Cities across the US are enacting and enforcing laws that make it a crime to perform basic acts of survival like sleeping, sitting, loitering, sleeping in your vehicle, storing belongings, asking for help, and even giving or receiving free food in public spaces. These laws make criminals out of people based on their housing status rather than their behavior. Here in Colorado, despite the lack of affordable housing forcing more people out of housing and into living in public spaces, people are criminally punished for doing what any person must do to survive.
Responding to the growing crisis of homelessness by using criminal sanctions to push people out of public spaces into the courts and jails violates human and constitutional rights, is costly and ineffective, continues the shameful tradition of municipalities using mean-spirited and discriminatory laws to keep select people out of public spaces and the public consciousness, and creates further hardships in people’s daily lives and in the community at large.
- Human Rights – The ability to rest and to sleep is essential for human beings. No human being can be required to forgo rest or sleep – and when one is without a home, resting or sleeping in public places may be the only option. The United Nations, US Interagency Council on Homelessness, the US Conference of Mayors, and other national and international agencies have declared that the criminalization of homelessness violates human rights.
- Constitutional Rights – Criminalization measures raise constitutional questions, and many of them violate the civil rights of homeless persons. Courts have invalidated or enjoined enforcement of criminalization laws on the grounds that they violate constitutional protections such as the right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment, and the right to due process of law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, and may also violate the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment.
- Costly – The criminalization of survival acts is costing our communities money that could be spent on housing. “On average, a city spends approximately $87 per day to incarcerate a person, compared to $28 per day to provide shelter for that person” (nlchp report pg8). The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless can provide supportive housing and services for individuals for $13,400, while it costs the city on average $21,619 to pay for medical care, incarceration, detox services and shelter if that individual were on the streets. Do we really want to pay to put people in jail instead of a home?
- Current Spending – Recently in Denver, 1.8 million dollars of city tax dollars was spent for more police officers with a focus on telling homeless people to “move along.” This expenditure creates more criminalization and extra spending costs from the city to keep homeless people in jail. The city could have used that money for public bathrooms instead of tickets for urination, employment opportunities instead of tickets for panhandling, housing instead of tickets for sleeping, or any other positive measures aimed at “ending homelessness.” Similarly, HUD funding goes towards Housing and “Urban Development”- money has been spent mostly on building new roads, plazas, and other forms of construction- instead of housing for people. If the spending priorities continue to be on policing and not on housing, Colorado will continue to be a place where human rights are violated as more and more people are forced to live in public space without a home and are criminalized for doing so.
- Ineffective – The criminal sanctions placed on survival acts enforced in cities across Colorado do not help end homelessness. Rather they move people around, pushing people out of their communities, out of safer more accessible downtown areas, and out of sight, into less safe or accessible places, and into the courts and jails. For low-income people, they inspire a cycle of citations and arrests that drive poor people further into poverty, which makes them more likely to become or remain homeless, not less.
- Historical Context -Throughout history, municipalities have used mean-spirited and discriminatory laws to keep select people out of public spaces and the public consciousness. Examples of these policies include Jim Crow laws in the segregated South, where “Sundown Towns” prohibited non-white people from being present at night, and California’s “Anti-Okie” law which, in the 1930’s, made it illegal to bring extremely poor people into the state. Until the 1970’s, several American cities had on the books “ugly laws” to prohibit people with disabilities from being seen in public.
- Personal and Community Harm – The harmful effects these laws have on the daily lives of people living without housing are vast. As noted, being entangled in the legal system reduces people’s employment and housing options. Individuals lose work due to incarceration for a ticket for sleeping in public when they have no option but to sleep in public space. Sweeps of city areas in which homeless persons live in order to drive them out of those areas, frequently result in the destruction of individuals’ personal property, including important personal documents, medication, and sleeping gear needed to survive in the dead of winter. Individuals lose sleep due to police waking them up and “moving them along” or arresting them. Treating people as undesirable and criminal fosters negative relations among members of our communities, which discourages a healthy and productive focus on creating housing. While people experiencing homelessness are affected most profoundly, these measures also impact service providers’ ability to do their work and tax the already overburdened criminal justice system. Ultimately, punishing homeless people for conducting life-sustaining activities takes a toll on the entire community.