According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s most recent report on the criminalization of homelessness, the number of cities implementing anti-homeless policies has steadily increased over the last several years. In the Law Center’s 2014 analysis of 187 cities across the U.S., many had citywide bans on camping in public (34%), sleeping in public (18%), sleeping in vehicles (43%), begging/panhandling (24%), and loitering (33%). Even higher were the percentages of cities banning these activities in particular spaces, as opposed to citywide restrictions. Given the trend of the last several years, these numbers are likely higher now.
In general, anti-homeless policies are intended to reduce the presence of homeless people in a community by restricting where they are allowed to be and what they are allowed to do when there. While some might rationalize criminalization efforts as a way to pursue valid policy goals, such as increasing community safety or protecting a community’s economy, criminalizing homelessness does little to actually address homelessness. The primary problem with anti-homeless policies is that they are more concerned with perceptions of what homelessness causes, rather than what causes homelessness. Not only are these policies ineffective at reducing or preventing homelessness, many argue that they also violate the constitutional rights of individuals experiencing homelessness.
Luckily, while many communities choose to criminalize homelessness, others have taken to implementing constructive alternatives. The Law Center’s report provides multiple examples, such as engaging police and local business leaders in collaborative strategies to help individuals exit homelessness.
Social workers are well positioned to lead the charge in challenging the validity of laws and policies that criminalize homelessness as well as developing, implementing, and evaluating more effective interventions. Not only do social workers have the skills necessary to do this work, it is well-aligned with our foundational values and ethics.
Amanda Aykanian, M.A. (doctoral student at the UAlbany Social Welfare and Research and Project Lead at the National Center) and Wonhyung Lee, PhD (Assistant Professor at the UAlbany School of Social Welfare) elaborate several suggestions for how social workers can lead the charge in ending the criminalization of homelessness in a recent commentary published in Social Work. Examples include:
- challenging the unconstitutionality of anti-homeless laws;
- facilitating cross-sector collaboration, such as partnerships between police and homeless service systems;
- engaging and educating business leaders; and
- advocating for the creation of facilities for people experiencing homelessness to conduct basic quality-of-life behaviors (e.g. using the bathroom, basic hygiene, and eating).
To date, social work has offered little input on the criminalization of homelessness. The strategies described by Aykanian and Lee provide feasible and practical opportunities for social workers to take action and join the fight against the criminalization of homelessness.
The full-text of the commentary is linked on the National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services’ website. For more information, contact Amanda Aykanian (firstname.lastname@example.org).
For more information about Amanda Aykanian, M.A. and Wonhyung Lee, PhD visit the National Center’s staff page.