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Natl. Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty

January/February 1997 issue of Poverty & Race

Natl. Law Center on Homelessness
& Poverty
918 F St. NW, #412
Washington, DC 20004
Contact: Maria Foscarinis

Cities across the country are increasingly responding to homelessness by criminalizing conduct associated with it. Cities are passing and enforcing laws making it a crime to sleep, beg and even sit in public places. Significantly, cities are pursuing this strategy in the absence of sufficient resources, including emergency shelter-for homeless people. By punishing homeless people for conduct they cannot avoid, these cities are essentially punishing them for being homeless.

Often presented as "quality of life" measures, these laws typically are promoted by business groups concerned about the impact of visible poverty on their commercial activity. They are also increasingly promoted by some mayors and police chiefs as part of a broader crime reduction approach that holds that cracking down on minor offenses will deter serious crimes.

Homeless people and their advocates are challenging these city laws and policies in a variety of ways. Litigation has been filed in courts around the country; in some cases, courts have invalidated city laws and policies as violative of homeless persons' rights; in other cases, courts have upheld them as legitimate regulation of public places. The law is still developing, and litigation is affecting that development.

Advocates are also organizing efforts to dissuade local governments from adopting such laws and policies. This includes organizing opposition to proposed city legislation, working with local business groups and police, and proposing alternative approaches for addressing cities concerns.

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty is actively working to counter the trend towards criminalization and to promote constructive alternatives. In 1991, we published our first report documenting the trend in 9 cities across the country. Our next report, in 1993, examined such efforts in 16 cities nationally. In 1994, with PRRAC funding, we published a 49-city study, "No Homeless People Allowed." Our fourth report was just published in December 1996.

Each report includes both information on criminalization policies and on estimated numbers of homeless people and available resources, including shelter beds, housing costs and unemployment rates. For estimates of homeless people and shelter beds, we relied primarily on the cities' own estimates in plans submitted to the federal government. In each case, using the cities' own estimates, the numbers of homeless people outstrip the resources to aid them, generally by far. This means that cities are punishing homeless people for being in public even though there is no alternative private place for them to be.

Over the years our reports have become a leading source of information on this issue. The reports have attracted widespread interest and generated national and local media. The reports, and the attention they draw to the issue, serve a variety of positive advocacy purposes.

At the national level, the Law Center relies on the reports in pressing the federal government to oppose city criminalization efforts. To date, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department has filed two friend of court briefs on the side of homeless plaintiffs in Santa Ana and Dallas, challenging laws criminalizing sleeping in public. In addition, the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness included fighting discrimination against homeless people in its federal plan to break the cycle of homelessness.

The Law Center also relies on the reports in friend of court briefs we file. To date, we have filed briefs supporting homeless plaintiffs in challenges to laws and policies in Miami, Santa Ana, Seattle, Dallas, Berkeley and San Francisco; we have cited the reports in order to place the issue before the court in a national context and to support some of the legal arguments.

Local advocates have used the reports to add national weight to their position, to point to examples of other, more constrictive approaches, and to note that local government actions are monitored nationally. The reports have also been used as a source of ideas for advocacy strategies. The Law Center has also relied on the reports in our local advocacy, typically at the request of local groups, including testimony before city councils and letters to city officials.

Our most recent report, "Mean Sweeps," surveys the nation's 50 largest cities, looking at laws enacted and enforcement policies. It is somewhat different than the previous reports in that the cities were not chosen based on information that they were engaged in criminalization activity, but rather based simply on size. The information is thus more generalizable and useful.

The report found that in 54% of the cities police have recently conducted "sweeps" of their homeless populations; in 38% of the cities there have been recent crackdowns on homeless residents. In addition, 77% of the cities have laws prohibiting or restricting begging; 31% enacted new restrictions on begging in the past 4 years. The report singled out 5 cities as having the "meanest streets": Atlanta, Dallas, New York, San Francisco and San Diego.
Using city estimates, the report also found that in no city are shelter beds and other resources sufficient to meet the need.

On a more encouraging note, the report found that in about a quarter of the cities local groups reported good or non-adversarial city stances towards homeless people. Further, the report found examples of constructive alternatives to criminalization in West Hollywood, Seattle, Tucson, Dade County, Baltimore and Glendale.


"Mean Sweeps: A Report on Anti-Homeless Laws, Litigation and Alternatives in 50 United States Cities" (82 pp.' Dec. 19%) includes a comprehensive, current summary of important court decisions, city ordinances and resources. It is available ($23) from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty


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