What does criminalizing homelessness accomplish?

Posted: September 20, 2010 in Bureauacracy, Civil Rights, Discrimination, Government, Homelessness, Morality, Politics, Poverty

Over the last few months it seems as though there has been an increase of news articles about communities that are placing some types of bans on homeless activities. Some of communities are even placing bans and restrictions on “regular” folks feeding the homeless in public places.

Most homeless advocates refer to these types of legislative practices as “criminalizing the homeless.” Community politicians and officials, on the other hand, are quick to counter that they are not criminalizing homelessness, but are just trying to keep the peace.

Regardless of how it’s labeled, the end result is ultimately the same: it punishes a segment of a community’s local population for not having a place to call home.  

In the time I’ve been authoring this blog, I have read who knows how many articles about communities criminalizing homelessness. Everything from banning where a person can sit; how long they can sit on any one particular public bench; when, where or even if someone may panhandle; bans on sleeping in public places; prohibitions against the setting up of homeless encampments and so forth. In some cities, there are ordinances which regulate what hours of the day or night the homeless are allowed sleep in public areas.

Even more deplorable – there are cities that have enacted ordinances which criminalize “regular” folks for feeding the homeless in public places without obtaining a permit from the city. Some have outlawed it altogether.

How ridiculous is that? Telling folks it’s illegal to do something compassionate for their fellow man.

And, of course, the argument from local officials is always the same: health and safety concerns.

Call me simple, but if these politicians and bureaucrats were really all that concerned about the health and safety of their local citizenry, they would strive to find viable programs to help the homeless become housed members of their respective communities – and not just engage in warehousing them in homeless shelters.

What chafes me the most, however, is the predictability of the outcomes when a local government first proposes the banning of homeless activities. The storyline is always the same.

First, some person(s) or business owner(s) complain about the presence of the homeless.

Next, one or more members of the local governing body “determine” that something needs to be done to “address” the issue and a proposed ordinance is “put on the table.”

After that comes the legislative pantomime: hearings are scheduled and the public is invited to give their opinions regarding the issue. In some cases, the local government may postpone voting on the ordinance, citing the need to further study the situation. But in the end, and almost invariably, the ordinance is adopted – and in certain instances, it is passed with an even more stringent set of restrictions than originally proposed.

The entire procedure is nothing more than political theatre. It is meant to give the illusion that local officials are addressing and solving homelessness. However, other than maintaining the status quo and covering their own political butts, all they’ve actually done is push homelessness further into the shadows of society with an out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality.

The downside of this superficial and immoral approach to homelessness is that over time the numbers of homeless increase. And then, homelessness becomes visible once again. At which time, the whole demented procedure of enacting more ordinances to criminalize homelessness begins anew.

I’m not sure if politicians are naïve or just being willfully ignorant. But, one would think they would recognize that since criminalizing homelessness did nothing to reduce the numbers of homeless in their communities in the past, it will not work in the future.

With record numbers of Americans living in poverty, it is safe to conclude that some of them may end up becoming homeless. How many is anyone’s guess. But lately, many cities across the nation have been reporting sharp increases in homelessness.

Once these folks become homeless however, not only will they have lost a place to call home, they will have also lost something more fundamental: certain freedoms.

They will not be free to sit, lay or sleep. They may be denied the freedom of having acts of kindness offered to them by other members of their communities. And so on.

In exchange, rather than being viewed as members of their respective communities who are undergoing rough times, they will be treated like criminals and outcasts.

And that is to the shame of us all.

What does criminalizing homelessness accomplish?

Not a damn thing – at least nothing that we, as a nation, should be proud of.

  1. talesfromthelou says:

    Hi Michael, Lou here from Victoria, BC, Canada. We have the same problem here in one of the richest cities on the planet. Our “homeless” have won the right to camp in parks and in the streets, but the city keeps on trying to “label” them and move them out. A new bylaw is coming that will prohibit them from camping on the streets. It’s been funny (kind of): People used to complain about them camping in the main park here (Beacon Hill). The homeless hid in the bushes. “Respectable” citizens complained and now the homeless just moved to the boulevards of the city. In your face.
    I do a blog for fun and ideas dissemination. It’s my way of doing something. What can we do ?

