Take a Stand Against the Criminalization of Homelessness

A ruthless effort to criminalize homelessness while attacking best practices like Housing First is gaining traction in state legislatures across the country. Several states have already enacted bills along these lines, including Texas, Tennessee, and Missouri. Other states like Arizona and Georgia managed to fend off bad legislation last year, but new proposals are being introduced this year.

The Alliance and the frontline providers in these states have made a commitment to actively listening to people experiencing homelessness who will be impacted. Their feedback is clear: what they want and need is housing. We also know that many of these communities don’t have nearly enough affordable housing, permanent supportive housing, or even emergency shelter for them.

Yet, the bills in question fail to address this fundamental need, leaving people with nowhere to go.

Most of these criminalization bills have three features in common: a statewide camping ban with criminal penalties for people experiencing homelessness, a policy of “sanctioned” camps or temporary shelters aimed at corralling people into designated places, and financial penalties for local jurisdictions that refuse to enforce the camping ban.

Though these bills have much in common, they vary slightly in what they would criminalize. In the case of Arizona’s bill, the state would force local jurisdictions to prioritize temporary shelters and sanctioned camps over permanent housing. Missouri’s financial penalty for jurisdictions that don’t crack down on unauthorized camping includes withholding all federal funding for housing and homelessness, prompting HUD to put the state on notice that federal statutes and regulations govern federal funding. Tennessee’s new law is perhaps the cruelest of them all, making unauthorized camping a Class E felony.

If we don’t head off these attacks at the source, more severe legislation against people experiencing homelessness is sure to come.

How These Bills Came to Be

The Austin-based Cicero Institute is the organization behind many of these bills, and they’re being joined by a growing network of like-minded proponents. Cicero’s testimony at a legislative hearing in Georgia last year made two arguments to justify its position: first, claiming that Housing First doesn’t work; second, that camping bans are necessary to save lives.

These assertions simply aren’t true. Regarding Housing First, a thorough analysis of 15 peer-reviewed studies found that “permanent supportive housing . . . [was] effective in reducing homelessness and achieving housing stability” and “permanent supportive housing significantly improved housing stability, with little to no negative effects on other social and health outcomes.” Regarding camping bans, laws that force people into hiding or moving from place to place while risking criminal prosecution do not save lives. Homeless deaths are indeed soaring but rising mortality has been driven by the opioid crisis, COVID-19, and more people nationwide who are unsheltered and exposed to the elements. The solution to homelessness is housing, not using police to disperse people out of sight.

As the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness pointed out a few months ago, criminalization only makes the tragedy of homelessness worse. The new ALL IN: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness is equally clear about the harmful impact of encampment sweeps without housing alternatives:

“These ‘out of sight, out of mind’ policies can lead to lost belongings and identification which can set people back in their pathway to housing; breakdowns in connection with outreach teams, health care facilities, and housing providers; increased interactions with the criminal justice system; and significant traumatization — all of which can set people back in their pathway to housing and disrupt the work of ending homelessness.”

Rather than camping bans and felony charges, the Alliance believes we must speak out and rebut these convoluted proposals. We need your help. Let us know that you stand with us by endorsing this statement of principles against the criminalization of homelessness. Your support will let us know that you care about this issue as we build a national network of advocates against these bills.

It’s wrong to target people experiencing homelessness with these meanspirited policies. We need to be emphatic in saying so. Please endorse the Alliance’s statement of principles today.