Criminalizing Homelessness


June 16, 2016 by poverty2professional

Being homeless is a tremendously difficult position to navigate. Finding a reliable source for food and shelter (not always in the same place together), having a place to spend your time constructively, having access to hygienic resources – these are all just the basics of subsisting in your existence while homeless. We haven’t even discussed how to make it all work so you can actually get out of it. And, if anyone’s told you that this is rock bottom, it can get worse. Just being homeless can put you at odds with the law. In fact, half the things you may have to do in order to continue maintaining yourself could actually be illegal. Sleeping in public, receiving food on the street, and just occupying a corner of space on the sidewalk so you have somewhere to “be” can all be classified as a legitimate crime in cities across the US.

In “No Safe Place,” a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the key takeaway that the study highlights is, “Homeless people are criminally punished for being in public even when they have no other alternatives.” In other words, there is no doubt that there is a very real and systemic threat not to treat homelessness but rather to further antagonize those who are in its throes. The top three most criminalized issues – food sharing, sleeping in public, and loitering – all affect a person’s physical and psychological wellbeing. This doesn’t just impact and distract from the person’s ability to survive homelessness, it can destroy their possibilities of escaping all together.

Food Sharing

It would be ludicrous to think that anyone can starve in a country as wealthy as the US; yet we actively deny food our neediest people, those who are homeless. First, our federal government fails to meet the overwhelming demand. In 2012, it was estimated that more than half of people who are homeless do not receive SNAP benefits. Second, at the local level we punish both the person who receives food and good citizens who step up to help. 71 cities across the country have passed or tried to pass ordinances that criminalize feeding the homeless, according to Michael Stoops, director of community organizing at the National Coalition for the Homeless.

One story that caught mass media attention was when 90-year-old World War II vet Arnold Abbott. Abbott was arrested on three occasions of serving food to homeless people at city parks in Fort Lauderdale, FL. While serving a public meal on November 2, 2014 Abbott told the Sun-Sentinel, “A policeman pulled my arm and said, ‘Drop that plate right now,’ like it was a gun.” The argument behind food-sharing, like loitering and sleeping in public, is that it enables homelessness. So, because a compassionate stranger gave me burger to get me through the day and I don’t even know when my next snack — much less square meal — is coming from, it must be pretty darn cushy to be homeless.

A few cities have imposed food safety precautions, such as requiring charities to get a food handler’s permit or mandating that they only serve hot food prepared in approved locations or in the form of pre-packaged meals. These sorts of restrictions regularly shut out donated meals. In many cases, they target the homeless. For instance, none of these cities would impose similar restrictions against family reunions in parks or summer cook-outs or birthday parties. All occasions in public parks where food permits, under this law, would be required, but are not enforced. A Utah state representative said the same thing about Salt Lake City’s food-sharing law.

Moreover, to argue that restrictions are created to protect the health of receiving persons is laughable. The resources for food and sheltering of people in homelessness has not increased, but there is a call to cut off one of the few options for it? There’s no protection being done for anyone’s better interests here. Furthermore, restricting access to safe, healthy food distributed by individuals will not provide an incentive for a person to stop “choosing” a life on the streets. Instead, it will force hungry people to search for food in unsanitary places, such as garbage cans. There could be nothing more degrading than actively denying another person’s compassion to seeing to another’s basic right to live.

Sleeping in Public

74% of homeless people do not know a place where it is safe and legal for them to sleep. However, this staggering statistic has not inspired greater action to create more and safer sleeping opportunities for people in homelessness; rather, it’s only become a more hostile environment. City buildings have sprouted spikes on any flat surface, no matter how small, that someone may have previously used for sleeping; it has become illegal to sleep in a private vehicle; and sleeping in public is met with a legal citation. Keep in mind, all these actions are against people who do not have a place to sleep nor the money to pay for any citations in the first place.

In “No Safe Place,” one man interviewed, Jacob, stated:

“The cops give us no rest. I mean, we can’t even sleep at the park anymore because it’s against the [law] to camp. Even if we sleep [on the streets] we get ticketed. There was one night I couldn’t even get a full eight hours of sleep because I was getting woken up by cops and told to go from place to place. And I would just go lay down and get woken up an hour later. Go lay down another place, and get woken up. I got five tickets that night.” “[Last night] I [slept] in a park right over there, where I’m at risk of getting a ticket every night. I can sleep on the sidewalk and get a ticket. I can sleep [across the street] and get a ticket. No matter where I go I get a ticket.”