  2. gvanguard says:

    I liked your blog. It speaks of the unjustified acts of deeming folks who are down on their luck and lack support from family as criminals/vagrants. You would be surprised to know less than a month ago I was sleeping in my truck, while waiting for numerous callbacks from potential rooming situations. However irrelevant my case is, I am one of many in a group that is statistically growing. I am a Veteran, disabled, and an Iraqi/Afghan war veteran. If you were to lookup the numbers the VA is claiming that recent veterans can’t find jobs and are becoming homeless in record numbers. So it would have been bittersweet had I been harassed by Police for sleeping in my truck, possibly cited for vagrancy, and all of this having served honorably for our country.
    This will become a huge problem once the news networks really find out what’s going on to our countries heroes. Politicians need to quit posturing and need to actually find some alternatives then banning homeless folks.

  3. If one were to really study the demographics of the homeless population in any community one would discover that a vast majority of homeless victims are armed forces veterans. For one reason or another, these men and women fell through the cracks our society create through the lack of sensativity that abounds. Sure they may have substance abuse problems, or mental disorders or some physical disability that prevents them from being societal contributors, but they do have a right to exist as humans. We have a RESPONSIBILITY to help these people, through prayer, service and encouragement, not kick them aside or ignore the fact that they exist at all.

    I find it appalling that not only society in general is turning a blind eye to this epidemic, but that the media ignores this “unpleasant” topic. Our present government is also guilty of mis-treating and un-treating these individuals.

    For the record, I am a Viet Nam Era veteran, and have been both wealthy and bankrupt. I spent the months of January, February and March of 2000 living in my car because of my Manic Depressive disorder. Thank God and the kindness of those that hassled me that I wasn’t a victim of beatings, muggings or some other form of physical abuse. The verbal abuse was quite enough.

    I was fortunate to receive (and still do to this day) treatment for my disorder, and through therapy and medications I am a contributor to this Society that Ignores Its Heroes. I consider myself extremely fortunate that the VA considers me a patient, supplies my meds and is always kind and compassionate. I have had heart surgery twice, am treated for a variety of other health issues, and provides the needed therapy which allows me to funtion as an earner, not on the dole.

    I have developed a non-profit that provides long term transitional housing for veterans that want to clean themselves up, get some rehab and become active members of society. I recieve no government funding, because all special needs individuals’ funding has been cut by this administration. The neediest people cut out of the system. Shame on us all!

  4. bradenbost says:

    Hi. Devil’s advocate, here.

    When a city has spent tons of taxpayer money on inner-city parks, or private business owners put all they have into opening a shop or a restaurant, or when tourism is a very serious part of local revenue, having homeless people (more than a few of whom are mentally unstable) hang around to panhandle, stir up violence, and drive people away, is never a good thing. We can play “saint” all day if you wish and demand that people deal with this reality no matter how uncomfortable it makes them, but you’d do well to realize that the extremely poor and homeless have existed in every society ever, and we will never completely fix it or be rid of it. Demanding that more of the money spent on “making it illegal to be homeless” be spent on programs and locations put there to help them is absolutely a good and noble and worthy idea, but understand that even with ALL THE PROGRAMS IN THE WORLD AT THEIR DISPOSAL, some will still refuse the help . . . so you’re left with guys sleeping in the library who haven’t showered in weeks and peed themselves last night, or with drunk guys beating each other to a bloody pulp right outside your restaurant window, or the occasional angry panhandler threatening passers by, or even the same guy at the same stoplight begging for money every day that you alone have given at least $80 over the last two months . . . and eventually you’re going to have to step forward and say that in the interest of public safety and health and sanity, they can’t be there.

    I also feel like I should mention to S Barringer that they have a classic straw-man argument, there, and if they ever plan on using it in the public arena, prepare to get trampled.


