Criminalization of Homelessness Persists, Report Finds

Despite efforts to help homeless populations get back on their feet, a new report finds that the criminalization of homelessness is on the rise.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty has reviewed state laws over the past decade and has determined that as many as 187 cities continue to impose harsh penalties on people living on the streets, even though access to housing has worsened over time.

The Center’s “Housing Not Handcuffs” report notes that laws prohibiting camping, sleeping and even sitting and laying down in public places have increased as have laws against panhandling and loitering in public.

“We’ve been documenting those types of things for 20-plus years and they are increasing,” said Megan Hustings, interim director at the National Coalition for the Homeless, which partners regularly with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. “What we’re really seeing a lot of now is the clearing of encampments and further restrictions on camping in public places.”

Denver is listed as a city that has imposed what the report refers to as “anti-camping laws,” which Hustings said are also in place in locations like Fort Worth, Texas, and Portland, Oregon.

Honolulu and Dallas are singled out in the report for their laws against panhandling and sitting and lying in public places. Both cities and Denver have conducted homelessness sweeps, which result in the threat of arrest and eviction of homeless people from their makeshift encampments, the report said.

“It’s understandable that cities find it hard to deal with these issues, but instead of responding with compassion and housing resources, they are responding with police presence and efforts to push people away and essentially out of site,” Hustings said. “This in no way alleviates the situation but instead creates further barriers for those who are experiencing homelessness.”

The report also notes some good that cities and states are doing to help to better the lives of homeless people in various areas. For instance, lawmakers in California, Colorado and Oregon have introduced a bill known as the Right to Rest Act, which would make it illegal for places to criminalize sleeping and sitting in public.

Such rights have been recognized by the state of Rhode Island, Connecticut and Illinois through the recognition of a Homeless Bill of Rights, which prevents discrimination on the basis of housing status and protects homeless people’s property from being taken or destroyed.

Other areas discussed within the report include the need to better train law enforcement in how to treat homeless people, based on a two-hour training program in Washington, D.C., known as Homelessness 101. The report also emphasizes the need to hamper down on evictions, to prevent housing discrimination and to implement better plans for releasing people from prisons or hospitals who may have nowhere to go.

Hustings said that the Housing Not Handcuffs campaign, launched nationally in November, seeks to bring over 100 organizations and advocates together from across the country to fight these criminalization efforts and elevate the need for more housing.

“Housing really is the only solution to homelessness,” Hustings said. “Criminalization is counterintuitive.”

For more information on homeless criminalization and the Housing Not Handcuffs campaign, visit www.housingnothandcuffs.org.

Jordan Frias

Jordan Frias is an editorial assistant at Boston Herald and a contributor of Spare Change News. He is vice president of the New England Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a graduate of Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.

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