The Crime of Homelessness

By Adam Sennott

For decades laws criminalizing homelessness have been on the rise, but recent statements from the Department of Justice and the Department of Housing and Urban Development might stop this trend.

In recent summers, the Denver Police have regularly swept the banks of the Platte River, rousting homeless people who have violated the city’s ordinance against unauthorized camping and removing them and their belongings.

“The justification the city uses is to ‘clean up the rivers,’” Terese Howard, organizer with Denver Homeless Out Loud, a local activist group, said. “The pure fact of it is, it’s not cleaning up the rivers of trash, it’s cleaning up the rivers of people.”

Denver isn’t alone in criminalizing behaviors associated with homelessness. Since 2009, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) has been tracking 187 cities across the country that have, in various ways, made homelessness illegal, a recent report from the NLCHP said. 

According to the report, 34 percent of these cities impose city-wide bans on camping in public, 57 percent prohibit camping in particular public places, 18 percent of cities impose city-wide bans on sleeping in public, and 27 percent of cities prohibit sleeping in particular public places, such as parks. The report distinguishes between bans on camping and bans on sleeping depending on the language each city used, though in practice, bans on sleeping and camping are nearly identical. This all adds up to 74 percent of homeless people claiming they do not know a place where it is safe and legal for them to sleep, according to a Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) 2013 Survey.

And those are just laws against camping and sleeping in public. According to the same NLCHP report, 24 percent of cities impose city-wide bans on begging in public, 76 percent of cities prohibit begging in particular public places, and 9 percent of cities prohibit sharing food with homeless people.

There has also been an increase in the number of laws criminalizing homelessness since 2011, the last time the NLCHP published a similar report.

Bans on sleeping in vehicles have increased by 119 percent, the report said. Citywide bans on begging in public have increased by 25 percent, and citywide bans on loitering, loafing, and vagrancy have increased by 35 percent.

One reason politicians propose these types of laws is because they’re supported by business owners, Megan Hustings, interim executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said. Business owners provide a larger tax base than the homeless, and therefore get more attention from elected officials.

“The problem business owners have is that, ‘there’s someone sleeping in my doorway, or someone panhandling outside my business and that’s scaring my customers away,’” Hustings said. “So, you go to your legislature and that’s what you tell them, and they say, ‘oh, well, we just need to not have those people there.’

“And yeah, it’s easier to say, ‘OK lets just make that illegal because then they’ll go somewhere else, or we won’t have to deal with it.’ There’s not really an attempt in many cases to understand, well why is that person there in the first place?”

Hustings said that another reason these laws keep popping up might be that other programs city officials have supported might not have been as effective as they thought they would be.

“What I kind of think about this situation is that cities are frustrated that they have ongoing homelessness, and they feel like they’re not resourced or the solutions that they are creating aren’t working,” Hustings said. “I think it’s an act of frustration.

“It’s addressing a very specific problem,” Hustings said. “But still without understanding what’s beneath that problem.”

While many cities across the country are adopting policies criminalizing homelessness, the U.S. Dept. of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) is working to encourage them not to, said Christine Baumann, Regional Public Affairs Specialist for Region VIII of HUD.

“HUD’s stance on criminalization of homelessness is that it is expensive and ineffective,” Baumann said. “Imposing fines or arresting persons sleeping on the street will not end homelessness; resources should instead focus on getting them into decent, safe housing.

“HUD has included this section in the Continuum of Care Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) to ensure that organizations that receive this funding provide details on how they plan to identify and reach out to eligible persons who may not otherwise apply for services, e.g. those living on the streets,” Baumann said.

In fact, cities that do pass legislation criminalizing homelessness are in danger of losing HUD funding, according to HUD’s Community Planning and Development Notice of Funding Availability for the 2015 Continuum of Care program competition.

“Applicants must also describe how they are reducing criminalization of homelessness, and also the procedures they will use to market their housing and supportive services to eligible persons regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, familial status, or disability who are least likely to apply in the absence of special outreach,” the notice states.

A few Colorado lawmakers have been working to end criminalization. In March, Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, and Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, backed a Homeless Persons’ Bill of Rights in the Colorado Legislature. The bill would have reversed the Denver City Council’s anti-camping law, but it was referred to the House Committee on State, Veterans, and Military Affairs, and postponed indefinitely.

Still, not everyone is giving up hope.

Denver Homeless Out Loud is part of a larger organization called the Western Regional Advocacy Project, which is supporting the Homeless Persons’ Bill of Rights, or “Right to Rest Act” in Colorado, California, and Oregon, Howard said. 

The bill outlines the basic rights of homeless individuals, including “sleeping, lying down, protecting oneself from the elements, sitting, moving freely through public space,” Howard said. “They also include sleeping in a legally parked vehicle, they also include having privacy to belongings in public space, and also include sharing or eating free food.”

Though the bill stalled in the Colorado legislature this year, Howard said that it will be reintroduced in January.

“We’ll be pushing it as hard as we can, fighting for our rights in the state legislature,” Howard said.