American Cities Really Want to Arrest Homeless People for Sleeping in Cars

The criminalization of folks who are down on their luck is becoming more widespread.

(Photo: Fredrick J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Staff Writer Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at GOOD.

Unlike our friends across the pond in the U.K., American cities might not be erecting spikes to keep our 610,000 homeless residents from sitting or lying down on the sidewalk. But our politicians and policy makers aren’t exactly rolling out the welcome wagon.

The latest report from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty reveals that most municipalities believe in criminalizing, not helping, the down-and-out.

For the report, the organization studied laws in 187 cities. Seventy-six percent of towns prohibit begging in specific public places, a 20 percent increase since 2011. However, the most dramatic uptick, the authors write, “has been in city-wide bans on fundamental human activities” such as sleeping in your car.

A full 43 percent of cities prohibit people from sleeping in vehicles, an increase of a shocking 119 percent since 2011. And 53 percent of cities prohibit people from parking themselves on a curb or against a building. That’s down 3 percent since 2011, but when the number of homeless people is expected to rise in 2014 and affordable housing is in short supply, these ordinances and laws come off as draconian.

The report puts places such as Clearwater, Fla., and Santa Cruz, Calif., on blast. Although 42 percent of the homeless people in Clearwater and 83 percent of the homeless in Santa Cruz “are without access to affordable housing and emergency shelter,” these towns criminalize “camping in public, sitting or lying down in public, begging in public, and sleeping in vehicles,” write the authors.

In June a federal appeals court ended a 31-year-old ban on sleeping in cars in Los Angeles.

“The City of Los Angeles has many options at its disposal to alleviate the plight and suffering of its homeless citizens,” wrote Judge Harry Pregerson in his decision. “Selectively preventing the homeless and the poor from using their vehicles for activities many other citizens also conduct in their cars should not be one of those options.”

The judge also declared that Los Angeles’ ban “criminalizes innocent behavior, making it impossible for citizens to know how to keep their conduct within the pale.”

Criminalizing homelessness costs cities millions for law enforcement, jail, and court fees. Meanwhile, projects like that run by researchers at the University of North Carolina–Charlotte’s Department of Social Work found that setting up folks with housing can save municipalities big bucks. Providing homes for just 85 people saved Charlotte $1.8 million in 2013.

However, as the center’s report shows, such a commonsense and empathetic approach is not the one most towns are taking. Instead, write the report’s authors, “cities are moving toward prohibiting unavoidable, life sustaining activities throughout entire communities rather than in specific areas, effectively criminalizing a homeless person’s very existence.”

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