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How the Criminalization of Poverty Perpetuates Homelessness

Anti-homeless laws produce various forms of police interactions that fall short of arrest, yet have wide-ranging impacts on the urban poor. Laws and enforcement fail to reduce urban disorder, but create instead a spatial churn in which homeless people circulate between neighborhoods and police jurisdictions rather than leaving public space.
People Impacted
$ 273B
Potential Funding
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the problem
Nature and Context

A growing literature examines the extent to which the criminal justice system perpetuates poverty and inequality. Studies reveal the mechanisms through which consistent punitive interactions, including move-along orders, citations, and destruction of property, systematically limit homeless people’s access to services, housing, and jobs, while damaging their health, safety, and well-being. It is arguable that these laws and their enforcements constitute a larger process of pervasive penalty—consistent punitive interactions with state officials that rarely result in arrest, but that do material and psychological harm. This process not only reproduces homelessness, but also deepens racial, gender, and health inequalities among the urban poor (Herring, Yarbrough, Alatorre).

Symptoms and Causes

A Growing Homeless Population is Now in the Spotlight

Nearly 50 million Americans now live below the federal poverty line. Recent societal, economic, and political events have generated unprecedented public awareness of historic levels of income inequality, children in poverty, and disparate treatment and impacts of the law and justice systems on communities of color and populations that face other barriers and obstacles to justice (ABA).

Lack of Alternative Placement for those Facing Homelessness

Every day in America, people experiencing homelessness are threatened by law enforcement, ticketed, or even arrested for living in public spaces, even when they have no other alternatives. Millions of individuals, families, and youth on their own experience homelessness each year, and millions more lack access to decent, stable housing they can afford. Rather than providing adequate housing options, too many communities criminalize homelessness by making it illegal for people to sit, sleep, or even eat in public places, despite the absence of adequate alternatives (NLIHC).

Substandard and Unaffordable Housing Lead to Homelessness

Even where needy applicants are able to obtain housing assistance or access affordable housing, they often face discrimination in the private housing market on the basis of race, disability, gender, sexual orientation, source of income, criminal background, or other status. More work needs to be done to ensure equal access to housing resources. This includes ensuring availability of various types of home and community based support services that enable individuals and families to live independently as long as possible. Additionally, as was seen following Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, many traditionally marginalized groups feel a disparate impact during natural disasters, and the right to adequate housing must be ensured appropriately in the post-disaster context as well (ABA).

the impact
Negative Effects

Criminalizing Poverty with No Solution Merely Perpetuates the Problem

By issuing tickets or fines, or actually arresting an individual solves nothing for the homeless population. If a homeless person is given a ticket and move along orders, they simply carry that debt with them, and the community has wasted law enforcement's time and resources to issue a ticket that will likely never be collected. If they are arrested, that get's them off the street for a couple of hours or days, but does nothing to improve their outcome when released back onto the street. Again, this is a waste of time and resources.

Stigma and Lack of Personal Dignity

Generally, there is a misunderstanding by the public about who is poor or homeless and the causes of poverty and homelessness. This creates a stigma that negatively impacts the poor and homeless. Roughly half of Americans (51%) believe “lack of will” is one cause of poverty. Several studies have shown that Americans tend to attribute poverty and homelessness to individuals’ shortcomings (ABA).

General Health and Wellbeing

Homeless people often encounter a lot of health issues in their lives. Their health gets worse from time to time because they lack attention from people such as doctors, wives, husbands, and family members. And because of lack of necessities they suffer from multiple diseases such as (UCLA/WSU):

  • Cold Injury

  • Cardio-Respiratory diseases

  • Tuberculosis.

  • Skin diseases

  • Nutritional deficiencies

  • Sleep deprivation.

  • Mental Illness

  • Physical and sexual assault

  • Drug dependency

  • Mortality


Economic Impact

Homelessness is a growing problem that negatively impacts the nation’s economic competitiveness.

Burden on the Public Healthcare Systems

The unsheltered homeless population also has an increased risk of exposure to communicable diseases (ASP). This places an extra strain on an already vulnerable community who depend on free public health care.

Wasted Law Enforcement Resources

According to the administrative officer for the city of Los Angeles in a 2015 report, although only four agencies and departments had budgetary allocations for homeless programs, at least 15 regularly engaged with homeless people, with some departments incurring large costs. For example, the report cited that the Los Angeles Police Department estimated it spent from $53.6 million to $87.3 million in one year on interactions with homeless people and the Bureau of Sanitation spent at least $547,000 in a year on cleanup of homeless encampments (ASP).

Success Metrics
  • Create more safe places for homeless people that have resources on health, addiction, housing and employment

  • Reduce homelessness by growing the economy and bolstering public education.

who benefits from solving this problem
Organization Types
  • Public Health Systems

  • Homeless Shelters

  • Local Governments

  • Law Enforcement Agencies

  • Homeless People

  • Healthcare Workers

  • Police Officers

  • Social Workers

financial insights
Current Funding
  • StreetChange is a mobile application that leverages the power of small donations to help people that need it the most: homeless neighbors with short-term needs. Through iOS and Android apps you can contribute to necessities like socks, shoes, and raincoats requested by StreetChange clients who meet with a caseworker to discuss healthcare and housing options when picking up their goods.

Ideas Description

Implement Homeless Courts

To counter the effect of criminal cases pushing homeless defendants further outside society, homeless courts across the country combine a progressive plea bargain system, alternative sentencing structure, assurance of “no custody,” and proof of program activities to address a full range of misdemeanor offenses.

Alternative sentencing activities take the place of agency program participation for fines and custody; they include life-skills, chemical dependency or AA/NA meetings, computer or English literacy classes, training or search for employment, counseling and education (ABA).

Create More Resources for and Introduce the Homeless Population to Existing Resources

Shelter App, Inc. is an All-volunteer Non-Profit Organization whose mission is to help homeless and low-income families connect to services using the web and mobile app where they can find Food, Shelter, Health, Work and other resources.

Tech Solutions and Services

People experiencing homelessness rely on the internet to apply for housing and benefits, schedule appointments with doctors and case managers, search for jobs, and stay in touch with family and friends. It is a lifeline for getting back on your feet. ShelterConnect works with internet service providers to offer free wifi in shelters and transitional housing facilities.

Samaritan can enable cities or large employers to mobilize their members and engage with the single mom on the bus, the grandfather on the street, or the homeless teen outside the supermarket. When you cross paths with a Samaritan Beacon Holder, a notification will appear on your phone. Tapping on the notification provides an opportunity to engage and be of help.

There are an estimated 2 million people who are eligible to clear convictions from their records. Clear My Record is a free online tool that helps people with eligible convictions to navigate the complicated journey toward clearing their records. It's a Code For America project which helps to removes a significant barriers for people with a criminal record.

Socio Connect makes it easier than ever to find out which social resource programs like Food Stamps or Medicaid, users may qualify for. Users simply answer a few questions about their household and Socio Connect will connect them with all the information they need.

Chalmers is a powerful analytics suite that can give any city or region the ability to see granular data to make informed decisions around homeless service planning and truly understand needs on the ground. Chalmers is an artificial intelligence-powered chatbot that makes it easier to find social services like free meals, shelter, clothing banks, and more.

Data Sources
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