Arrested for Existing While Homeless

Criminalizing homeless people for existing

The Criminalization of Homelessness is Spreading Across the Country

Robert Stephenson emerged from jail visibly injured, his finger damaged and his wrists riddled with marks. One of his many interactions with law enforcement officials during his three-year stint of homelessness left his criminal record tainted and his physical appearance damaged in the manner described above.

In a telling interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, Stephenson explained that the police had, indeed, roughed him up a bit. But he added that it was “not in a Rodney King way” as if to subtly defend the wayward assailants or to make the injustice appear less gruesome than it was.

The harrowing truth is that for the duration of his homeless experience, Stephenson had become accustomed to these types of interactions with law enforcement officials as well as the general public’s perception of him as an alleged “criminal.” Being jailed, assaulted, and tossed back into the system had become a way of life for the man.

His crime? Existing while homeless.

As tragic as the situation sounds, it is in no way unique to Mr. Stephenson. He was swiftly and, without warning, placed under arrest for pitching a tent in San Diego’s Balboa Park. This coveted tourist destination features 1,200 sprawling acres dedicated to culture, art, and leisure.

People like Mr. Stephenson (unintentionally) interrupt the mundane experiences of park-goers and remind everyday workers, travelers, and families that homelessness is a growing problem. Worse yet, it is a problem that could even happen to them.

Imagine the shock of a park visitor meandering through the lush California foliage anticipating a delightful day of upscale shopping and sightseeing, only to come face to face with a man like Stephenson, who has no stable place to rest.

The Alleged Crime of ‘Existing While Homeless’

We cannot arrest our way out of the affordable housing crisis. We can, however, fool ourselves into blaming the victims.

It is for this reason and this reason alone that 200 citations were issued, and 30 arrests were made for encroachment violations in San Diego, California alone, in just one year, according to court records.

Encroachment violations are often used as an excuse to arrest houseless residents who store their belongings on city sidewalks, residential streets, or park benches. As the legislative title suggests, they are essentially “encroaching” on public space.

While legislators claim the law doesn’t specifically target houseless community members, these individuals make up the vast majority of these types of arrests.

Quality-of-Life Ordinances Provide Homeless People the Right to Die and Nothing Else

Encroaching violations are just one example of a slew of laws that target people enduring unsheltered homelessness. Other examples include:

  • Anti-camping laws, which make pitching tents and other makeshift shelters on certain properties illegal
  • Loitering laws
  • Panhandling laws
  • Bans on sitting, standing, and sharing food
  • Prohibitions on changing clothes in public restrooms, and the list goes on

Working under the guise that the laws can technically apply to anybody, few consider that they adversely affect a targeted few – namely, unsheltered homeless individuals.

“I can’t tell you how many tickets I have gotten . . . [for] sitting, lying, just the little stupid stuff I have on my record,” says Luke White, a homeless man who the Texas Tribune interviewed. White describes a slew of unpaid tickets and citations that have accumulated during his off-again on-again cycle of homelessness that is now more than ten years in the making.

Politicians continue to peddle a message of compassion, claiming the laws are designed to encourage unsheltered individuals to accept housing and services. That’s a hefty claim considering the average wait for housing placement in America is one and a half years, and over 25% of applicants will wait as long as seven years.

In the meantime, the fines, fees, and prison sentences continue to pile up, digging a deeper hole of poverty that can span whole lifetimes or even multiple generations.

Imagine if everything you did could land you in jail to the point where it was illegal for you to merely exist. This is homelessness in the United States of America.

Technically, it isn’t illegal to be homeless in America unless, of course, you need to use the bathroom. Then it’s illegal. Or, you must carry a bag on a public sidewalk containing sanitary items and life-saving medication. You can definitely go to jail for that.

Of course, there are also clauses if you need to sit, lie, stand, or walk around. Those clauses all lead to the same place, which is the profit-driven industrial prison complex.

Sleeping in your vehicle is another way to be cited, handcuffed, and assaulted, given that laws criminalizing vehicular homelessness have increased by a jaw-dropping 213% in under twenty years.

Existing while homeless is a serious crime nationwide. In some places, it is even a felony. Getting arrested or cited doesn’t increase the quality of life for houseless individuals and families. In fact, it increases the likelihood that they will endure more homelessness.

Imagine a life where everything you do to survive could land you in a prison cell. This is the life of a homeless person in America. The good news is, it doesn’t have to be this way.

We Can Do Better. It Starts with You Picking Up the Phone.

In a recent survey that anonymously polled 126 city leaders, the overwhelming majority of mayors admitted that their goal, in terms of achievement in the homeless sector, was appeasing voters, not ending homelessness. Armed with this new information, every advocate on deck must reach out to their local legislators and express that the only way to appease voters is to end homelessness through housing, not handcuffs, court fees, and citations.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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