Jacob highlights an important conundrum. Not only does nothing get done, he – the person in homelessness – experiences an even further slippage into his situation: he gets saddled with expenses he’ll never be able to pay and his personal health is damaged, ruining his opportunity to even maintain a rested mind to function in his position. Check out P2P’s post on sleep deprivation and homelessness for these debilitating impacts.

Seeking shelter inside your own vehicle is no better. 43% of cities have laws prohibiting sitting or lying down in public. “No Safe Place” notes that this represents a 119% increase in such laws since 2011. Palo Alto, a wealthy community in Northern California’s tech haven, Silicon Valley, is a stark snapshot of unequal housing. Despite having roughly 150 homeless persons residing in the area, Palo Alto has only 15 shelter beds. The city’s average cost of rent is two and a half times the national average. It’s also Palo Alto that has chosen to make sleeping in one’s own private vehicle a crime punishable by a $1,000 fine or up to six months in jail. Diane Jones, a homeless mother in Palo Alto, commented, “Me and my son live in a car and we’re not bad people. I’m so afraid what will happen if we lose that.” We also have to remember it’s not just single adults who are homeless and living in these conditions. It’s also families like Diane’s.

The logic runs something like this: If we make homelessness difficult, it’ll be so unappealing to be homeless that homeless people will just run off and get jobs. Or they’ll go somewhere else. It doesn’t matter so long as they’re not around here.

Yes, it sounded like gobbledygook to me too. And yes, disappointingly, there are many others who believe it.


Loitering literally means standing around and doing nothing. Because people struggling with homelessness usually also struggle with the effects of not having a home (e.g. not being able to shower, get sound sleep, access personal privacy, rest and sit comfortably) they are perceived as being socially disruptive. It’s distracting have to move around somebody sitting or sleeping on the sidewalk. However, instead of taking positive action to remedy the cause of these symptoms of homelessness, cities across the country are increasingly outlawing these activities. Like with the case of food sharing, cities also selectively enforce these laws against homeless populations. Violators of such laws typically incur criminal penalties, which result in fines. If you don’t pay these fines, you can wind up with a warrant for arrest…for sitting around and not harming anyone. So, even if you are a homeless person who has been actively looking for work it will be even more difficult to secure employment – or housing or federal benefits – because you now have a criminal record. To reiterate, there’s a whole system set up to keep you in your place of homelessness.

In Jones v. City of Los Angeles, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that “the Eighth Amendment prohibits the City from punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the City of Los Angeles.” LA’s draconian actions against its homeless population, however, haven’t ceased. Earlier this year, in 2016, the City of Los Angeles ordered that homeless persons cannot keep more than 60 gallons (about the size of a city recycling bin) of their material on the sidewalk and cannot loiter on the sidewalk between 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Many folks who were caught in violation of this city ordinance as soon as it passed had their possessions confiscated in what’s known as a “sweep.” A homeless “sweep” is when police officers and sanitation workers remove homeless people and their belongings from a given area, often based on the stated rationale that doing so is necessary to protect public health. The officials who clear out the area rarely, if ever, give any warning and simply throw away or destroy all personal possessions into an industrial dumpster. This practice is done regardless of the condition or value of the property or the apparent care with which the person who is homeless used to store the items. Without any advanced notice, homeless folks are given no opportunity to protect their belongings or retrieve them once the sweep has been completed. When you’re without any sense of stability beyond the salvaged remains of your last home – think about family memorabilia, such as watches, books, or photos being trashed – this is a psychologically jarring and degrading lashing to the remains of your human ego.

In 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Commission (HRC) issued an official condemnation of America’s treatment of its poor and homeless population. The HRC labeled America’s treatment of its poor and homeless, millions whom are veterans and families with children, “cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment.” The U.N. HRC also reminded the U.S. that it was guilty of “a violation of America’s obligation to adhere to international human rights treaties.” In case you’re wondering who the U.N. is criticize the U.S., these are the very the human rights treaties that were initiated, championed, and are enforced around the rest of the world by the U.S.

The Obama Administration has argued that vile local ordinances criminalizing Americans for being too poor to afford shelter is unconstitutional. The Administration filed a brief in federal court arguing that criminalization violates the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment. It also violates most states’ laws and two Supreme Court rulings banning debtor’s prisons and illegally seizing and disposing of every last possession of the homeless. Still, despite a U.N. condemnation, two Supreme Court rulings, and a federal filing by the Obama Administration, states across America are still seizing homeless people’s worldly belongings, throwing them in jail, and levying exorbitant fines as a revenue producing ploy.

