 million liability insurance policy. In contrast, large groups such as birthday parties and family reunions are not forced to comply with these rules.

There is an estimated 24 million people on the waiting list for public housing in this country. Despite this acknowledgment of insufficient housing options, the city leaders of Dallas, Texas, and many other cities across this country (including Phoenix, Jacksonville, Columbus, Boston, Austin, New Orleans, Long Beach, Virginia Beach, Atlanta, Sacramento, Tulsa, and Miami) have made it illegal to camp or sleep in a park.

The flaws in this effort to criminalize homelessness are as numerous as they are obvious. Though no one should ever have to sleep in a park or beg for food, making those acts into criminal offenses does not help the people driven by desperation to seek life sustaining food and sleep in public spaces. These city ordinances (and similar state statutes) are misguided because they seek to hide homeless people, not end homelessness. They are unjust because they seek to punish people for being poor. Because people who are homeless don't have the option not to sleep in public, walk through parking lots, eat or prepare food inside, set down baggage, etc. these laws are illogical. People who are forced to live on the streets don't have options - if they did, they wouldn't be there. Though it is easier for cities to attack homeless people than to attack the root causes of homelessness, it wastes scarce resources, such as law enforcement and judicial resources. It is dehumanizing and disgraceful to treat people struggling with their housing in such an undignified manner. The cost of paying for rent in a permanent housing facility and the supportive services are much less than jail, psychiatric hospitals, nursing care or even sheltering people when food, supplies, and staffing are taken into account. Incarcerating people for the purely innocent behavior of sitting, sleeping, standing or eating in public space is the most expensive response to homelessness.

Thousands of citations have been issued nationwide. Police continuously misapply and selectively enforce existing laws in order to harass people who are homeless and move them from parks to neighborhoods to alleys and back into parks. This strategy demonizes poor people and feeds negative public sentiment to target people who experience homelessness, rather than the root causes of homelessness itself. We can show the link between the number of laws directed at homeless people and the number of hate crimes perpetrated by the public on this vulnerable and fragile population.

Criminalization efforts tear our focus away from long term, permanent solutions in order to fight for the right of people who are homeless to simply exist. Our greatest victories in combating these new civil rights attacks will only secure an already inhumane status quo. With this in mind, we must build a locally-based national movement to protect the civil rights of people who are homeless that can seamlessly-even simultaneously-work to end homelessness once these discriminatory threats are eliminated.

Our Response

The National Coalition for the Homeless works with both national and local partners to reduce the number of laws targeted at people experiencing homelessness and eliminate violence against people because they are without housing. We work closely with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) on a coordinated effort to reduce civil rights violations. NCH hosts periodic calls for advocates to exchange information and coordinate a national response to civil rights issues.

Organizing and Technical Assistance
NCH rapidly responds to laws directed at those resistant to shelter and those staying outside. We support local organizing projects that oppose municipal actions that have a negative impact on the quality of life of those experiencing homelessness. We respond to media inquiries and encourage public attention through social media to hate crimes or violations of homeless civil rights. We also respond to local or statewide coalitions as a resource for information or strategies to call attention to infringements on civil rights.

NCH issues periodic reports on the criminalization of homelessness in America, hate crimes or other research on specific issues. Through these reports, NCH calls attention to violence faced by people who are homeless in America and the dramatic increase in laws directed at homeless populations, and then suggests specific remedies or alternatives to these laws. All of our research is available on our Publications page. NCH provides a central resource for information, strategies and contacts for help. We work to highlight successes, model legislation and first person accounts of struggles for social justice from around the United States.

Legal Action
NCH supports targeted lawsuits working to curb criminalization efforts and social justice movements that improve the lives of homeless people, especially homeless bills of rights, expansion of fair housing protections, and voter protections. We helps to guide public input on federal policies, raising concerns with federal agencies that oversee homeless programs and working on legislative protections for those living without permanent housing. We assist with campaigns to add homelessness to existing local and state hate crimes laws, as well as supporting legislation introduced in the U.S. Congress which would require the U.S. Justice Department to include homeless people in the statistics they gather on national hate crimes.

Voting Rights
We believe that voting is one of the fundamental rights for every citizen to participate in our democracy. We believe that homeless people need to participate in electing government officials and we work to make the process of registration and voting as easy and as accessible as possible to those struggling with homelessness. We distribute a manual during every federal election called “You Don’t Need A Home To Vote” with materials and resources for those working in the field. We work with advocates nationwide to protect homeless access to the ballot box and eliminate barriers such as identification provisions that limit voting by low income individuals.

Preserving the rights of all
NCH works with other marginalized populations to develop policy and procedures for local communities to improve the delivery of services. We have provided input to other national groups on people who identify as gay, lesbians, bisexual or transgender who utilize shelters. We have also made recommendations on serving those categorized as sexually based offenders in local shelters and service programs. We do not agree with housing restrictions that are placed on individuals who have completed a period of incarceration. But we know that many communities have adopted notification and prohibitions on felons that put shelters in a difficult position. They must balance the law, the needs of neighbors, and their mission to provide a safe space for men or women in need of help when dealing with certain populations.

For More Information

For more information on NCH’s Civil Rights efforts, please contact Michael Stoops at the National Coalition for the Homeless, 202.462.4822 x234 or e-mail at: info@nationalhomeless.org. To submit concerns to NCH:


National Coalition for the Homeless
2201 P Street NW
Washington, DC 20037-1033

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Page last modified: July 30, 2013

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