Criminalizing Homeless People Is Not the Solution

criminalizing homeless

Evaluating the True Cost of Homelessness

Homelessness in the United States is an intersectional crisis. Structural inequality and society’s critical failure to confront the unequal distribution of wealth, opportunity and power drive this crisis.

The true cost of this growing social problem is staggering. Set aside the devastation homelessness causes to the individual, on any given day in America. Let’s focus on the immense economic burden homelessness places on society.

Los Angeles, California, home to one of the United State’s most stable homeless populations, is the perfect example of the true cost homelessness levies on communities.

In May of 2018, the L.A. city council approved a $9.9 billion budget. The budget included $440 million to address issues related to homelessness. This amount is the largest sum directed toward addressing the city’s long-standing social problems related to homelessness.

While this is clearly a positive step in the right direction, real progress will not be achieved until the Los Angeles Police Department stops using excessive force against homeless citizens and criminalizing them for subsisting to the best of their abilities.

Homelessness is expensive for communities and places a heavy burden on taxpayers. Creating affordable housing solutions is the answer to this problem. It is not incarcerating individuals and perpetuating the cycle of poverty at the core of this issue. Communities cannot support criminalizing homeless while claiming that helping those experiencing homelessness is an important priority.

Lamenting the Skid Row Serenade

“Skid Row” in Los Angeles has a long history as an epicenter of homelessness in the United States.

Writing for the L.A. Times in a piece called “Skid Row Serenade” in 1939, Huston Irvine described a homeless population of 10,000 around that time.

Eighty years later, not a lot has changed. There are roughly the same number of people living on the streets now as there were then.

While it is illegal to do so under U.S. federal law upheld as recently as 2018 by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the Los Angeles Police Department frequently arrests and disrupts homeless communities living in the city.

According to the L.A.P.D. in 2018:

  • Over 9,000 tents were seized
  • Over 1,400 people were issued citations for sitting on the sidewalk
  • More than 460 people were issued citations for possessing more than 60 gallons of personal items
  • Over 410 people were issued citations for possessing a shopping cart
  • More than 3,600 tons of garbage and 60,437 pounds of human waste were removed

A document published by the L.A.P.D. highlights that in 2018, one third of all use of force incidents in the city involved homeless and marginally housed individuals.

More often than not, homeless citizens living in Los Angeles also live in constant fear of law enforcement.

This is evident from testimony an individual named Willy shared with the Pacific Standard: “‘The police down here are nothing nice. They’re very cruel, they’re very rude, and they’re pistol-happy,’ he says, a family of flies swarming his T-shirt and the tattered computer chair that he sits on as we speak. ‘I’ve had a gun put to the back of my head. Told me to get on the wall, on my knees. For no reason. I ain’t even got no dope on me. I ain’t even got an apparatus. A pipe or anything. I got no paraphernalia.’”

Abusing the rights of citizens, as the L.A.P.D. has frequently done, does not transform homelessness. To the contrary, it facilitates its growth.

An Appeal to Reason

Imagine having the few personal items you owned taken from you. To make matters worse, you are then locked up in one of our nation’s most notorious jails simply for living your life.

When you finally get out, you return to the streets and the cycle continues. Along the way, it’s extremely likely you will experience violence, suffer addiction or see your psychological problems exacerbated without access to adequate medical care.

For many homeless in L.A. this is a constant reality and accurate depiction of the revolving door between life on the streets and incarceration.

The reality is that criminalizing homeless populations offers a quick but dirty solution. Criminalization does not address the actual issues that created the situation.

Furthermore, brutalizing the homeless population reveals one of the worst human character traits: the propensity to blame the victim.

It needs to stop and to ensure that it does, it is essential the public make its voice heard. Affirm the solution to homelessness is affordable housing, access to educational training programs and medical care, not incarceration.

The Conditions of a Tenuous Victory

Last week, homeless advocates in Los Angeles were able to offer a sigh of relief when the news was announced the city had finally settled a court case at the center of the fight against criminalizing the homeless.

Gale Holland writing for the L.A. Times: “The 10-2 vote authorizes City Attorney Mike Feuer to settle a 2016 lawsuit, Carl Mitchell v. Los Angeles, brought by civil rights lawyers on behalf of homeless people and two skid row anti-poverty groups. Downtown business groups had opposed such a deal, arguing that settling the case would deter redevelopment, and leave skid row and the people who live on its sidewalks mired in squalor.”

The decision creates the conditions for a tenuous though potentially brief victory. It limits the power of the L.A.P.D. to disrupt homeless encampments by enforcing “quality of life” offenses and criminalizing homelessness.

Unfortunately, in the city of Los Angeles, as in California and the whole of the United States, the issue of homelessness is far from resolved.

And it is unlikely to be, until we as a nation, reevaluate the true cost of homelessness. We need to make the necessary investments to address the unequal distribution of wealth, opportunity and power.

Many communities around the United States have already decided that creating affordable housing is far less expensive than allowing homelessness to continue burdening municipal resources.

The time has come for the citizens of Los Angeles and the rest of the United States to take a stand to end homelessness in our lifetime.

The solutions and resources are in place. Communities must take a stand and refute the quick and dirty solution of criminalizing homelessness. Instead demand solutions that address the root causes of the issue.

John Heinz

John Heinz


John Heinz is a masters level social worker, educator and writer who helps businesses to remember the communities they serve.

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