What Cities Are Doing to the Homeless

March 28th 2017

Cities across the United States have been passing laws that effectively criminalize being homeless, with a new report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty noting that the proliferation of such laws — despite frequently being overturned in court — is "dramatically rising across the country."

Homeless Man with SignSLR Jester - flickr.com

How can you make homelessness illegal?

Well, you can't — not exactly, anyway. Obviously, there's no law requiring that individuals own or rent a home, but cities are trying to combat homelessness on the cheap by criminalizing the kind of things homeless people are forced to do to just survive. This includes making it illegal to panhandle, group together in camps, or even just sleep outside.

As The New York Times notes, San Francisco voted to ban sidewalk tents in November 2016, authorizing police to remove the tents with a day's notice. In Philadelphia, a four-year-old ban on serving meals in public parks was only overturned after a public outcry, while in Denver, police have routinely cleared homeless encampments. And, according to NLCHP, "47 percent of surveyed cities prohibit sitting and lying down in public places."

Camping by CanalMichael Coghlan - flickr.com

Are the laws criminalizing homelessness... even legal?

The NLCHP has challenged many local laws on the grounds that they violate the U.S. Constitution. The Eighth Amendment prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment," and prohibitions against being homeless are arguably just that. And according to the NLCHP report, "On August 6, 2015, The United States Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in the Law Center’s case of Bell v. Boise, arguing that making it a crime for people who are homeless to sleep in public places, particularly in the absence of sheltered alternatives, unconstitutionally punishes them for being homeless."

Other challenges to anti-homeless laws have come on Fourth Amendment grounds — that's the one banning "unreasonable searches and seizures" — when evictions have led to the confiscation or destruction of property. 

Indeed, when these laws are challenged they are, the majority of the time, overturned. According to NLCHP, "57 percent of cases challenging restrictions on camping in public, 75 percent of cases challenging evictions of homeless encampments and seizure of homeless persons’ property, and 100 percent of cases challenging panhandling laws over the last two years have resulted in favorable outcomes for homeless people and their advocates."

Why are cities doing this?

Homeless ManKarim Corban - flickr.com

Mostly, cities are finding themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. "The cities are often under a lot of pressure to give the impression of doing something," Tristia Bauman, senior attorney at the NLCHP, told ATTN:. "Even cities that have been sued will still attempt to criminalize homelessness to pacify business owners or homeowners."

It's not working. "Because people experiencing homelessness are not on the street by choice but because they lack choices, criminal and civil punishment serves no constructive purpose," the NLCHP report argues. "Instead, criminalizing homelessness wastes precious public resources on policies that do not work to reduce homelessness. Quite the opposite, arrests, unaffordable tickets, and displacement from public space for doing what any human being must do to survive can make homelessness more difficult to escape."

Homeless Man Asleepglasseyes view - flickr.com

"The cases that have been filed in recent years have largely resulted in positive outcomes," Bauman noted. The challenge is keeping up with all the new laws, including variations of those that were overturned (Los Angeles, for example, has repeatedly imposed bans on sleeping in vehicles that courts have thrown out). As Bauman said, the victories in court are "dwarfed by the number of cities... which continue to criminalize homelessness."

With President Trump in the White House pledging to get "tough" on crime while cutting support for affordable housing, expect to see more of these laws — and evermore legal challenges.

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