  5. In the mean time, there is empty housing all over the country from all the military bases the gov’t has closed down. How sad to me that there are empty houses just sitting there, but instead of trying to open them up to low-income and the homeless, they spend millions trying to “clean” the streets of this riff-raff. SMH. Sad.

  6. Thanks for this, it’s really interesting. So many people have been forced into homelessness, although alot of people incorrectly seeing it as their life choice or their way of escaping. Thanks for making me think.

    Thanks for blogging and congrats on getting being Freshly pressed!

  7. CrystalSpins says:

    In my area it is illegal to panhandle and people are encouraged not to give money to panhandlers. However, the local government has encouraged people to give to the local shelters and groups in the community who help the homeless instead. I actually think that’s a good solution. It discourages panhandlers who aren’t really homeless (did you know that the average panhandler in Ft. Collins CO makes $300 a day? I doubt they are homeless at that rate) and people should have to be bothered by beggars while walking around downtown.


  8. Truly disturbing. The number of homeless who have mental or physical disabilities alone should drive any criminilzation of homelessness out of existence. That’s like making it illegal to be diagnosed with cancer. Ridiculous…we should be helping our fellow disadvantaged citizens…not making it even more difficult for them to be able to get back on their feet.

  9. freyativity says:

    i wholeheartedly agree with this post, especially since i am among the homeless – fortunately, i have not gotten to the point of living in the streets, but that does not mean it wouldn’t happen – it’s stupid – like you said, if they want to fix the homeless problem, help us.

  10. Nick Yeates says:

    I have to be frank, and I may get flamed for this post (be easy on me). I can understand both sides of the coin here. I work in a area that is nice, and then has a homeless section, and then further down is nice again. I have seen people get mugged (had to call the cops) while I was walking through this section, and I have had people beg to me, and I feel slightly less safe in this section of town, and a select few of the homeless look like crap warmed over. If I were a business owner there, I would definitely want the homeless gone, as it would erode business no doubt. Compassion definitely has its place, I helped our business give a ton of canned food to the local homeless shelter, but there is also the case of the homeless being a detriment to a local community, businesses, safety and an eye sore. If I became homeless not by choice, I do not think that I would choose to go sleeping on benches in public places, or even spending day in day out on one street corner. I would go sleep in a field, I would spend my time in libraries and do something with my time, I would apply to crap jobs. Maybe by making laws that say kindly “we can help you, elsewhere, better”, you can give the people that ARE able the message that they need to go get off their butts and provide for themselves or conform to the ppl around them. I suppose that not all people have these abilities or to even think that they could do something for themselves. Some may be mentally disabled and not able to provide for themselves. For these sets of people, you are right, we should not ignore them by any means, but we can displace them and organize them so that they can succeed in their own environments, instead of in the middle of where others are trying to create a thriving clean community. That homeless shelter I spoke of…. yeah they are moving to the outer limits of town, only a few miles away. It provides a bigger space, better facilities, same amt of rent probably, and less eye sore and trouble for the community in town. How do you get the homeless to accept and move to this location and use the resources that politicians and generous people DO give to them? Laws. With your logic, if I were to steal food from someone because I am homeless and hungry and not currently able to supply for myself, I should not be punished or criminalized because the people around me and the government are not passionate enough to give to me what I need. Society needs laws like these to enforce behavior and appearances.

    • michael says:


      Thanks for your comment… and no, I will not “flame” you for your thoughts. However….

      Like yourself – I am able to see both sides of the coin. Check out my “About” page, and you will see that I have lived on both sides of the homeless issue. From personal experience, I can tell you that there are far more folks who are experiencing homelessness in our nation who are direly desperate to get off the streets and into housing of their own. Unfortunately, very few communities have the types of services that actually help them do so.

      The reality is that the majority of homeless persons in our nation do not want to be homeless – nor do they fit the stereotype. Most of the time, they go unnoticed. Those homeless that most Americans are familiar with tend to be the “bad applies.” Sadly, and although those bad apples are the minority, because they stand out in sharp contrast to the rest of society, they are the ones who give the rest of the homeless population a “bad rap.”

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