Don’t Criminalize Homelessness. End It.

Say you’re homeless and you live in a city with a growing homeless population. At night, the shelters may be crowded or filled, and during the day the shelters don’t provide a place to sleep. You're exhausted and have to sleep somewhere, but you have no options. What do you do?

Every day and every night, thousands of homeless people find themselves in this very situation. So they find a park or a place on a sidewalk or somewhere else not fit for human habitation. They do the best they can to make themselves comfortable, and they fall asleep. Should that be a crime?

The Department of Justice doesn’t think so, but unfortunately a number of communities around the country do. Of the 187 cities tracked for the report, “No Safe Place – The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities,” the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty found:

  • 34 percent imposed city-wide camping bans
  • 57 percent prohibited camping in particular public places.
  • 53 percent prohibited sitting or lying down in particular public places.
  • 18 percent imposed city-wide bans on sleeping in public.
  • 43 percent prohibited sleeping in vehicles.

(Incidentally, these aren’t the only laws that criminalize homelessness. Cities have also passed ordinances that make it illegal to beg in public or to share food with homeless people. For a more in-depth look at laws that criminalize homelessness, check out the full report.)

Recently, the Department of Justice responded to the case Bell v. City of Boise et al., which homeless plaintiffs brought against the city of Boise after they were convicted under city ordinances that made sleeping or camping in public illegal.

In its statement of interest, the Justice Department argues that ordinances that criminalize sleeping in public, when there is insufficient shelter space available, violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

“Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity—i.e., it must occur at some time in some place,” the Justice Department said. “If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”

It will be interesting to see how this case plays out. The court has yet to reach a decision. While the Justice Department statement has no independent legal authority, the argument outlined in its statement of interest could influence it.

It’s not hard to sympathize with people who support these kinds of laws. They want clean, safe public spaces, where they can take their children or sit on a bench or play with their dog. Businesses want their customers to enter their stores without having to walk past panhandlers.

But laws that punish people for sitting or sleeping in public aren’t just cruel and unfair, they don’t do anything to address the issue of homelessness. At their most effective, they merely push homeless people to different areas of a community where they are harder to see.

At their worst, they complicate the lives of homeless people and make it more difficult for them to obtain the help they need to exit homelessness by funneling them into the justice system and saddling them with fines they can’t afford to pay.

In 2010, the United Interagency Council on Homelessness with support from the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services held a summit to determine alternatives to criminalization. The result was this report in which they proposed the following for communities:

  • Engage in community-wide planning to develop partnerships between local organizations that will coordinate housing and services to reduce street homelessness.
  • Encourage collaboration between law enforcement, behavioral health, and social service providers on outreach and crisis intervention to limit needless arrests and connect people on the street to housing.
  • Establish specialty courts, citation dismissal programs, holistic public defenders offices, and reentry programs to provide alternatives to incarceration and increase the likelihood that people will connect to housing and employment.

Admittedly, these options are more complicated than simply making it illegal for people to sleep in a city park or lie on a sidewalk, but they are complicated for a reason. They address the underlying cause of people sleeping in parks or lying on sidewalks: homelessness.

Of course they’re sleeping in public. That’s where they live. They don’t have homes. That’s what we should really be worried about.

Photo by Brook Ward.