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A Dream Denied:
The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities

Trends in the Criminalization of Homelessness

For the past 25 years, cities have increasingly implemented laws and policies that target homeless persons living in public spaces.  This trend began with cities passing laws making it illegal to sleep in public spaces or conducting “sweeps” of areas where homeless people were living.  In many cities, more neutral laws, such as open container or loitering laws, have been selectively enforced for years.  Other measures that cities have pursued over the past couple decades include anti-panhandling laws, laws regulating sitting on the sidewalk, and numerous other measures.

In some cities where a variety of “status” ordinances have resulted in large numbers of arrests, “habitual offenders” are given longer jail terms and classified as criminals in shelters and other service agencies because of their records.

Unfortunately, over the years, cities have increasingly pursued these measures and expanded their strategies to target homeless people, using vague “disorderly conduct” citations to discourage homeless people from moving freely in public.  During the past year, cities have increasingly focused on restrictions to panhandling and public feedings.  These restrictions only create additional barriers for people trying to move beyond homelessness and poverty.

I.             Restrictions on Panhandling

Some cities have turned their attention to restricting panhandling in the downtown areas of their cities.  These targeted restrictions also often include prohibitions on panhandling near ATMs, bus stops, or outdoor restaurants. 

In August 2005, Atlanta passed a fairly comprehensive ban on panhandling in the “tourist triangle” and anywhere in the city after sunset.  The ordinance, entitled, “Commercial Solicitation,” also bans panhandling within 15 feet of an ATM, bus stop, taxi stand, pay phone, public toilet, or train station in all parts of the city.  Upon conviction for a third offense of the ordinance, a violator can be fined up to $1000 or imprisoned for up to 30 days.

Cleveland also passed an anti-panhandling law in July 2005 that, among other things, prohibits panhandling within 20 feet of an ATM, bus stop, or sidewalk café.  The law on “aggressive solicitation” also prohibits panhandling within 10 feet of an entrance to a restaurant or parking lot.

Pittsburgh city leaders amended its panhandling ordinance in November 2005.  The new bill expands on the existing panhandling ordinance by restricting solicitation for charity to daylight hours.  The bill also bans panhandling within 25 feet of an outdoor eating establishment, 25 feet of an admission line, 25 feet of the entrance to a place of religious assembly, within 25 feet of money dispensing areas, and 10 feet of a food vendor or bus stop.  The bill also outlaws “aggressive panhandling” and solicitation of money that hinders traffic.

Another trend among cities trying to regulate panhandling includes requiring panhandlers to obtain a license to panhandle.  Dayton, for example, prohibits persons from panhandling without a “registration” issued by the Chief of Police.   Additionally, in Cincinnati, panhandling without a permit is considered “improper solicitation.”

The Minneapolis Chief of Police tried to promote the licensing of panhandlers in May 2005.  Service providers and advocates spoke out against the proposed scheme, noting that deeper issues must be addressed instead of criminalizing poor and homeless people.  The effort by the Chief of Police has been put on hold, as the Mayor of Minneapolis opposes licensing panhandlers.  The Mayor is seeking alternatives to licensing to address panhandling, but has not revealed what those alternatives would be.

Yet another form of targeting panhandlers has emerged in city efforts to encourage people to give to organizations or charities instead of to panhandlers.  Baltimore, Nashville, Athens, Georgia, and Spokane all have such campaigns to discourage people from giving to panhandlers.

II.            Restrictions on Feedings

Cities have been further targeting homeless persons by penalizing those offering outdoor feedings for homeless individuals.  These city restrictions are frequently aimed at preventing providers from serving food in parks and other public spaces.

In Dallas, beginning in September 2005, a new ordinance penalizes charities, churches, and other organizations that serve food to the needy outside of designated areas of the city.  Anyone who violates this ordinance can be fined up to $2000.

In June 2005, Miami also considered passing a law that would prohibit groups from feeding homeless persons in city parks and on the streets.  Local advocates have been negotiating with the city to prevent the city from passing the law.

In Atlanta, Mayor Shirley Franklin issued an Executive Order prohibiting feeding homeless people in parks or in public.  Although the order carries with it no legal sanction, it has deterred many churches and communities of faith from continuing with their food ministries.

Atlanta, Ga., Code of Ordinances ch. 43, § 1 (2005).

Cleveland, Oh., Code  § 605.31 (2005).

The bill number is 2005-1598, and was passed by the Pittsburgh City Council on November 1, 2005.  The mayor has not yet signed the bill.   

Dayton, Oh., Rev. Code of Gen. Ordinances § 137.20 (2000).

Cincinnati, Oh., Code § 910-12 (2004).

Athens uses meters.

Dallas, Tx., Ordinance No. 26023 (2005).

HOME | FULL REPORT (pdf) | Acknowledgements | Executive Summary | I. Trends in the Criminalization of Homelessness | II. Criminalization Measures Violate Constitutional Rights | III. Criminalization Measures Violate Human Rights Norms | IV. Constructive Alternatives to Criminalization | V. T op 20 Meanest Cities | VI. Meanest Cities’ Narratives | VII. Other Cities’ Narratives | VIII. CASES: Challenges to Restrictions on Sleeping, Camping, Sitting or Storing Property in Public Place [FEDERAL] [STATE] | Challenges to Anti-Begging, Anti-Soliciting and Anti-Peddling Laws | Challenges to Vagrancy, Loitering and Curfew Laws | Challenges to Restrictions on Feedings | Miscellaneous | IX. Prohibited Conduct Chart | X. APPENDIX:Survey Questions | Sample Know Your Rights Card | Sources for City Narratives |