“Let me tell ya, if Austin does not fix its homeless crisis by November the 1st, I will unleash the full authority of every state agency to protect the health & safety of all Texans.”
10:43 AM – 2 Oct 2019
If that sounds like an ultimatum, that’s exactly what Texas Governor Greg Abbott was going for. “Unleashing the full authority of every agency” sounds like the type of clichéd threat a Marvel super-villain would use.
The Twitter thread that follows is a mixed bag. Some people applauded Gov. Abbott’s hard-nosed approach to tackling increasing numbers of homeless people in Austin. Others decried his sentiments, preaching sympathy for those suffering from homelessness. One user had some fun with the governor’s “strategy.” [that’s being generous]:
With the criminalization of homelessness trending across America, the issue of whether this trend is effective, let alone morally tenable, is a topic that is becoming increasingly hard to ignore. For our purposes, we’ll tackle two main issues:
- Does criminalizing homeless people work to reduce the number of people on the streets?
- Is it the right thing to do?
Criminalizing Homelessness – Does It Work?
Let’s start by discussing the effectiveness of criminalizing homelessness from a purely pragmatic position. If we dwell on what’s happening in Austin, Texas, the city actually has a history of handing out citations to people who slept in public spaces. The city prohibited “sitting or lying down on public sidewalks or sleeping outdoors” in downtown Austin. Between 2014 and 2016, the city issued some 18,000 citations. The City Council amended the rules in 2017. Why?
According to a 2017 audit, some 90% of those that had received citations didn’t show up for court. Nearly 75% of the citations led to an arrest warrant. For those that did show up, court proceedings were costly. While some violators received only community service hours, the courts charged others with as much as $500 in fees. This charge was more theoretical than anything else. It feels a bit obtuse to mention that homeless people don’t have the funds to bankroll these types of charges.
The net result was the community was left footing the bills of an ineffective law enforcement solution to a social needs problem.
For some figures, take the number crunchers in San Francisco. The 2015 calendar years saw the city spend $20.6 million to arrest 125 people on misdemeanors related to homelessness. Of that $20 million, 90% went to San Fran’s police department – misguided funds to say the least. If one goes down the road of imprisoning violators that aren’t able to pay, taxpayer costs become even more prohibitive. One study revealed for every dollar invested in housing and shelter programs, $13 was saved in crime and justice costs.
The main issue is the underlying reason for criminalizing homelessness is intrinsically flawed. “Stay-away orders” keep people from accessing social services that they need like food stamps or shelters. When a homeless person serves time in prison, the subsequent record becomes another obstacle to secure employment. And under federal law, people who spent more than 90 days in jail lose their place in queue for permanent housing, thereby exacerbating the problem.
Criminalizing homelessness is ridiculous. Don’t be homeless or we’ll prosecute you!
Is It the Right Thing to Do?
So if it’s not an effective process, economically or otherwise, is it the right thing to do? Are we somehow “protecting the health & safety of all,” as Texas’ governor would have us believe?
Many argue that criminalizing homelessness is unconstitutional. Consider two examples.
- The First Amendment
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
A 1992 case in Florida used the first amendment to argue that the law can’t be used to “prevent homeless individuals from performing activities…that are ‘necessities of life,’ such as sleeping, in any public place when they have nowhere else to go.”
- The Eighth Amendment
“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
A court ruling in 2006 stated that homeless individuals “are in a chronic state that may have been acquired innocently or involuntarily. Whether sitting, lying, and sleeping are defined as acts or conditions, they are universal and unavoidable consequences of being human.” This means that fining or imprisoning a homeless person for doing something unavoidably human, like sleeping, would be unconstitutional.
Where Does That Leave Us?
Not only is criminalizing homelessness massively expensive and inherently flawed, it’s also arguably unconstitutional and a breach of any number of human rights. Calling it a “Band-Aid solution” does a disservice to Band-Aids.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott views criminalization of homelessness as the panacea for what ails Austin. And there is a very real homelessness problem in that city, make no mistake. It’s just sad when Twitter user @dmatx penned a more logical strategy to reduce the number of homeless people in Austin in a single tweet than Gov. Abbott has been able to do after years in office.