IT IS CRUEL TO PUNISH people for their poverty, but at every level of government, poor people are targeted for unfair treatment under the law. There is perhaps no clearer example of this than the growing criminalization of homelessness in the United States.
The criminalization of homelessness refers to a broad set of policies that punish people for having no indoor homes, such as local laws that prohibit sleeping, sitting, or lying down in outdoor public space. Since 2006, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (the Law Center) has tracked the explosive growth of these laws, including a 143 percent increase in those that outlaw living in vehicles. This is often the last refuge for poor families, the elderly, and disabled people who have been priced out of the rental market. Today, for example, half of the U.S. cities surveyed restrict sleeping and sheltering oneself outdoors, even when there are no alternative places to go.
Rather than address the root causes of homelessness, such as low wages that have not kept pace with rapidly rising rents, these policies merely punish people for living outside. Meanwhile, people who are sleeping in tents, lying down on sidewalks, and living in their vehicles are doing so because they are too poor to afford other housing. To jail, ticket, or threaten them for it only makes the problem worse.
People brought to jail for living in public often cannot afford cash bail, so they frequently accept criminal convictions to temporarily regain their freedom. They are then released back to the same streets, with the same lack of options, but with new fees and criminal records that make it even more difficult to get into housing and out of public space. This cycle is expensive and wastes community resources that would be better invested in permanent housing and other proven cost-effective solutions to homelessness.