Lucy Nicholson / Reuters / Landov

The growing criminalization of homelessness

How developers and politicians create urban ‘social hygiene’ campaigns

July 18, 2014 6:00AM ET

As the number of homeless people in America’s major cities has increased, so have ordinances criminalizing homelessness and pushing homeless families and individuals into the criminal justice system. Criminalization has become a tactic with which politicians have reconfigured cities to serve wealthier citizens and tourists, at the considerable expense of the poor. These politicians are rarely challenged, and developers, businesses and city officials have partnered with police and private security forces to “cleanse” urban spaces by any means necessary.

A new report from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found the number of cities imposing penalties for camping, begging, sleeping, sitting or eating in public has risen sharply in the last two years. There are now laws against feeding the homeless in over 50 cities. Ordinances prohibiting sleeping in cars — specifically targeted at the destitute — have more than doubled nationwide since 2011. In Denver the City Council passed a controversial “urban camping ban” in 2012 to clear space for the continued development of its downtown into a “millennial playground,” complete with nightclubs, restaurants and a miniature-golf course. Honolulu’s mayor told The New York Times he had renewed a crackdown on the homeless because tourists “want to see their paradise … [not] homeless people sleeping.” And Phoenix announced the creation of “a new organization focused on downtown’s revitalization,” while at the same time launching an initiative to arrest street people with misdemeanor warrants.

This crackdown is happening without equally forceful measures to develop the nation’s supply of affordable housing, which has fallen by 12.8 percent since 2001 because of fewer subsidies for federal housing. The U.N. Human Rights Committee even condemned the trend as “cruel, inhuman, [and] degrading” in a recent report on the United States.

What’s behind these cruel laws? USA Today suggested that the trend toward criminalization was a result of “compassion fatigue,” a gradual receding of empathy for the poor. But there’s a more practical reason for it: As recession- and austerity-battered cities look for ways to revive their economies, they’re offering huge tax incentives for companies to build entertainment complexes, hotels and retail chains in their downtown districts in the hopes that the relocation will spur a renaissance. Statutes criminalizing homelessness have been outfitted specifically to clear out these areas. The New Yorker called this process “Manhattanization,” defined as “turning a city into a playground for the wealthiest inhabitants, even as [the city] forgets about the poorest.”

Cities haven’t quite forgotten about the poorest, though — they’re simply dealing with them in an entirely different way. 


San Francisco and New York City — two of the most expensive cities to live in in the U.S. — pioneered the criminalization strategy in the early 1990s. In 1992, the office of San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos vowed in a white paper to reshape the city’s homeless policy in the interests of “the larger non-homeless community of businesses” rather than “social service agencies and homeless advocates,” leading to a massive police effort to sweep people away from future tourist havens such as Fisherman’s Wharf and yuppie hot spots such as SoMa. A similar effort took place in Manhattan around the same time under Mayor Rudy Giuliani. 

The same strategy is now being pursued around the country, even as advocacy groups and federal studies continue to demonstrate that it is cheaper to provide long-term shelter and housing. The most exaggerated case is Los Angeles, where compounding local crises led a city commission to condemn it as a “city in decline” this year. Partially as a response to L.A.’s slow post-recession recovery, a business lobby called the Central City Association has been leading an effort to Manhattanize downtown for over a decade now. That has meant removing and jailing the homeless to make way for condos, organic juice bars and boutique pet stores.  

“Downtown Los Angeles is on the cusp of an urban renaissance … [that] is threatened every day” by its large homeless population, said the lobby in a 2002 report. Shortly after, the Central City Association worked with the Los Angeles Police Department to enforce an ordinance that banned resting on public grounds until a federal judge overturned it in 2006, noting that the city’s shortage of housing for the homeless made street living unavoidable. The business lobby is currently fighting to reverse the 2006 ruling as well as a 2014 verdict barring the city from trashing the possessions of sidewalk dwellers. It’s unclear whether the Central City Association will also confront last month’s decision by a federal appeals court to end L.A.’s ban on living in vehicles.

