Constructive Alternatives to the Criminalization of Homelessness

by Kristen Pavón

Today, I attended a free webinar hosted by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty on their 2011 report on the criminalization of homelessness in the U.S.

Here are some of the highlights:

Types of Criminalization Measures

  • Making it illegal to do things in public that people must do — for example, sleeping, sitting and storing personal belongings.
  • Selective enforcement against homeless persons of seemingly neutral laws — loitering, jaywalking, etc.
  • Restrictions on sharing food with homeless persons in public places.

Survey Results

  • 73 percent of respondents (reported arrests, citations, or both for public urination/defecation
  • 55 percent of respondents reported arrests, citations, or both for camping/sleeping in public
  • 55 percent of respondents reported arrests, citations, or both for loitering
  • 53 percent of respondents reported arrests, citations, or both for panhandling
  • 20 percent of respondents reported arrests, citations, or both for public storage of belongings
  • 7 percent increase since 2009 in begging/panhandling in 188 cities
  • 10 percent increase since 2009 in loitering in public places in 188 cities

Alternatives to Criminalization

  • Temporary [legal] encampments
  • Increasing public restrooms
  • Clinics to help homeless persons apply for various forms of identification
  • Leverage housing resources in local communities with an effective framework (see below – 100,000 Homes Campaign)
  • Outreach programs that connect homeless individuals with providers to divert them from the criminal justice system.

100,000 Homes Campaign

This campaign, which is setting out to house 100,000 homeless individuals by July 2013, provides local communities with an organized system to leverage their housing resources to house homeless individuals. The model is pretty simple but is great because it supports the locality throughout the process.

  1. Build a local team.
  2. Clarify demand (this means, among other things, creating a registry of the homeless population in your community).
  3. Line up supply.
  4. Move people into housing.
  5. Help people stay housed (through ongoing supportive services).

Misc. Nuggets from Webinar

  • Homeless persons face barriers to employment, housing, public benefits and healthcare as a result of receiving a citation.
  • Criminalization measures do not address root causes of homelessness
  • On average, it costs $6,100 a year to house a homeless person in permanent supportive housing.
  • Costs of shelter, jail, and hospital services: $6,600; $25,500; $35,000; and $146, 730, respectively (based on Utah data).
  • Criminalization of homelessness can violate homeless individuals’ civil rights, including first, eighth and fourth amendment rights.

The webinar and slides will be available on the National Law Center’s website. Also, you can download the 2011 report on the criminalization of homelessness (which includes a 151-page advocacy manual!!) here.

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