Fact of the Week: More U.S. Cities Have Made it Illegal to Be Homeless
A report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty released in July shows a disturbing trend in cities across America – the passage of laws that, in effect, make it illegal to be homeless. And the number of cities that are criminalizing many of the activities that homeless people do daily in public because they have no alternatives is increasing.
In surveying 187 cities across the U.S., the Law Center found that 34% of cities have city-wide bans on camping in public (which, depending on the city, can include everything from setting up temporary housing to simply sleeping outdoors), up 60% since 2011. Forty-three percent of cities prohibit sleeping in vehicles, up a whopping 119% since 2011. And 53% of cities make it illegal to simply sit or lie down in public, a 43% increase since 2011.
All of these laws are being enacted despite the fact that many homeless people have no alternatives. According to the report, over 12.8% of the nation’s supply of low-income housing has been permanently lost since 2001 due to, in large part, a decrease in federally subsidized housing. Since 1995, the nation has lost more than 500,000 federally subsidized housing units, and the U.S. is producing very few new units or rental assistance vouchers to address the still growing housing needs of the lowest income households. In many cities across the nation, there are far fewer shelter beds than homeless people – with the gap sometimes leaving thousands of people in a city without shelter. This is true for children as well as adults – the National Campaign for Youth Shelter reports that there are only 4,000 youth shelter beds in the U.S. for as many as 500,000 unaccompanied youths who experience homelessness every year.
The Law Center report points out that laws criminalizing homelessness are costly and ineffective. While doing nothing to address the underlying cause of homelessness or provide long-term solutions, the report notes that criminalization costs taxpayers more money than providing housing would. For example, research commissioned by the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness released earlier this year found that providing permanent housing for even half of the area’s chronically homeless population would save taxpayers $149 million over the next decade in reduced law enforcement and medical costs.
In addition, the laws violate rights of the homeless. The Law Center reports that in March of this year, the U.N. Human Rights Committee found that the criminalization of homelessness in the U.S. violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The National Coalition for the Homeless supports state and local Homeless Bill of Rights to try to address the need for added protections for homeless people.
The Law Center also lays out several policy recommendations to address the problems, including increasing funding the National Housing Trust Fund and Section 8 vouchers – recommendations that CHN also supports. However, threats to these programs are included in both the FY15 appropriations bills in Congress and proposals like the one recently put forth by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI). It also doesn’t help that cuts to low-income housing programs have been going on for years. Together, this makes it hard to see how or when these solutions could become reality. And until then, many homeless still have no alternatives but to live on the streets, whether it’s legal or not.