Barbaric, Useless, and Expensive

Criminalization laws against activities commonly carried out by people in homelessness are ineffectual in preventing and ending homelessness itself. In fact, the visibility of homelessness has risen and it’s speculated that this is why there has been an uptick in tighter city ordinances against homelessness. “[Cities] don’t want the homeless in the downtown areas. It interferes with business,” says Stoops at National Coalition of the Homeless. “They have grown tired of the problem, so they think by criminalizing homelessness they’ll get rid of the visible homeless populations.”

Moving people out of sight and therefore out of the public mind only serves the illusion that homelessness is being handled. It lets members of housed society not worry about homelessness as a whole, if only the sidewalk in front of them isn’t strewn with campers and their belongings. When the City of Los Angeles ordered for the 60-gallon requirement on possessions, city council members had some cringe-worthy remarks on the topic. At the question of homeless people persisting on the streets with their belongings at all, Hal Bastian remarks, “If you want to have the Olympics in 2024, you can’t have the encampments,” before he’s cut off. Tragically, this is where our priorities lie. They overlook the people and the raw need, and fixate only on the promise of profit. Homelessness is disturbing. It’s not pretty. It’s not pleasant to any of our senses. Our failure to confront it, however, only leads to further misconception and lack of compassion.

“No Safe Place” highlights several case studies that demonstrate humane and cost effective solutions. Their summaries are below:

  • In its 2013 Comprehensive Report on Homelessness, the Utah Housing and Community Development Division reported that the annual cost of emergency room visits and jail stays for an average homeless person was $16,670, while providing an apartment and a social worker cost only $11,000.
  • A 2013 analysis by the University of New Mexico Institute for Social Research of the Heading Home Initiative in Albuquerque, New Mexico showed that, by providing housing, the city reduced spending on homelessness-related jail costs by 64%.
  • A 2014 economic-impact analysis by Creative Housing Solutions evaluating the cost of homelessness in Central Florida found that providing chronically homeless people with permanent housing and case managers would save taxpayers $149 million in reduced law enforcement and medical care costs over the next decade.

These are all great, cost-effective ACTIONS. They’re already in place and they have proven results! What’s stopping them from catching on in your city or town? What does it take to drive this sound, impactful investment?

  1. Visibility: draw attention not just to the issue but to the solutions as well. Talk to a council member, engage their staff. As citizens, we have a right to access them and, as a housed person, it is within our privilege as allies to the homeless community to act.
  2. Being informed and keeping abreast of policy, information, and personal stories. This doesn’t mean you have to run out and join a think tank. Just follow a good Facebook group or Twitter handle. Social media makes all this information so easily accessible.
  3. Compassion: To some extent or another, every homeless person is you. They could be your future, past, current standing, or possibility. Always act with compassion, whether it’s bringing attention to the issue, volunteering with a local nonprofit, or just getting to know someone who either has or has had first-hand experience. There are so many ways to help and restore humanity.

2 thoughts on “Criminalizing Homelessness

  1. tamar says:


    Thank you for your resounding insight. The psychological impacts that society imposes on the homeless population must be changed. Despite your transition into a home or to “normalcy”, surviving without your basic needs and existing when others degrade you have lasting impacts.

    I have worked with so many people and social justice organizations that have provided great services in helping to restore wholeness to this population. However, the realities that exist around homelessness within our society is one of the many grim truth that many people prefers to avoid. I believe it is easier to look away than to become empathetic where we are expected to reflect upon the situation and truly understand. it is more pleasant so choose to provide the proverbial… “so sad. I will keep you in prayer.” Yet, the reality is that most people do not want to be bothered. As you are stated above, making money is a more appealing factor than to face a harsh reality of being human.

    Thank you for your blog, it is inspiring and informative. I pray that more people can become educated about this social problem and work toward implementing corrective solutions instead of hiring more police officers, building more jails and stalling more fences with barb wires on streets.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for reading, Tamar. And thank you for your work and continuous service in homelessness. It really does make a difference! You and your colleagues are definitely not among those who ignore the situation. Delighted to hear that this piece was informative. Please feel free to share any of the posts that you find especially helpful in understanding homelessness. I always try to extensively research each topic.:)


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