Without a stable shelter, and often without a steady income, individuals experiencing homelessness are vulnerable to the dangers of violence and street crime. While they are focused on ending and preventing homelessness, what measures can cities take to support and protect their homeless populations?
Attaching violence and crime to homeless populations perpetuates stigma and negative stereotypes, resulting in a considerable amount of crimes and violence committed against people who are homeless.
According to advocates and experts, 2021 saw a nationwide spike in violence against the homeless. While extreme cases, such as a sleeping man being lit on fire in New York City, make the headlines, there are also daily acts of violence against the unhoused. Instead of efforts to protect those who fall victim to such crimes, the response in most cities has been criminalization, which creates a culture of people being less-than and condones violence.
Crime committed by the homeless also occurs, but studies show the unhoused are more likely to be victims of violent crime than those who are housed. Furthermore, people experiencing homelessness are hesitant to engage with law enforcement even if they are a victim in a crime. Many may have had bad experiences in the past or outstanding warrants for minor citations.
With all that being said, what can cities do to support and protect the homeless population from violence and crime?
First, police need improved policies and practices to address homelessness, ones that will allow them to better serve and protect those experiencing homelessness. The old approach–telling people to move along and writing them tickets or putting them in handcuffs if they did not comply–will not work.
But what action should the police take instead? Jury is still out on that decision, and one that is often left to individual departments, even individual officers, to make. No one expects police officers to solve homelessness, but they are the ones who interact with people experiencing homelessness the most often. Therefore, their interactions are crucial in protecting the homeless.
In order for a trusting relationship to be built, law enforcement need to shift their perspective in regards to those who are homeless. As we must all do, police officers must remember that homelessness is not a personal failure and that individuals who are homeless are human too.
Second, in order to support and protect homeless populations, cities must stop criminalizing homelessness. Criminalization of homelessness refers to policies that prohibit and punish life-sustaining activities, such as sleeping, camping, eating, sitting, and/or asking for money in public spaces.
There are many types of criminalization measures that must end, including sweeping homeless encampments, prohibiting panhandling, and enforcing a “quality of life” ordinance related to public hygiene and activity.
Criminalization measures are counterproductive to ending homelessness. Communities use these ordinances to remove the problem from sight rather than address it. Therefore, cities need to rid their agendas of the criminalizing and out-of-sight-out-of-mind measures that only harm the homeless populations.
Experiencing homelessness is challenging enough without the constant fear of crime and violence looming overhead. Cities must do their part to not only try and end homelessness, but to also use their resources to support and protect those currently experiencing homelessness.