Report Finds Cities Are Increasingly Criminalizing Homelessness and Poverty

A growing number of cities are turning to the criminal justice system as a means of addressing homelessness, a report from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty finds. “Mean Sweeps” examines the progress of this trend in the 50 largest cities in the United States.

Mean Sweeps updates a 1994 Law Center report on the criminalization of homelessness by local governments, finding that government actions taken to restrict homeless people’s use of public space and begging have increased in many cities during the past two years.

The new report includes information on numbers of homeless persons, shelter beds, housing costs, minimum wage levels, and public assistance available in the cities. By city officials’ own estimates, in virtually every city the number of homeless people greatly exceeds the number of emergency shelter and transitional housing spaces.

The report found:

  • · 38% of the cities have initiated crackdowns on homeless people in the past several years.
  • · 54% of the cities have engaged in recent police “sweeps” of homeless people.
  • · 77% of the cities for which information was available have ordinances that prohibited or restricted begging.

During the last four years, 31% of the cities for which information was available have enacted new ordinances or amended existing ones to restrict begging.

Five cities are named as having the “meanest streets” due to their clear intention to expel their homeless residents from their city limits or for their concerted, focused efforts to restrict harshly their homeless residents’ use of public spaces. The cities are Atlanta, San Francisco, New York, Dallas, and San Diego.

Cleveland was a part of this list last year, but was taken off the list this year in part because of the harsh tactics that other cities had adopted. Two lawsuits that the Coalition for the Homeless filed have temporarily curtailed the City of Cleveland’s aggressive response to criminalizing homelessness. Cleveland was listed as softening its approach to homeless people because of legal action taken by the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.

Legal challenges to anti-homeless laws have had mixed results. Courts have struck down ordinances or portions of ordinances on the grounds that they violate the constitutional rights of homeless people. Other courts have upheld ordinances or city practices.

The use of law enforcement to address public concerns about homelessness are counterproductive. They undermine homeless people’s efforts to escape poverty by creating fines and/or criminal records. They are also fiscally inefficient and wasteful of cities’ scarce fiscal resources.

The daily cost of detaining an individual in jail — not including police resources involved in arrest and processing— is roughly 25% higher than the daily cost of providing shelter, food, transportation and counseling services combined.

“These ordinances are inhumane,” said Maria Foscarinis, the Executive Director of the law center. “By penalizing people for innocent, necessary, life-sustaining conduct, cities are essentially punishing people simply for being homeless.”

Several cities have enacted more constructive alternatives to addressing public concerns about homelessness.

In Cincinnati there seems to be a growing perception that homeless people are an “eyesore,” according to the report. The report talked about the anti-panhandling ordinance, and harassment of Grapevine vendors.

In West Hollywood, the city has created an innovative community-policing program that uses service providers rather than police officers to make the first contact with homeless persons.

In response to the lack of public toilet facilities in downtown Seattle, the city offered to fund a public “hygiene center” that would provide public toilets, showers and laundry facilities free of charge for use by homeless people and other city residents.

Tucson, Arizona created a standing committee of advocates for homeless people, city government officials, and police representatives to which the city refers complaints about homeless people “camping” in certain areas in an effort to resolve complaints before taking law enforcement action.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published January – February 1997 Issue 19