A national network of funders supporting strategic, innovative, and effective solutions to homelessness

Criminalizing Poverty

From the early 1800′s, people throughout the U.S. who could not afford a home were confined to “poorhouses” or “workhouses,” for the “crime” of being poor. Most of us look back on those days in disbelief, but today, communities all over the country are passing ordinances that come very close to making it a crime to be poor. 

From the early 1800′s to the early 1900′s, people throughout the United States who could not afford a home were confined to “poorhouses” or “workhouses,” for the “crime” of being poor, and were required to remain there, performing hard labor under harsh conditions until they died or were discharged. Most of us look back on those days in disbelief, but today, communities all over the country are passing ordinances that come very close to making it a crime to be poor. Under these new laws, people who cannot afford housing are considered criminals because they engage in activities such as sitting, lying, sleeping, eating or relieving themselves in public spaces.

Twenty years ago, a federal court in Miami ruled that the city could not arrest homeless individuals for engaging in life sustaining activities in public, when they had no other place to do these things.

The court’s decision led the community to build a homeless shelter, but the recent economic downturn and foreclosure crisis have resulted in so many people losing their income and housing, that there is now no room at any established homeless shelters in Miami. So once again, both in Miami and throughout the country, there are efforts to pass local ordinances that would make the innocent everyday actions of individuals experiencing homelessness criminal. These proposals sound awfully similar to considering people criminals because they are too poor to afford a home.

Once upon a time, in the 1960′s, homelessness was rare in the United States and was limited mostly to those individuals suffering from drug or alcohol addiction. And even among those with such addictions, few were actually homeless – jobs were plentiful and paid enough to keep body and soul together, and there were many inexpensive places to live such as single room occupancy (SRO) “hotels.” Today, SRO’s have been demolished or repurposed, and the fastest growing demographic among those experiencing homelessness are families who have lost jobs or homes.

The face of homelessness has changed dramatically over the past few years. Many today become homeless when they suddenly fall behind in their rent or mortgage payments due to a medical or economic emergency, and find themselves unable to catch up because wages today are often not sufficient to meet basic needs. Government figures show that since the 1950′s, residential rents have more than doubled even after taking inflation into account. During the same time period, minimum wage has actually decreased after adjusting for inflation!

Passing criminal ordinances does not solve this problem; it only makes the situation of persons experiencing homelessness worse by giving them a criminal record that prevents them from obtaining the employment or housing that would allow them to overcome their current circumstance(s). If we want to do away with homelessness, we need to work on the long-term trends that have led us to the present situation. We need to work toward housing that is affordable to even the poorest among us, to jobs that pay enough to support families, and toward a health care system that does not cause financial crisis.

Bobbie_Ibarra.JPGBarbara “Bobbie” Ibarra, SPHR, is Executive Director of The Miami Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy agency dedicated to preventing and ending homelessness in South Florida. Bobbie also is an Adjunct Professor and Community Education Instructor at Miami Dade College. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Social Welfare and a Masters degree in Counseling Psychology/Education from Temple University.

This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post: Impact Blog


We joined Funders Together because we believe in the power of philanthropy to play a major role in ending homelessness, and we know we have much to learn from funders across the country.

-Christine Marge, Director of Housing and Financial Stability at United Way of Greater Los Angeles

I am thankful for the local partnerships here in the Pacific Northwest that we’ve been able to create and nurture thanks to the work of Funders Together. Having so many of the right players at the table makes our conversations – and all of our efforts – all the richer and more effective.

-David Wertheimer, Deputy Director at Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.

-President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964 State of the Union Address

Funders Together has given me a platform to engage the other funders in my community. Our local funding community has improved greatly to support housing first models and align of resources towards ending homelessness.

-Leslie Strnisha, Vice President at Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland

Our family foundation convenes local funders and key community stakeholders around strategies to end homelessness in Houston. Funders Together members have been invaluable mentors to us in this effort, traveling to our community to share their expertise and examples of best practices from around the nation.

-Nancy Frees Fountain, Managing Director at The Frees Foundation

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