People often ask, “Is it illegal to be homeless?” The answer is not black or white, or all that simple. While technically, homelessness is not illegal, there are many, many laws and policies that criminalize homelessness, which then creates a legal process by which authorities can punish people for being homeless.
Sound confusing or justly unfair? It is, especially to the person who’s simply trying to survive in circumstances that have left them without a home or roof over their head.
Eric Tars, legal director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and poverty notes that “every day in America, people experiencing homelessness are threatened by law enforcement, ticketed, or even arrested for living in public spaces, even when they have no other alternatives.
“Millions of individuals, families, and youth on their own experience homelessness each year, and millions more lack access to decent, stable housing they can afford. Rather than providing adequate housing options, too many communities criminalize homelessness. … These laws and policies violate constitutional, civil, and human rights and create arrest records and fines and fees that stand in the way of homeless people getting jobs or housing. Yet these expensive policies are ineffective at addressing homelessness or reducing the number of people who must sleep on the streets. In fact, more effective policies, such as providing affordable housing and services can, in fact, cost less than criminalizing homelessness.”
What exactly is meant by the “criminalization of homelessness?” According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), it is when law enforcement punishes a person who is homeless for doing things in public that the rest of us do indoors: sleeping, resting, sheltering, making money, or simply being.
And while in theory these laws are supposed to apply to all people equally, in actuality they are only applied to certain people in practice; those being poor and homeless individuals.
Authorities can also use other means like enforcing laws such as jaywalking or disorderly conduct arbitrarily, and solely on people who are homeless. Police and city agencies also conduct “sweeps” or displacing homeless people from outdoor public spaces through harassment, threats, and evictions from encampments.
Here are some more examples:
- Panhandling is “soliciting.”
- Sitting on the sidewalk is “loitering” and “blocking the sidewalk.”
- Leaving your things on the ground is “littering.’
- Peeing behind a dumpster is “indecent exposure.”
- Lack of ID can get you arrested for “failure to identify.”
- Sleeping on the ground is “urban camping.’
- Being intoxicated can be “drunk and disorderly.’
- Just being on private property — like sleeping in a shop’s doorway at 2 a.m., even though they are closed or shuttered from the COVID pandemic — can be deemed “trespassing.”
Anti-homeless legislation has been on the rise over the past decade, even though studies show that cities would be better spending enforcement money addressing the root causes of homelessness. Since 2010, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty has tracked these laws in 187 cities and found that bans on camping have increased by 69%, on sitting or lying by 51%, on loitering by 88%, on panhandling by 43%, and on living in vehicles by 143%. Meanwhile, a 1,300% growth of homeless encampments has been reported in all 50 states.
Several of our Backpacks For The Street clients, for instance, have made use of an NYC building’s overhead to sleep under during the night, but are fined if they don’t vacate by 4 a.m.
Imagine being homeless – with no money or anything – and being given a $50 or $100 ticket.
In late 2019, the Los Angeles City Council reinstated its ordinance prohibiting people from sleeping overnight in vehicles in residential areas or living in a vehicle within a block of a park, school, or daycare.
Enforcement of the ordinance, in the face of L.A.’s housing crisis and the COVID pandemic, appears to be part of a larger campaign of criminalizing homelessness rather than addressing what leads to people living out of their cars in the first place.
A few other examples of how these laws made homelessness illegal and how in one instance led to a person losing their life.
In 2014, 56-year-old Jerome Murdough, a homeless veteran, was without shelter in New York City on a cold night. Searching for a safe place to sleep, he took refuge in an enclosed stairwell in a Harlem public housing building. He was discovered and arrested for trespassing. Since he didn’t have $2,500 to post bail, he was sent to Riker’s Island Prison, where he was placed in a hot cell and ignored for hours by prison staff.
According to a city official, Murdough “basically baked to death” in the cell and was found dead on the floor. His disturbing saga highlights the dangers of criminalization laws; instead of receiving needed assistance, Murdough was treated like a criminal, and ultimately lost his life by trying to protect it.
In 2017, 22-year-old Alexis Leftridge became homeless in downtown San Diego. Police cited or arrested Leftridge, a mother of a 3-month-old son, on at least 15 separate occasions. Her crimes: Urban camping by blocking the sidewalk with the tent she set up in East Village. Several citations and three jail stay later, Leftridge has grappled with warrants and orders barring her from the downtown blocks that are home to a cluster of homeless service providers.
“Criminalization policies make the problem of homelessness worse,” according to the NLCHP. “When homeless people are saddled with cripplingly high fines and fees for minor traffic tickets or incarcerated for having to live outdoors, it hurts their employment and housing options, access to education, family stability, and communities. This isn’t an effective way to keep our communities safe, and it’s disruptive to families and communities.”
Data on how the Coronavirus pandemic has impacted that is still being collected. But advocates believe the health crisis has increased those numbers significantly.
Here are the five main reasons criminalizing homeless does not work, according to the NHCLP:
1. Criminalization does not address the real causes of homelessness: lack of affordable housing, access to proper mental health services and job training/placement, and services for our vets, youth, and individuals whose circumstances cause them to be homeless.
2. Criminalization worsens homelessness: because most people experiencing homelessness are not on the street by choice saddling them with cripplingly high fines and fees or incarceration hurts their employment and housing options, access to education, family stability, and communities.
3. Criminalization is expensive and wasteful: Instead of helping people escape life on the streets, criminalization creates a costly revolving door that keeps them from getting off.
4. Criminalization is unconstitutional: A growing number of courts have struck down laws punishing sleeping and camping in public and to the practice of homeless sweeps, under the 4th, 8th, and 14th Amendments.
5. Housing, services, and protecting renters work better and more cost-effectively: Housing stability makes it possible for a person to get or keep a job, address health problems, or get an education. That is why “Housing First” programs, which provide not just shelter, but housing and then services like health care, have seen the greatest success in permanently ending homelessness