New Report: Homeless Being Criminalized

by Mary C. Piemonte 

Officals at Chicago Defender Charities feed the homeless in 2010. Photo by Mary C. Piemonte.

Across the country, homeless people are finding that their activities are being considered criminal acts, according to a new report from a Washington D.C.-based advocacy organization.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty discovered a “startling trend toward criminalizing basic acts necessary for homeless persons’ survival, including eating and sleeping in public.” An analysis in their report, “Criminalizing Crisis: The Criminalization of Homelessness in America,” shows that poverty is at “record levels,” with as many as 3.5 million people experiencing homelessness annually.

“Cities are continuing to penalize people forced to live on our streets and in public spaces,” the report’s authors concluded. The group surveyed local policies in 234 cities, and learned that 40 percent prohibit sleeping in public places; 33 percent prohibit sitting or lying in public places; 56 percent prohibit loitering in public places; and 53 percent prohibit begging in public places. In 188 cities surveyed for both this report and the Law Center’s 2009 report, there were major increases on prohibitions on homeless people begging or panhandling, sleeping and loitering.

A summary of the report states that “punishing homeless people for conducting life-sustaining activities takes a toll on the entire community,” an assertion to which Heather Johnson, a civil rights attorney at the Law Center, provided details during a Residents’ Journal phone interview on Nov. 29. First, Johnson said that criminalizing the behavior of homeless people makes it difficult for service providers to do their jobs.

It moves homeless individuals away from downtown areas where services are usually located,” Johnson added. “It also can disrupt relationships that are already in place with service providers for homeless people. For instance, if there is a police sweep or if homeless individuals otherwise need to move out of an area where there are a lot of enforcement of criminalization measures in place.”

Secondly, Johnson said criminalization of the homeless also increases costs to the wider communities because it prolongs homelessness. “For instance,” she explained, “it’s expensive to hold homeless individuals in jail, or to address homelessness through the criminal justice system, than it would be to provide housing and other resources to those same homeless individuals.”

Johnson said criminalization measures are also costly and drain limited public resources: “Because police are often focused on innocent activities that homeless people engage in, such as sleeping in public, that’s diverting those resources away from fighting dangerous crime, which should really be the focus of law enforcement activity.”

To get a better sense of how frequently criminalization measures were being enforced against the homeless, Johnson said surveys her organization conducted earlier this year with service providers, homeless people and their advocates in 26 states showed an increase in homeless people being charged with crimes.

Johnson added that the Law Center reviewed different municipal codes of the 234 cities for this year’s report, and concluded that the criminalization of the homeless is due to policies installed in the last two years. Johnson said the Law Center hopes the report will counteract the criminalization of the homeless by highlighting the issue. “Instead of criminalizing homelessness,” Johnson said, “cities should be adopting constructive alternatives and using their resources the root causes of homelessness.”

Johnson added that the Law Center also is publishing an advocacy guide to help local groups change policies about the homeless.

Bob Offer-Westort, from the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco, California, said during the Law Center’s webinar about the report on Nov. 30 that the criminalization of the homeless there is “particularly serious,” and that criminalizing homeless people in general is an attempt to make them “invisible.”

Alternatives to Criminalization

According to the report, there are alternatives to the criminalizing of homeless people, such as providing public bathrooms, which “reduce the need for homeless people to resort to public urination or defecation and helps prevent the criminalization of this basic human need.”

The Law Center recommended that policies also be reversed banning individuals from private property open to the public, such as stores and coffee shops, for little or no reason. They also think that religious organizations should be allowed to host “temporary encampments” for homeless individuals, along with programs that “connect homeless individuals with needed services” where the homeless can apply for various types of government identification. The Law Center also recommended steps to ensure that the rights and dignity of the homeless are protected as well as to discourage criminalization, such as the establishment of a council that includes homeless persons, providers and advocates. They also urged that local municipalities stop passing laws that criminalize homelessness; establish police and other protocols “that ensure homeless persons’ civil rights are protected”; that there be more police trainings and the establishment of homeless liaisons within police departments; and providing more affordable and supportive housing, along with other resources “so that people have less need to perform necessary and life-sustaining activities in public places.”

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