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Shifting the Focus From Criminalization to Housing


What would happen if we started focusing on housing those experiencing homelessness instead of criminalizing the individuals? Maria Foscarinis of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty examines the moral and financial cost of the criminalization of people who have fallen into homelessness and how funders can help redirect policy towards housing instead.

Imagine a world where it is illegal to sit down. Could you survive if there were no place where you were allowed to fall asleep, store your belongings, or even stand still? For most of us, it’s hard to fathom facing such challenges. For Americans who are experiencing homelessness, they are an ordinary part of daily life. 

Millions of individuals, families, and youth experience homelessness each year, and millions more lack access to decent, stable housing they can afford. Nationally, even emergency shelter space is in short supply, leaving many with no choice but to struggle for survival in public places.

But rather than providing housing, too many communities criminalize homelessness by making it illegal for people to sit, sleep, and even eat in public places, even in the absence of adequate alternatives.

For our most recent national report on the topic, No Safe Place, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty surveyed 187 cities and found that the criminalization is highly prevalent in cities across the country, and has increased dramatically in recent years. Strikingly, bans on sleeping in vehicles have increased by 119%.

Criminalization is the most expensive and least effective way of addressing homelessness, as demonstrated by a growing body of research comparing the cost of homelessness, including the cost of criminalization, with housing.  For example, a 2015 study by University of North Carolina, Charlotte revealed a Housing First pilot program that saved Mecklenberg County $2.4 million over 3 years and had an over 80% success rate in ending homelessness.

Criminalization measures do nothing to address the underlying causes of homelessness and, instead, only worsen the problem. Ultimately, arrested or incarcerated people experiencing homelessness return to their communities, still with nowhere to live and now laden with financial obligations, such as fines and fees that they can’t pay. Moreover, criminal records can create barriers to employment, housing, and public benefits, making homelessness even more difficult to escape.

Criminalization laws raise important constitutional concerns, and a number of courts have invalidated them. They raise equality and human rights concerns as well; the U.N. Human Rights Committee recently found that the criminalization of homelessness violates our country’s human rights obligations. And such laws can disproportionately specific sub-populations such as people of color, disabled people, and LGBT youth.

The Law Center and our allies have been pushing for the federal government to take a more active position against the criminalization of homelessness. After years of advocacy, last summer this work began to pay off:

  • In August, 2015, the Department of Justice filed a brief in our case challenging a camping ban in Boise, ID, supporting our position and stating that criminalizing homelessness violates the U.S. Constitution. A few months later, the DoJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services stated:  “Arresting people for performing basic life-sustaining activities like sleeping in public takes law enforcement professionals away from what they are trained to do: fight crime.”
  • Also in August 2015, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness issued guidance saying evicting homeless encampments without providing adequate alternative housing is never appropriate.
  • And in September 2015, the Department of Housing & Urban Development inserted a new question into its application for a $2 billion grant program giving local governments and organizations higher scores if they demonstrate they are preventing the criminalization of homelessness.

Now, together with advocates across the country, the Law Center is developing a campaign to redirect law and policy away from criminalization and towards housing instead. Over 100 organizations are working on the campaign, and we expect to launch it formally later this year.

Funders have a key role to play in making this work successful. There are many ways to get involved.  You can:

  1. Convene key stakeholders in your community—including business leaders, local officials, service providers, advocates and homeless people-- to learn about the issues, understand why criminalization is not the solution, and get behind policies to create more housing options.
  2. Support education, outreach, training and technical assistance to your community learn how to use the new federal policies to make change locally.
  3. Support advocacy to build on the momentum of recent victories—at all levels of government.
  4. Endorse our campaign—and become an advocate in your own community. Use your voice and influence within your area to start the conversation and initiate change.

No fair minded person wants those who are experiencing homelessness to have to live in public places. The question is what to do about this. We feel that with information and good will, we can find common ground and all stakeholders can get behind the goal fighting against criminalization and for  adequate housing for all.


Maria_Foscarinis.jpgMaria Foscarinis is the Executive Director and Founder of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. In the mid-1980s, Maria was a litigator at Sullivan & Cromwell, a large corporate law firm, where she volunteered to represent homeless families on a pro bono basis. After seeing the impact of first-rate legal advocacy on the lives of homeless people, she left the firm to dedicate herself to that work full-time. In 1989, she established the Law Center with one goal in mind: ending homelessness in America.

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