Homelessness and Criminalization in the United States of America [%new%]
8th August 2014
News Courtesy:, Sakhi Shah
Surveys in the United States of America show that homelessness is on the rise in almost every major city in the United States. Further, because of this rise, there is also a rise in laws criminalizing the homeless.
There are several laws involved. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty has found a sharp increase in laws criminalizing, and the penalties imposed on camping, begging, sleeping, sitting, or eating in public. There has also been a large increase in laws against sleeping in parked cars, which is specifically targeting the destitute.
The stringent laws against the urban homeless are accompanied by a sharp fall in affordable housing, due to fewer subsidies for federal housing. In several large cities in the United States, there has been the slated policy of using police effort to remove the homeless from public areas.
The reason for this trend is that due to the recession in the United States, there are incentives being offered for companies to build entertainment complexes, hotels, and retail chains in downtown district in order to promote a turn-around in the economy. Many of these laws have been made specifically to ensure that these areas are available for use by companies, and therefore plan to evict the homeless. These have also been justified on the basis of ‘public hygiene’.
However, an interesting study in Utah has found that it is actually more cost-effective for a state to house and give employment to an individual than to jail them. In Utah, the Housing First policy has led to a decrease in homelessness by almost 78%, despite the recession. Not only does this mean that criminalization is more expensive to taxpayers, it also is less effective in ending homelessness when compared to employment, housing, public benefits, and access to justice.
It has been suggested by the The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty that there are several constructive alternatives to criminalization that may address the interests of both the state and the urban poor. Governments need to invest more in affordable housing (rather than, as is the case currently, in NFL stadiums), and increase the stock and availability of subsidized housing. A Housing First model has been suggested.
The report draws examples from South Africa, where adequate housing has been recognized as a right, and points out that occupiers of the land are required to provide adequate accommodation when acquiring land. If occupiers are unable to do so, then the state has to take ‘reasonable measures’ to do the same. In Scotland, as well, housing is a judicially-enforceable right, especially in the short-term, and in the long-term when required. This extends not only to those who are homeless but also to those who have inadequate or intolerable living conditions.
Criminalization is an ineffective, and cruel way of ‘clearing the cities’. Studies have found that in the long-term, the most effective way of dealing with homelessness is to provide shelter as a human and fundamental right, and forcing both the State and private occupiers to provide adequate living conditions for all human beings.