Criminalising homelessness is not just cruel: it’s costly, too

An officer from the Sheriff's Department and a social worker walk the homeless encampment in Anaheim, California in February 2018. Image: Getty.

Increasingly, local laws punish Americans who are homeless.

By severely restricting or even barring the ability to engage in necessary, life-sustaining activities in public, like sitting, standing, sleeping or asking for help, even when there’s no reasonable alternative, these laws are essentially persecuting homeless men, women and children.

As law professors who study how laws can make homelessness better or worse, we encourage cities, suburbs and towns to avoid punishing people who live in public and have nowhere else to go. One big reason: these “anti-vagrancy laws” are counterproductive because they make it harder to escape homelessness.

Many paths to not having a home

Why do at least half a million Americans experience homelessness at any time?

Researchers find that most people who become homeless have nowhere to live after being evicted, losing their jobs or fleeing an abusive partner.

Many emergency homeless shelters are perpetually full. Even those with beds to spare may enforce rules that exclude families, LGBTQ youth and people with pets.

And when homeless people can stay in shelters, often they may only spend the night there. That means they have to go somewhere else during the daytime.

More laws

As the number of people facing homelessness increases, local residents are demanding that their elected officials do something about the homeless people they encounter in their daily lives. The leaders of cities, towns and suburbs are often responsive.

But more often than not, municipalities don’t address the underlying problems that cause homelessness by, say, providing sufficient permanent housing, affordable housing or shelters with minimal barriers to entry. Instead, criminalising homelessness is growing more popular.

Over the last decade, city-wide bans on camping in public have increased by 69 percent while city-wide panhandling bans rose by 43 percent, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

Advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union frequently challenge these laws in court. Judges often strike down such laws on the grounds that they violate constitutionally protected rights, such as the freedom of speech or due process.

Still, more and more communities keep trying to outlaw homelessness.


Criminalising homelessness is ineffective

Not only do we and other legal experts find these laws to be unconstitutional, we see ample evidence that they waste tax dollars.

Cities are aggressively deploying law enforcement to target people simply for the crime of existing while having nowhere to live. In 2016 alone, Los Angeles police arrested 14,000 people experiencing homelessness for everyday activities such as sitting on sidewalks.

San Francisco is spending some US$20 million per year to enforce laws against loitering, panhandling and other common conduct against people experiencing homelessness.

Jails and prisons make extremely expensive and ineffective homeless shelters. Non-punitive alternatives, such as permanent supportive housing and mental health or substance abuse treatment, cost less and work better, according to research one of us is doing at the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University Law School and many other sources.

But the greatest cost of these laws is borne by already vulnerable people who are ticketed, arrested and jailed because they are experiencing homelessness.

Fines and court fees quickly add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars. A Sacramento man, for example, found himself facing $100,000 in fines for convictions for panhandling and sleeping outside. These costs are impossible to pay, since the “crimes” were committed by dint of being unable to afford keeping a roof over his head in the first place.

And since having a criminal record makes getting jobs and housing much harder, these laws are perpetuating homelessness.

Joseph W. Mead, Assistant Professor, Cleveland State University and Sara Rankin, Professor of Lawyering Skills, Seattle University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Older people need better homes – but then, so does everybody else

Colne, Lancashire. Image: Getty.

Towards the end of last year, I started as an associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, working particularly on our goal around safe and accessible homes. Before I arrived, Ageing Better had established some ambitious goals for this work: by 2030, we want the number of homes classed as decent to increase by a million, and by the same date to ensure that at least half of all new homes are built to be fully accessible.

We’ve all heard the statistics about the huge growth in the number of households headed by someone over 65, and the exponential growth in the number of households of people over 85. Frustratingly, this is often presented as a problem to be solved rather than a major success story of post war social and health policy. Older people, like everyone else, have ambitions for the future, opportunities to make a full contribution to their communities and to continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

It is also essential that older people, again like everyone else, should live in decent and accessible homes. In the last 50 years we have made real progress in improving the quality of our homes, but we still have a lot to do. Our new research shows that over 4 million homes across England fail to meet the government’s basic standards of decency. And a higher proportion of older people live in these homes than the population more generally, with over a million people over the age of 55 living in conditions that pose a risk to their health or safety.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure all our homes meet a decent standard. A small number of homes require major and expensive remedial work, but the overwhelming majority need less than £3,000 to hit the mark. We know how to do it. We now need the political will to make it a priority. Apart from the benefits to the people living in the homes, investment of this kind is great for the economy, especially when so many of our skilled tradespeople are older. Imagine if they were part of training young people to learn these skills.


At a recent staff away day, we explored where we would ideally want to live in our later lives. This was not a stretch for me, although for some of our younger colleagues it is a long way into the future.

The point at which the conversation really took off for me was when we moved away from government definitions of decency and accessibility and began to explore the principles of what great homes for older people would be like. We agreed they needed light and space (by which we meant real space – our national obsession with number of bedrooms as opposed to space has led to us building the smallest new homes in Europe).

We agreed, too, that they needed to be as flexible as possible so that the space could be used differently as our needs change. We thought access to safe outdoor space was essential and that the homes should be digitally connected and in places that maximise the potential for social connection.

Of course, it took us just a few seconds to realise that this is true for virtually everyone. As a nation we have been dismal at moving away from three-bed boxes to thinking differently about what our homes should look like. In a world of technology and factory building, and as we build the new generation of homes we desperately need, we have a real chance to be bold.

Great, flexible homes with light and space, in the places where people want to live. Surely it’s not too much to ask?

David Orr is associate director – homes at the Centre for Ageing Better.