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What is the Criminalization of Homelessness?

Posted on December 22, 2022

Across the country, cities and states are criminalizing homelessness. Thrive DC stands firmly against these laws, and we believe that the solution to homelessness lies in housing, not punishment. Why? Let’s go over it.

What is the Criminalization of Homelessness? 

The National Homelessness Law Center reports that criminalization of homelessness refers to the increasing number of laws that make it illegal for people to perform life-sustaining activities like sitting, sleeping, eating, asking for donations, or even simply existing in public places, despite a lack of adequate alternatives. These laws in practice make it illegal to be unhoused.

And according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, these laws violate constitutional rights. For example:

  • 1st Amendment: Protection of Free Speech – Laws that restrict people from asking for donations target a person's speech based on its content
  • 4th Amendment: Protection from Unreasonable Search and Seizure – Laws that allow law enforcement to destroy a homeless person’s belongings
  • 8th Amendment: Protection from Cruel and Unusual Punishment – Laws that impose criminal penalties for engaging in necessary life sustaining activities
  • 14th Amendment: Protecting Citizenship, Due Process, and Equal Protection – Laws that are vague, do not give a person notice of prohibited conduct, and encourage arbitrary enforcement

Despite their discriminatory purpose and potential constitutional violations, many of these laws remain in effect, resulting in a variety of harmful consequences for people experiencing homelessness, both legal and non-legal.

Legal Consequences: 

  • Tickets (which they often can’t pay, so they often lead to incarceration)
  • Evacuations (having to leave their belongings, tent, or place outreach workers expect to find them)
  • Arrest

Non-Legal Consequences

  • Increased risk of violence:
    • Unhoused folks are disproportionately people of color
    • People of color are more likely to experience police violence
    • These laws increase interactions between unhoused folks and law enforcement, increasing the risk for violent interactions
    • 66% of unsheltered people report experiencing discrimination by law enforcement, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless
  • Decreased chance of exiting homelessness:
    • These laws often result in unhoused folks being incarcerated
    • Incarceration decreased opportunities to exit homelessness by creating barriers to employment, housing, and more

Where does DC stand with all this?

DC is actively working to end chronic homelessness in the city, rather than criminalizing it. The city also recently passed the DC Human Rights Amendment Act in October, 2022. This Act provides funding to educate law enforcement about the impact of enforcement decisions against unhoused people. The goal is to decrease the rates of violence and incarceration against unhoused people by providing enhanced training.

Thrive DC applauds DC’s efforts to end chronic homelessness and that they are doing so in a way that does not include criminalizing homelessness. Criminalizing homelessness doesn’t end homelessness–it perpetuates it by increasing incarceration and violence. 

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