• “Camping” in Public: 34% of cities impose city-wide bans on camping in public
  • Sit/Lie Laws: 53% of cities prohibit sitting or lying down in particular public places
  • Vehicular Residency: 81 cities have laws prohibiting sleeping in one’s vehicle, a startling 119% increase from 2011
  • Food Sharing: 9% of cities prohibit sharing food with homeless people
  • Begging in Public: 76% of cities prohibit begging in particular public places.
  • Loitering, Loafing and Vagrancy: 33% of cities make it illegal to loiter in public
    throughout an entire city.
  • One example of bad criminalization policy: Orlando, Florida. 34% of homeless people in the Orlando area are without shelter beds, yet the city restricts or prohibits camping, sleeping, begging, and food sharing.

The NLCHP concludes that these laws are both costly to taxpayers and ineffective in reducing homelessness, in addition to being grossly inhumane and unconstitutional in many cases. Read the full report to learn more.

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Susan St. Amour panhandles on a median in Portland, Maine. The city tried to ban loitering on medians last year, but a judge found the law unconstitutional. Photo credit: Caroline Losneck for NPR

Laws that criminalize homelessness are on the rise across the country, according to a new report by an advocacy group. The laws prohibit everything from sleeping in public to loitering and begging. Advocates for the homeless say the laws are making the problem worse.

Susan St. Amour is among those who could be affected by the new restrictions. Twice a week, she stands on a median strip at an intersection in downtown Portland, Maine, asking passersby for cash. She says she needs the money to get by.

“[If] for some reason I don’t get a bed at the shelter and I have nowhere to stay, it means I can’t eat that night unless I have a few dollars in my pocket,” she says. “Or it may be because I need to take the bus to the other side of town. I might have a doctor’s appointment.”

Last year, though, the city passed a law that banned loitering on median strips. A federal judge has since declared the law unconstitutional, but the city plans to appeal. Council member Ed Suslovic says the goal of the legislation was not to hurt the homeless — just the opposite, in fact.

“This was a public safety threat, mainly to the folks in the median strip, but also to motorists going by as well,” Suslovic says.

To Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, such measures are counterproductive — as well-meaning as they might be. Especially if they subject individuals to jail time or fines they can’t afford to pay.

“It would be nice if you could solve the problem of homelessness simply by outlawing it,” Foscarinis says. “But in reality, it takes resources to really end homelessness.”

Resources are often difficult for cities to come by, even though numerous studies show that housing the homeless is more cost-effective in the long run: Ultimately, less money is needed for emergency services, like hospitals and police.

Still, many cities are trying to help the homeless, even as they pass laws making it more difficult to live outside. Back in Portland, Suslovic says his city is working aggressively to house homeless residents. And the National Law Center applauds other efforts, such as a homeless outreach team at the Houston Police Department.

Sgt. Steve Wick runs the Houston program, which aims to get people off the street. As part of the program, officers and a caseworker guide the city’s homeless residents through an often confusing bureaucracy to get them the services they need. He says many have mental health and substance abuse problems.

“You can’t tell a person that’s been living on the street for a long time, ‘You need to do this, this, this and this in order to get off the street’ — because they can’t do it,” he says. He adds, “If you don’t kind of help them through the whole process, they’re just kind of stuck. They’re stuck on the streets.”

Wick says officers still need to enforce laws against things like urinating in public, but he says programs like his offer an alternative, more permanent solution.

One comment

  1. Reblogged this on freshleverage and commented:
    Two facts that hurriedly run from one another:
    1. U. S. Government spending (FY2014) for “ending” homelessness at an all-time high. (Source: National Alliance to End Homelessness: Snapshot of homeless; http://www.endhomelessness.org)
    2. “Homeless People are Criminally Punished for Being in Public When They Have No Other Alternatives.” (Key Finding, No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities; National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty; http://www.nlchp.org)

    Can anyone explain this seemingly disparate set of facts?

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