Report: Homelessness Criminalized in Some Cities

By Michael Hill

They don’t have much. Not even a place to live, but thanks to local laws against sleeping, sitting, lying down and living in cars in public, they can get shelter in jail. Criminalized for trying to live — that’s how the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty sees it in its new report.

“In part a poor, short-sighted and frankly lazy response to growing visible homelessness,” said Tristia Bauman, senior attorney at National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

The report tracked 187 cities for 10 years. It found Newark, Trenton and Atlantic City have such laws to remove the homeless from public view.

When told there’s a sense of criminalizing the homeless, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian said, “That’s the last thing I want to do. I feel for the people that are homeless in my city.”

There are some at the St. John’s Soup Kitchen who report some of those encounters with law enforcement being arrested for sleeping in public or something like that but they declined to talk about their experience.

It did not happen to this man, but he talked about the challenge of finding a place to put his head at night if he comes from work too late.

“We have no place to go and then we’re locked up for being somewhere that we can’t help. You know, I was at the airport and told I couldn’t stay there and there was no place for me to go,” he said.

What did he do?

“Just walked the streets, rode the bus until the bus stopped and, you know, got no sleep at all,” he said.

Richard Leach is the assistant director of the soup kitchen.

“It just brings down their spirit and it makes it tougher for them to get a job or a place to stay,” Leach said.

The National Law Center calls that collateral consequences — a criminal or misdemeanor record would disqualify the homeless for housing programs and more.

The report says the gap between the number of shelter beds and the number of homeless people is growing. It highlights Union City where about a quarter of the homeless population has a place to sleep at night. Seventy-seven percent do not.

Monarch Housing surveys New Jersey’s 21 counties to get an accurate picture of homelessness and it says it’s growing as Monarch looks for housing solutions.

Should cops show some compassion?

“Yes, they should show some compassion. Cops should show some compassion and reach out to the local housing advocates to try to help find solutions and get them into the system so we can assess them,” said Richard Brown, CEO of Monarch Housing Associates.

“Housing homeless people is not only the most effective at removing people from the streets but it’s cheaper — two to three times cheaper — than doing nothing which is incarceration, ER visits because they’re exposed to the elements,” Bauman said.

The National Law Center says when Utah decided to provide housing, it reduced chronic homelessness by 91 percent in a decade.