Utah began giving away apartments to homeless individuals after realizing how much money could be saved.

More recently, the City Council of Columbia, South Carolina — where homeless persons outnumber shelter beds 6 to 1 — unanimously voted in 2013 to shunt its homeless population into a single shelter outside the city, and authorize police to arrest resisters. A hotline was even planned for citizens to call if they spotted a rogue vagrant in the streets. The “emergency homeless response” was devised after the Chamber of Commerce convinced the city that homelessness would “lead to potentially disastrous impacts to the commerce community.”

Columbia scrapped the plan because of public outrage, but other municipalities went forward with their own social-hygiene campaigns. Tampa, Fla., has the highest rate of homelessness in the nation, and passed some of the country’s harshest laws against begging and sleeping in public as part of its current revitalization plan. Efforts to construct affordable housing have been not only paltry but corrupt: One of the city’s homeless agencies was recently exposed for giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to slumlord political allies who maintained shelters with “unlivable conditions.”


The mania to attract outside investment is part of the larger submission of the public sector to private money. A New York Times investigation published in December 2012 found that over the past three decades, states, counties and cities have upped the amount of subsidies and tax breaks for companies every year, topping a collective $80 billion now, even as states cut public services and raised non-business taxes by $156 billion last year.

This approach increasingly relies on rich people renting, buying and spending money. It does little for those already living in the spaces ostensibly targeted for development. While lower-income people are forced to outer neighborhoods, the desperately poor are physically pushed and hauled away because their existence impedes the plans drafted by elite public-private collaborations. To expedite this “relocation” process, police and private security forces are employed by municipalities to enforce a brutal form of gentrification, relentlessly pouncing on low-level “quality-of-life crimes.” One homeless grandmother was arrested 59 times by the LAPD in the past six years for “illegal lodging.”

There’s reason to believe the plight of the urban poor will get worse. Even as unemployment returns to pre-recession levels, rent and other basic costs are rapidly rising across the nation while wages stay unchanged. And because of last year’s federal sequester, the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates the ranks of American’s homeless could swell 17 percent this year. Meanwhile, urban “revitalization” strategies go unchallenged.  

Developers claim that increased tax revenue can be used to house a city’s homeless population, but there’s absolutely no precedent for that actually happening. To the contrary: While Los Angeles plans not to fill most of the $9.5 million hole for local homeless programs created by congressional budget cuts and sequestration, the city will likely redirect $275 million in public bonds from essential services to the construction of a brand-new NFL stadium downtown.

Already blighted by their homeless status, destitute people are disenfranchised even more by a criminal record. Employment, housing and loans, while barely attainable before, become impossible after multiple stints in jail. Cycling people in and out of jails exacerbates the problem it purports to solve. And because mental illness is so prevalent among single, chronically homeless people — around 35 percent are estimated to suffer from some psychological ailment — the rough process can compound paranoia, delusions and other disorders that already ostracize some from society.

It can be different. Utah began giving away apartments to homeless individuals after realizing how much money could be saved. Policymakers realized that, on average, it costs about $16,670 a year to jail a person and $11,000 a year to set him or her up with an apartment and social work. Since a program called Housing First was launched in 2006, homelessness in Utah has decreased 78 percent, despite a recession-fueled plunge in median income. The state estimates that all Utahans will be housed by next year.

There should be nationwide initiatives that follow Utah’s lead. Americans — particularly those in power — should get past their obsession with being “tough on crime” and their reverence for the self-serving “wisdom” of the wealthiest and instead do the right thing to help their less fortunate counterparts. Criminalization wastes the meager funds available for public spending while also gutting what’s left of our moral center. It will take deep, action-oriented soul-searching to reverse its spread. 

Aaron Cantú is an independent journalist and writer based in Brooklyn.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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