Here's why banning rough sleeping doesn't solve the problem of homelessness

We've used this image before, but it never stops haunting us: rough sleeping in London in 2010. Image: Oli Scarff/Getty.

Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle has announced a plan to ban sleeping rough in the city. Doyle did so last week amid significant pressure from both Victoria Police and the tabloid media.

When Victoria Police chief commissioner Graham Ashton called on the state government to extend police powers, Doyle at first seemed to reject the idea. But he later said he would propose a new bylaw to the city council.

Ashton claimed that the people living on Flinders Street are not really homeless, a suggestion echoed by Herald Sun columnist Rita Panahi. They say new laws and powers are needed to “clean up the city”. Critics from the homelessness and community sectors argue this would effectively criminalise being homeless.

However, what exactly does this mean? And how would this differ from current strategies for governing homelessness in Melbourne?

My doctoral research, which examined how homelessness in regulated in Melbourne, found homelessness is already effectively criminalised and has been for some time.

Is being homeless a crime?

First, being homeless is not a criminal offence anywhere in Australia. If such a law were passed it would breach multiple long-standing legal principles. It would also breach various domestic and international charters and covenants on citizenship as well as human and civil rights.

Despite this, people experiencing homelessness, especially those who are highly visible, socially disruptive or who have complex needs, are frequently subject to systems of regulation and control that drag them into the criminal justice system.

For example, begging is outlawed in Victoria by the Summary Offences Act and carries a maximum sentence of 12 months’ imprisonment. While an individual is unlikely to be jailed for begging, they will likely receive a fine.

Unsurprisingly, people who engage in begging find it very difficult to pay these fines. When a person accrues enough of them, a warrant can be issued for their arrest. Challenging these fines accounts for the bulk of the work of specialist homeless legal services in Melbourne.

Beyond begging being outlawed, many other laws directly or indirectly target people experiencing homelessness. These include laws banning squeegeeing at traffic lights, camping in public space, drinking in public, being drunk and/or disorderly, using offensive language in public, besetting footpaths or entrances and indecent exposure.

For people experiencing homelessness, performing actions and behaviours that are necessary for survival frequently places them in breach of these laws. For example, going to the toilet may result in a charge of indecent exposure. Going to sleep may result in a charge of camping in or besetting public space.

Do these kinds of laws work?

In the past two decades many cities, states and countries have introduced new ways of regulating the homeless, particularly in the UK and US. The use of hostile architecture, for example, appears to be increasing.

Such strategies essentially bypass legal frameworks by embedding the “move-on power” into the architecture of public space itself. This leaves homeless people with fewer places to be. And it often renders them increasingly visible and thus more exposed to intervention by municipal officials or police.

Some US cities have passed laws banning all kinds of behaviours that the homeless may engage in and enforce these selectively. Some have even banned giving food to the homeless. This has led to police arresting and charging members of local churches and charity groups. In the most egregious examples, some cities round up anyone suspected of being homeless, pack them into buses and dump them in the hinterlands of another municipality.

Have these actions reduced rates of homelessness? No. Such laws may decrease the visibility of homelessness in some areas, but bans are ineffective when used against populations that have nowhere else to go.


What other options are there?

Where does or should responsibility for the homeless lie?

Justifying such laws are claims, like Ashton’s and Panahi’s, that these people have been offered accommodation and refused, revealing their homelessness as voluntary.

However, interpreting the choice to turn down temporary stop-gaps and band-aids in this way misses something crucial. If a person refuses temporary accommodation in order to demand more stable and supported accommodation, it is because they know such short-term solutions are not solutions at all.

Temporary housing simply results in people churning in and out of desperate situations. We must understand housing as being defined by its stability and relative permanence. Offering someone a month or two of accommodation is not the same as offering them housing.

Questions of who should take responsibility for the homeless inevitably arise from these situations. The most common answer to these questions are shouts of “Not me!” However, given the criminal justice systems — police, courts and corrections — are publicly funded institutions, choosing to criminalise these behaviours is choosing to take responsibility for those who perform them.

Importantly, research has shown that dealing with homelessness through punitive means is actually far more expensive than strategies that supply affordable housing and supported accommodation.

So whether we choose to help or punish, we are choosing to take responsibility for and invest resources in this persistent social problem. Why don’t we choose the option that is not only cheaper but kinder as well?The Conversation

James Petty is a researcher in criminology at the University of Melbourne.

This article was originally published on The Conversation, and was co-published with Pursuit. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.