Collaborate, Don’t Criminalize: How Communities Can Effectively and Humanely Address Homelessness

October 26, 2022
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Criminalizing homelessness is becoming more common. While laws that criminalize homelessness have long been in existence, recent years have witnessed many states and communities across the United States enacting laws that fine and arrest people for doing activities in public that are otherwise legal in the setting of a home: sleeping, sitting, eating, drinking.

These policies are ineffective, expensive, and actually worsen the tragedy of homelessness. There is a better way to respond to this crisis.

Mayors and other local officials are under pressure to do something, anything. With severe shortages of affordable housing, funding that is insufficient to meet the need, and a pandemic that has stretched already strained systems, many communities are understandably struggling with how to address homelessness. But blaming, criminalizing, and moving people from streets to jails does not solve homelessness or fix the systems that created it. 

Most states (48) now outlaw daily survival activities, such as sleeping, eating, sitting, or living in their car. In the last 15 years, there has been a 50% rise in so-called camping bans that make it illegal for certain people to sleep in public spaces; nearly three-fourths (72%) of cities now have such a ban, and these laws are becoming tougher. 

But these discriminatory laws are not effective. Some laws punish people with up to $5,000 fines they cannot afford and with jail time that puts jobs in jeopardy and sends people back out to the streets, where their new criminal records will only make it harder to find housing and jobs. Some of these laws even threaten to withhold state funds from local governments and nonprofits if camping bans are not enforced. They put governments at risk of expensive civil-rights lawsuits and distract from implementing programs and strategies that are both effective and cost-effective. Such programs include Permanent Supportive Housing and Housing First, which treat homelessness as a housing and health crisis—not a problem for the criminal justice system to solve.

Criminalizing homelessness is expensive. It can cost three times more to enforce anti-homeless laws than to find housing for people who don’t have it. Criminalization is a waste of time for police officers who should be getting guns off the street—not moving people around them. Criminalization fills jails up with people who are more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators and with people who need treatment (which jails are not equipped to provide) for mental and substance use disorders. And, most importantly, criminalization does not reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness. It breaks connections people had made with providers trying to help and exacerbates homelessness and the conditions that lead to it—such as health problems and racial disparities.

Every year, well over a million people experience homelessness in the United States, and for the first time ever, more individuals experiencing homelessness are living outside on the streets or in their cars than staying in shelters. People simply have nowhere else to go. Housing is too expensive, and there are not enough shelter beds. In no U.S. state can someone work full-time for minimum wage and still afford rent for a modest two-bedroom apartment. For every 100 extremely low-income renters, only 36 affordable units are available. Where are the others supposed to live? Many shelters are full. Some have requirements that ban people if they are not sober. Other shelters force people to part with belongings, pets, or significant others if they want to sleep indoors.

There is a better way to respond to homelessness—one that results in fewer tents, more people in homes, and more cost savings—and it starts with collaboration, not criminalization.

Homelessness is a public health and housing crisis, and the response should be driven by solutions that ensure housing and wraparound support—from health care, including mental and substance use treatment, to job training and education. This requires constant communication across agencies, sectors, and jurisdictions. It also needs elected officials, businesses, the faith community, and the people experiencing homelessness to be involved in policymaking.

There is no quick or one-size-fits-all solution to homelessness, but best practices have emerged. After studying community responses and collaborating with federal agencies, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness created 7 principles for addressing encampments—the most visible form of homelessness that has intensified the pressure to criminalize. If a community takes the time and makes the investments to implement these principles, more people will be able to move off the streets and into homes.

At the core of these principles is the need to connect people as rapidly as possible to housing —or low-barrier shelter, if permanent housing is not immediately available. By embracing Housing First—instead of locking people up for struggling to survive—one city saved $2.4 million and housed 1,000 people in a single year . But while housing is the immediate solution, it is not the only solution. To truly solve homelessness, we must provide people with the voluntary supports they need and want, including mental health care and substance use treatment.

Homelessness is not and should not be a partisan issue. It exists in all communities—regardless of how the people in them vote. President George W. Bush embraced Housing First, spurring a 30% decline in chronic homelessness from 2005 to 2007, and both Republican and Democratic mayors participated in the Obama administration’s challenge to end veteran homelessness. When we came together across party lines, we cut veteran homelessness in half. There is no time for division or finger-pointing.

Recognizing the urgency of this crisis, the Biden-Harris administration has released unprecedented funding to help communities respond to homelessness. President Biden doubled the homeless services budget. The American Rescue Plan’s emergency housing vouchers quickly moved more than 70,000 people into housing—and leasing faster than any previous HUD voucher. HOME-ARP funds can be used to convert hundreds of vacant hotels and motels into affordable housing or shelter. State and Local Fiscal Recovery funds are building more affordable housing, and the White House released a plan to close the gap in the housing supply in five years. President Biden also ordered police to find alternatives to arrest and incarceration, and the administration announced a first-of-its-kind package of funding specifically for unsheltered and rural homelessness. These important initiatives serve as a down payment on the work of ending homelessness once and for all.

Not having a home is a tragedy—not a crime. Let’s treat it as such. 

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