What Would Defunding the Police Mean for the Homeless Population?

March about Defunding the police

Pressure mounts as the presidential seat turns over and a newly elected leader greets our heavily divided nation. In recent years, violent acts of police brutality have gained more visibility. Many people have marched or boycotted in protest of what their social media feeds have captured and displayed.

There’s no denying the fact that authority is being exploited in precincts all across America. The question is… What should be done about it?

What Does It Mean to Defund the Police?

Defund the police began as a chant at protests and marches, a whispered ideology that wasn’t taken seriously at first. In the beginning, many misconstrued the phrase, replacing the word “defund” with “abolish”. However, as it became apparent that the request was really a call to transfer some of the funding from the police department into other social services sectors, this adage went from battle cry to talking point.

Scholars, politicians, advocates, activists, and policymakers now mull over the subject in wonder. What would the world look like if we moved some of the funding used to criminalize pedestrians and we put it into someplace more positive like, maybe education or social services? In such a scenario, would our nation flourish? Would we all be stronger, more educated, and more unified? Or would criminal activity overrun the streets making 2020 that much more horrific? Would the end result look something like the movie The Purge?

In order to even breech some of these questions, we’d all have to agree on the definition of defunding the police. We’d need to settle on firm figures of exactly how much money should be taken away and where it should be going. Right now, all we have is a vague idea of shifting dollars and moving them from one sector to another. In this context, everything’s chaotic. Nothing is pinned down.

In order to present as concise an argument as possible, we will hone in on a model for defunding the police that was presented by doctoral candidate Philip V. McHarris and Movement for Black Lives strategist Thenjiwe McHarris that was recently published in the New York Times.

It’s important to keep in mind that there is more than one way to defund a department. And, there are multiple social service sectors that could benefit if their funding was increased. What the McHarris couple suggest is that police cease responding to calls for nonviolent offenses/emergencies including:

  • Mental health issues
  • Domestic violence
  • Substance abuse
  • Homelessness

In this post, we will discuss only what would happen if calls about homelessness were diverted to rapid response social workers instead of law enforcement officials as per their suggestion.

Punitive Responses to Homelessness Cost Hundreds of Millions of Dollars or More Nationwide

According to an LA Times report, the vast majority of the annual $100 million LA allocates for homelessness goes directly to law enforcement. San Francisco alone spends about $20.6 million enforcing “quality of life” ordinances. These make existing in a public space a criminal act for people who have no stable place to live.

An in-depth study presented by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty analyzed 187 American cities regarding the criminalization of homelessness. The results were shocking. Here are some highlights:

  • Ordinances prohibiting camping in public have increased by 69% over the past decade
  • Ordinances prohibiting sleeping in public have increased by 31% over the past decade
  • 47% of the cities upheld sleep prohibition ordinances
  • 50% of the cities upheld public camping prohibitions
  • 54% of these cities upheld prohibition ordinances regarding loitering and vagrancy in specific designated areas

Horrifyingly enough, the study also showed a 7.2-million-unit shortage in the affordable rental market. The shortage also extends to the number of available shelter beds vs. the number of people enduring homelessness in the US.

If homeless people are given citations for merely existing and we are short millions of viable alternatives, this guarantees a cycle of imprisonment. This, in turn, leads to poverty, which then gives way to even more homelessness.

Arrest records support this conclusion. For example, the city of Dallas, Texas issued approximately 11,000 citations between 2012 and 2015 for the “crime” of sleeping in public. These citations often carry hefty fines that a person who already can’t afford to live in a home simply can’t afford to pay. In the end, taxpayers must foot the bill for imprisoning homeless people in mass numbers. Then they release them back onto the streets only to imprison them again for breaking these same “quality of life” ordinances.

Sweeps are equally expensive, adding an additional $30 million annual toll onto LA’s sizeable tab.

Research shows that non-punitive responses to homelessness are cheaper and more effective. If, for example, LA’s $100 million was reinvested into affordable housing solutions, that money could be used to construct 25,000 $4,000 3d printed homes. This would effectively, and immediately reduce LA’s homeless population by about 50%.

Nationwide, cities that are examining and implementing non-punitive solutions to homelessness are garnering positive, inspiring results regardless of which sector the funding is reinvested into.

Defunding the Police for the Homeless Sector is a Viable Option Worthy of our Consideration

The overwhelming cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing. This is a structural, communal problem, not a criminal offense. So why does our response to it continue to be criminalization?

The suggestion to redirect the responsibility of homelessness away from law enforcement and into the hands of social workers is not only practical, it’s what should have happened in the first place.

Remember to talk to your representatives about their non-punitive solutions for homelessness today. With tens of millions of evictions anticipated this January, it’s an urgent discussion.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


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

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Invisible People is the only nonprofit newsroom dedicated exclusively to the issue of homelessness and related topics. We bring you daily original news on the growing homeless crisis, affordable housing, and the criminalization of homelessness. Join us to explore solutions and stay informed on this urgent issue with our unique coverage.

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