‘Justice System’

The Laws Cities Use To Make Homelessness a Crime

A new law gives police new power and wide discretion to arrest the most vulnerable.

There’s nothing shocking, really, about Houston’s new law making it easier for homeless people to be arrested simply for being homeless.

Not when over 100 American cities have effectively criminalized everyday life for the homeless, making crimes of things from sleeping outside to brushing teeth in public. Even as cities become more socially conscious about LGBTQ rights and drug policies, they’ve become less tolerant of their neediest inhabitants and more comfortable with cops and the justice system sweeping up the human trash, as it were.

City-wide bans on public camping (PDF) have increased by 69 percent throughout the United States. What used to be seen as an annoyance is now prohibited, forcing fines or jail time on those who certainly can’t afford it. The only nationwide nonprofit devoted to studying this, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, has been tracking these changes since 2006. Their findings? There are a scary number of laws passed that ironically make it costly to be

For example, in 33 of the 100 U.S. cities they studied, it’s illegal to publicly camp. In 18, it’s illegal to sleep in public. Panhandling is illegal in 27 cities.

In 39 cities, it’s illegal to live in vehicles. For extreme sports junkies (like Yosemite climbers who try to live in their cars), this is an inconvenience. For the homeless, it leaves no alternatives, especially if shelters are too far, too full, or too violent (a common problem). For some people, the choice might be between living in a car or sleeping outside—but what if both are criminalized?

This situation is playing out before our averted eyes in Dallas. The police issued over 11,000 citations for sleeping in public from January 2012 to November 2015. That’s about 323 citations per month, or around ten per day. These citations generally come with fines, and failure to pay (which is to be expected, given that these people are homeless) comes with worse legal trouble, often snowballing into jail time.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is taking a similar approach—his anti-encampment ordinance makes it illegal to use “fabric, metal, cardboard, or other materials as a tent or temporary structure for human habitation.” This ensures that the Houstonian homeless are vulnerable not just to the elements, but also to the constant threat of the police. Officials cite one of the most common justifications for crackdowns on the homeless: neighborhood safety (a more socially acceptable way of talking about the not-in-my-backyard mentality).

City officials in Houston claim tent cities make it easy to hide illicit activity. If by “illicit activity,” they mean drug use, then sure. But as we’ve learned through the embarrassing failures of the drug war, drug use isn’t always as bad as we think and it certainly isn’t improved by greater criminalization efforts. Tent cities are often formed to provide some degree of protection from the elements—not just a haven for drug use.

Mayor Turner says he’s pairing the ban on tents with a bid to increase the number of shelter beds, and that a new police policy will prioritize issuing warnings and attempting to take violators to receive medical treatment, if needed.

All of this would be good if true, but what the new law really does is give police new power and wide discretion to arrest the vulnerable. As with many marginalized groups—including drug users, sex workers and undocumented immigrants—this means the homeless will increasingly fear the police instead of being able to rely on them for help.

Worst of all, is there anything logical about saddling homeless people with jail time?