Crime and Punishment: Inequitable Policies Drive Homelessness; Most Impacted Face Penalties


Of course we must prohibit homelessness. It is a crime to deprive people of a decent home. But should it be illegal to be homeless? This year, some cities across the country – from Florida to California – have been passing ordinances that make it illegal for people without housing to engage in the most basic of day-to-day activities.

In September, the blog ThinkProgress featured the story of Franklin, a 53-year-old disabled veteran in Florida who continues to apply for jobs since becoming homeless in January. Living on the streets, Franklin explains in the interview, he often relies on the $10 or less he raises from soliciting the spare change of passersby on a nearby highway exit ramp.

State law makes it illegal for him to walk on a highway exit ramp. “State police pulled up on me and wrote me a citation for being on the exit ramp – being on the highway – 60-some dollars,” Franklin explained to filmmaker Andres Lopez. “This is the fourth one I’ve gotten.” While Franklin did not have the money to pay off the ticket, he explained that  he did not regret violating the law: “I got no choice. I’ve gotta survive somehow.”    

Franklin’s not alone in the hardships (and fines) he has faced while trying to survive without income or other resources. As the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty documented in a 2006 report, ‘A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities’, the criminalization of people experiencing homelessness is actually a 25-year trend that seems to be continuing to pick up speed. The report adds that laws targeting people experiencing homelessness take a variety of forms, including: laws that prohibit sleeping or sitting in public spaces; laws that punish people for panhandling; and selective enforcement of apparently neutral laws against homeless people, such as loitering, jaywalking, or open container laws. These ordinances are reminiscent of the Anti-Okie Law (making it illegal to “bring or assist in bringing” those deemed to be very poor people into California) and the Ugly Laws (also known as unsightly beggar ordinances). 

Community surveys organized by the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), a coalition of social justice organizations, show the continued widespread use and expansion of local ordinances in recent years that make it virtually impossible for people without housing to stay on the right side of the law. To fight this attack on homeless residents, WRAP led a coalition earlier this year of over 100 allied organizations, including the Los Angeles Community Action Network and NESRI, to introduce a Homeless Bill of Rights in California (AB-5). The introduction of the Bill marked the kick-starting of a campaign demanding human rights solutions to homelessness that ensure the inherent dignity and humanity of all people. The California Bill is currently legislatively lifeless but the campaign to enact it has begun. It will be reintroduced in January 2014, and new allies are already joining the fight against criminalizing members of our communities. A similar bill is being planned for introduction in Oregon.  

Unlike the cities passing such ordinances, our partners and allies in cities such as Los Angeles and New York are continuing the fight to eliminate homelessness – not the people who face it – by demanding the preservation of public housing and the creation of more permanently affordable housing. In Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Community Action Network is fighting to preserve the city’s endangered affordable housing stock in neighborhoods facing enormous gentrification pressures. The City has ambitions to “redevelop” and “regenerate” all of its public housing, such as the Jordan Downs Housing Project in the Watts community. In New York, Picture the Homeless and many other ally organizations are building support for the creation of big-picture policies in New York that will enable the creation of community land trusts – essentially non-profits governed by a democratically elected board of tenants and neighbors that hold land out of the private market for the long-term benefit of the community – while building a human rights based community land trust model in East Harlem. Both projects aim to expand the supply of permanently affordable housing by repurposing unused and abandoned properties for those in need.

The punitive police strategies for “dealing with” poverty and homelessness are not only entrenching existing inequities, they are inflicting additional human rights violations on the community members with the greatest unmet housing needs. These policies are both predicated on and legitimate the far too pervasive idea within society that each homeless resident is somehow culpable for the circumstances they find themselves in through their own life-mismanagement, and in any case, are undesirable or even dangerous. This idea masks the inescapable fact that homelessness is a creature of structural inequality. Punitive policies serve to deny the joblessness crisis, structural racism, the lack of public services and the general inequitable distribution of resources under which our communities suffer. Millions of families and individuals are already struggling to meet their fundamental needs, a morally abhorrent situation – adding the prospect of criminalization is unconscionable and can serve no sensible public policy imperative.

As community organizations like Los Angeles Community Action Network and Picture the Homeless are demonstrating in their local campaigns, there are equitable and accountable alternatives available to local governments interested in “doing the right thing” in the midst of federal disinvestment and demonstrable growing need among city residents with low incomes. Some of the human rights solutions available to governments include standing with public housing residents to stop the demolition of their homes and equitably utilizing empty houses to create new permanent resources for the long-term housing needs of our communities. At the same time, organizations such as WRAP are building a growing movement to meet the fundamental needs of our homeless community members by challenging the harmful stereotypes that persist and through seeking to ensure the human rights of all.

This blog post is an updated version of an earlier post by the same name, dated August 8, 2013.