No Safe Place: How Cities Are Making It Illegal to be Homeless

Tonight, thousands of homeless people in the United States will face the possibility of arrest because they do not have a safe place to sleep. Thousands more could be arraigned for sitting or standing in the wrong place. While they must sleep rest their legs, homeless people live in cities where these and other life sustaining activities are against the law, even though shelters face a critical shortage of beds.

Criminalization laws can take many forms.  Most commonly, they outlaw sitting, sleeping in vehicles or outdoors, lying down, “hanging out,” sharing food, and camping. What makes them even more insidious is that they can be difficult to detect. Curfews on public parks are often explained by municipalities as a way to deter drug-related crimes.  In reality, they are frequently a way to ensure that homeless people don’t use park benches as beds. By not having enough safe sleeping spaces, cities are forcing their homeless persons to live on the streets with virtually no other options, and then arresting them for doing so. These laws represent a gross violation of human rights, and have received a large amount of criticism from civil rights advocates around the country and the world.

In March, criminalization laws led to a man’s death. 56-year-old Jerome Murdough, a homeless veteran, was without shelter in New York City on a cold night. Searching for a safe place to sleep, he took refuge in an enclosed stairwell in a Harlem public housing building. He was discovered and arrested for trespassing. Since he didn’t have $2,500 to post bail, he was sent to Riker’s Island Prison, where he was placed in a hot cell and ignored for hours by prison staff. According to a city official, Murdough “basically baked to death” in the cell, and was found dead on the floor. His disturbing saga highlights the dangers of criminalization laws; instead of receiving needed assistance, Murdough was treated like a criminal, and ultimately lost his life by trying to protect it.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty recently released a report entitled, No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities. The report details the alarming upward trend of these inhumane and ineffective statutes that criminalize homelessness—with specific examples from around the country—and highlights how the laws are both ineffective and also violations of human rights.

While Murdough’s death represents the most extreme effect of criminalization laws, countless other homeless people face situations every day that put their lives in danger. In No Safe Place, the Law Center recounts the story of Lawrence Lee Smith, a man in Boise, Idaho who became homeless after a degenerative joint disease made him unable to continue to work construction.

“He lived in a camper van for years until it was towed. He couldn’t afford to retrieve it, leaving him with nowhere to reside but in public places…due to frequent overcrowding of area homeless shelters. Mr. Smith was cited for illegal camping and was jailed for a total of 100 days. Due to the arrest, he lost his tent, his stove, and the fishing equipment he relied upon to live.”

In addition to a loss of property, many homeless people who are cited for sleeping in public also must pay fines that they can’t afford, which often results in jail time. A homeless woman, Sandy, tells her story in the report:

“I just basically wanted to get in a little bit safer situation so I hid . . . in this church. And they gave me a ticket and now I can’t pay for this ticket; it’s four-hundred bucks! You know, I can’t pay $80 dollars. I have no income whatsoever.”

In some cities, it is illegal to share food with homeless people. The report details the case of Birmingham, Alabama Pastor Rick Wood, who was ordered by police to stop serving hotdogs and bottled water to homeless people in a city park.

“‘This makes me so mad,’ Wood told a local news station. ‘These people are hungry, they’re starving. They need help from people. They can’t afford to buy something from a food truck.’”

Bans on food-sharing exist in 17 of the cities studied by the Law Center and are based on the wrong assumption that free food services will bring an influx of homeless persons to the area. In reality, the bans simply force people to search for food in less safe places like dumpsters and trash cans.

There has been a nationwide increase in criminalization laws since 2011, despite mounting evidence that criminalization is the most expensive and least effective way to deal with homelessness. As cities increasingly opt for these bad policies, there will eventually be no safe place left for homeless people. Instead, communities should focus on constructive alternatives to criminalization that actually work; policies like the “housing first” strategy that provides housing and supportive services to homeless people and is also much less costly than the price of jail stays and emergency room visits.

Could you survive if there were no place you were allowed to fall asleep, store your belongings, or stand still?  There are far better policy choices than criminalization and making it illegal for people to simply try to survive; policies that are better for homeless people, and better for the character of our nation.

Michael Maskin is a senior at Tufts University, majoring in American Studies and minoring in Political Science. He is the Tisch Summer Fellow at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in Washington, DC.

Photo provided by dbking/Wikimedia Commons

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