Imagine trying to survive everyday life without a home, job, or enough money to eat a sustaining meal. Then imagine your local government criminalizing your situation. Unfortunately, this is the reality for thousands of individuals experiencing homelessness. Why is homelessness being criminalized, and how does it affect the unhoused?
The criminalization of homelessness entails banning activities that individuals experiencing homelessness often partake in to survive. Banned activities include sitting, standing, lying down, sleeping, eating, and sharing food in public spaces. These laws vary by city, but the punishment is often a monetary fine that the unhoused can not afford.
According to a 2019 National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty report, 72% of the 187 surveyed American cities had at least one law banning camping in public. A “camping” ban is commonly used as an umbrella term for a wide variety of activities, including merely sleeping outside in a public space or setting up a semi-permanent form of shelter such as a tent. Of the 187 cities, 37% had one or more laws prohibiting camping citywide, meaning that there were absolutely no public spaces where the unhoused could rest during the night.
In the same report, it was found that “since 2006, 33 new laws prohibiting “camping” citywide have been enacted, representing a 92% increase [in nationwide “camping” bans].” “Camping” bans can quickly become a health and safety hazard for the unhoused. It is often difficult to find a homeless shelter with availability or a location that can accommodate pets. This forces the unhoused to live on the streets, making them vulnerable to violence and illnesses caused by poor living conditions.
Bans on sleeping, sitting, and lying down are also quite common in cities across the United States and are on the rise. The same 2019 report conducted by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found that of the 187 American cities surveyed, 51% had at least one law restricting sleeping in public, and 21% had a citywide sleeping ban. Since 2006, city laws prohibiting sleeping in public have increased by 50%. Bans on sitting and lying down are also on the rise. Of the 187 cities surveyed in this report, 55% had at least one law prohibiting sitting or lying down in public. Since 2006, there has been a 78% increase in laws banning sitting and lying down in public.
Some cities have even banned sleeping in vehicles. These bans range from simply outlawing living in vehicles to parking regulations that leave no legal place for people who live in vehicles to park for more than a few hours. Of the 187 cities surveyed, 50% had at least one law prohibiting living in a vehicle. Since 2006, laws restricting living in vehicles increased by 213% percent.
Laws criminalizing activities necessary for the homeless population’s survival extend far beyond what is listed above. In some cities, individuals experiencing homelessness are banned from begging for money, storing their personal belongings in public, and even sharing food. As the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty explains, the fines imposed on the unhoused perpetuate the cycle of poverty. Financial obligations will only extend the time an individual will experience homelessness. Additionally, fees can leave an unhoused person unable to afford food, medical care, and other necessities. Not to mention, civil and court-imposed fines can prevent an individual from being accepted into housing, making it exponentially more challenging to get off the streets.
It is essential to understand that the criminalization of homelessness is rooted in prejudice, fear, and misunderstanding. The common misconception that all individuals experiencing homelessness have made poor life choices to end up on the streets has adverse effects on the unhoused population’s quality of life. This belief often results in violence and hostility towards the homeless. A 2017 survey conducted by the National Homeless Coalition found that unhoused individuals experience some form of harassment nearly every day. In reality, individuals are often forced into homelessness due to a circumstance that prevents them from going to work. This includes developing a severe medical condition, injury, mental illness, or other scenarios that can not be prevented. Therefore, it is fundamental to educate the public and our local governments about homelessness to destigmatize the topic and end this crisis. We need laws that will aid America’s homeless population. Criminalizing activities that thousands of individuals depend on for survival only worsens the issue. As the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty says, “housing, not handcuffs.”