Criminalization of Homelessness Grows as Solutions Stall

homelessness grows as solutions stall

Homelessness is on the rise in the U.S. due to high housing costs, but instead of investing in effective solutions like Housing First programs, many lawmakers are enacting laws that criminalize activities associated with homelessness, such as sleeping or panhandling.

Homelessness is growing across the U.S. as high home prices and rents force the lowest income-earning households to choose between paying for necessities like food and medicine or rent.

But instead of investing in proven solutions like Housing First programs, lawmakers across the nation are continuing to criminalize acts associated with homelessness, like sleeping, eating, and lying down. These laws are being passed at a time when political gridlocks are stalling many proposed solutions by federal and state lawmakers.

“Viewing homeless people as criminals for having nowhere to go reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what we need to do to address a system that’s failed our country’s most needy constituency,” Lyndon Haviland, a scholar at CUNY’s School of Public Health and Health Policy, wrote in an op-ed for The Hill.

Criminalization Continues to Grow

The criminalization of homelessness in America is not new but is an issue that has gained steam since the pandemic began in 2020. According to research from the National Homelessness Law Center, nearly every state in the union has at least one law that criminalizes some aspect of homelessness. Some of the most common laws include citywide bans on camping on public property, prohibiting sitting or lying down, or prohibitions on panhandling.

Despite their commonality, lawmakers have made a concerted effort to increase penalties and punishments under these laws in an attempt to deter homelessness. For instance, lawmakers in Oklahoma passed a bill that created a misdemeanor offense for a person experiencing homelessness to “refuse help” from a police officer. The bill does not require police officers to make sure there is available shelter and services for the people they are offering to help.

On the West Coast, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler recently proposed an ordinance that would allow the city to fine people experiencing homelessness for refusing help. However, the ordinance does not require the city to have available or adequate shelter space before it issues the citation.

These laws are being passed at a time when the Supreme Court is debating whether cities have the right to punitively punish people experiencing homelessness when there isn’t enough shelter or services available. The court is expected to issue an opinion in the case—Johnson v. Grants Pass—later this month.

Political Gridlock Stalls Constructive Solutions

Some right-leaning lawmakers are also pushing to increase criminal penalties for acts associated with homelessness as political gridlock stalls more constructive solutions like the Housing is a Human Right Act.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington, and Rep. Grace Meng, a Democrat from New York, introduced the bill in 2022 and reintroduced it in 2023. It would authorize more than $200 billion of federal support for building more affordable housing, $27 billion per year for homeless services, and $100 million per year for community-driven alternatives to criminalization. However, the bill has been stuck in committee for more than a year without action.

“Experiencing homelessness is not a failure of individuals, but a structural failure of a country that has refused to make safe and affordable housing a priority,” Jayapal said.

“The crisis of housing instability is one that can be fixed by investing in housing infrastructure and supportive services for vulnerable communities,” she continued. “And in the richest country in the world, it is a moral imperative that we take this issue head-on. Housing is a human right – and every person deserves to have a safe place to call home.”

Federal Government Must Take Action to Solve Homelessness

Other solutions have seen their share of delays. For instance, a hotel renovation project in King City, California, that would have created 44 permanently supportive housing units—enough to house the city’s entire homeless population—has been stalled since late 2022. CalMatters reported in December 2023 that California’s attorney general is investigating the pause for potential wrongdoing. The case remains ongoing.

The city of Jacksonville, Florida, saw a similar 24-unit apartment project get held up because the state refused to issue funds that would have covered about 90% of the project’s cost. The project would have provided housing units for people experiencing homelessness and connected them with services.

State officials said the project’s application for funding was rejected because it was a competitive bid process. More than half of the applications for state funding were rejected, My Journal Courier reported.

To advocates like Haviland, these issues show that the federal government needs to step up and “combat this national problem.” However, he argued that political gridlocks have forced cities to deal with the issue on their own, which is not sustainable for the long term.

“The criminalization of the homeless is neither the answer nor a sustainable solution. The epidemic demands a national response and a whole-of-government policy,” Haviland argued.

How You Can Help

The pandemic proved that we need to rethink housing in the U.S. It also showed that aid programs work when agencies and service organizations are provided with sufficient funds and clear guidance on spending aid dollars.

Contact your officials and representatives. Tell them you support keeping many of the pandemic-related aid programs in place for future use. They have proven effective at keeping people housed, which is the first step to ending homelessness.

Robert Davis

Robert Davis

Robert is a freelance journalist based in Colorado who covers housing, police, and local government.

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