Mass incarceration and the criminalization of homelessness

By Melanie Wilmoth

Exacerbated by the economic recession and increased home foreclosures, the homelessness crisis in the U.S. continues to grow at an alarming rate. According to a new report published by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), over 650,000 individuals in the U.S. are without a home on any given night. The report, “Criminalizing Crisis,” highlights the increasing criminalization of homeless individuals.

NLCHP reports that, despite the knowledge that there are inadequate services for those who are homeless, cities continue to prohibit activities that are essential for survival:

“Criminalization measures often prohibit activities like sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and/or begging in public spaces and include criminal penalties for violations of these laws…Many of these measures appear to be designed to move homeless persons out of sight, or even out of a given city.”

Once individuals are criminalized (and, therefore, have a criminal record), they face more barriers when trying to obtain employment, housing, public benefits, and healthcare.

In a recent survey of large employers, “over 90% performed a criminal background check on some or all job applicants.” Moreover, individuals with a criminal record may be suspended from or ineligible for public benefits such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and food stamps. Furthermore, many Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) have policies that disqualify individuals from housing based on arrest records. Thus, criminalization serves to preclude individuals from working toward economic self-sufficiency, further perpetuating the cycle of homelessness.

The criminalization of homelessness also feeds into mass incarceration and further burdens our already over-populated jails:

“The costs associated with criminalizing homelessness include law enforcement costs, court costs, and jail costs. These costs vary from county to county throughout the nation, and are generally higher than the cost of providing shelter or permanent housing.”

One particular case of criminalization in Dallas, TX has caused NLCHP to take action. Several years ago, the city of Dallas adopted an ordinance (Dallas City Ordinance 26023) that “restricts sharing food with homeless individuals in public.”  Individuals and organizations that violate this ordinance are subject to a fine of between $50 and $2,000 per day.

As a result, two faith-based non-profits that serve food to homeless individuals, Big Hart Ministries and Rip Parker Memorial Homeless Ministry, filed a suit against the city of Dallas (Big Hart Ministries v. City of Dallas, No. 3-2007-cv-00216, 2007 WL 606343). According to NLCHP (the organization is serving as a co-counsel in the case), these organizations claim that “the ordinance restricting food sharing violates homeless persons’ right to life (through third party standing), and the plaintiffs’ free exercise rights, free speech rights, right to travel, right to freedom of association, right to due process, and equal protection rights, as well as their rights under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

The case is not yet set for trial. However, the Dallas Observer recently reported that “U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis denied the city [of Dallas’] motion for summary judgment and ruled that the lawsuit can proceed.”

It’s ordinances like these that further alienate people who are homeless and prohibit them from accessing the services they need in order to break the cycle of homelessness. Rather than sweeping homelessness under the rug by criminalizing people who are homeless and locking them up in our jails and prisons, we need meaningful reforms that focus on increasing access to affordable housing, jobs, mental health services, and other support programs.

(At the end of NLCHP’s report, there is a great advocacy manual for individuals and organizations working to combat the criminalization of homelessness. Check it out here.)

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