Civil Rights

Is Homelessness a Crime?

Each year, 3.5 million Americans will experience homelessness. On a given night, 636,000 individuals are homeless. Of this number 40 percent will be “unsheltered.” They will have no place to stay, not even a homeless shelter, and will be sleeping on the streets, in cars, in tents or in abandoned buildings.

Homelessness is associated with the poor economy, high unemployment rates and a lack of affordable housing. Those most at risk are people currently ”doubling up” and living with someone else, individuals discharged from prison, young adults who “age out” of foster care and people with no health insurance. One of every seven homeless individuals is a military veteran.

Cities Turn to Criminalization

To deal with the increasing problem of homelessness, cities (where most homeless people live) have turned to the criminal justice system.

Often, cities adopt measures that target homeless people by making it illegal to perform certain life-sustaining activities in public. Often criminal penalties - like fines and imprisonment - accompany violation of these laws. Continuing this cycle, a criminal record makes harder to achieve stability.

Cities say they want to improve the lives of people without homes and ensure public safety. Businesses often complain when the homeless panhandle or sleep in commercial areas. Supporters of the homeless argue that these regulations make their hard lives even more difficult.

Commonly Prohibited Activities

In a survey of 234 larger cities, 40 percent prohibit sleeping in public places; 33 percent prohibit sitting or lying down in public places; 56 percent prohibit loitering in public places; and 53 percent prohibit begging in public places. Some cities even prohibit the distribution of food in public areas.

In addition to these restrictions, governments can selectively enforce criminal laws and conduct sweeps of city areas where homeless persons are living. Often, these sweeps result in the destruction of personal property, including important documents.

What about Services?

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act was passed in 1986 to coordinate the federal response to homelessness. The Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (Funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Program of 2009) was a $1.5 billion federal effort to prevent a recession-related increase in homelessness. In 2010, it assisted 70,000 at-risk and homeless people.

Although most cities offer emergency food services and shelter for people without homes, these are rarely sufficient to meet the needs of all individuals. Plus, some of the homeless refuse help.

A Lawyer Can Help

The laws surrounding the “crime” of homelessness are complicated and constantly evolving. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general update on this topic. For more detailed, specific information, you can contact a lawyer through Many lawyers and legal clinics provide free services for the homeless.

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