Monday, September 14, 2009

Criminalizing Poverty

By Jen Washco, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

This August, a Sacramento attorney opened a property he owns to approximately three dozen homeless people.[1] Due to complaints from a neighboring resident, city police evicted the residents for camping more than 24 hours, which violates a Sacramento ordinance.[2] The residents of the encampment were forced to leave, but the question of where they have left to go remains unanswered.
The Sacramento prohibition on camping is just one instance in a general trend, begun in the 1980s, toward the criminalization of poverty. This makes the activities homeless people do to survive illegal, while not addressing the causes of their homelessness. Criminalizing these activities does not address the problem. At worst, it brings homelessness into a self-reinforcing cycle of arrests, since homeless individuals are rarely able to pay fines associated with their arrests and may miss court dates (perhaps because they lack transportation), or encourages behavioral adjustments which prevent homeless persons from getting back on track—for example, some ordinances ban sleeping in public parks between dusk and dawn, so the homeless must sleep during the day, foreclosing opportunities to seek employment.
At best, criminalizing poverty takes it out of sight and out of mind. The responses to articles on the Sacramento homeless camp indicate that many people wish not to see and not to interact with the homeless, as though this validates the thought that homelessness “is not my problem” and that the homeless simply need to get a job—easier said than done in this economy. Though perhaps reassuring to think that the homeless are entirely responsible for their situation, this is often not the case. Nearly 40% of homeless individuals are under age 18, with 42% of this population under the age of five. Families with children are the fastest growing homeless population, and, in some surveys, a quarter of homeless women had left their previous residence due to domestic violence. Veterans are over-represented among the homeless as well.[3]
Rather than continuing to criminalize poverty and homelessness, we need to deal with the reality of poverty. Criminalization is neither socially nor economically efficient.[4] Instead of pretending that increasing disincentives will cause those in poverty to suddenly pull themselves up by their bootstraps, we need to implement programs and practices that provide help to those that need it—a homeless family needs a reliable place to sleep, not fines to somehow chastise them back onto their feet. In order to do so, we as a society need to develop greater compassion and understanding, realizing that the US is not a land of equal opportunity where anyone who tries can get ahead, but instead is a complicated system where some will always need help getting on their feet.

[3] NCH Fact Sheet 3 (2008), National Coalition for the Homeless.
[4] Homes Not Handcuffs, pp.19-22.


  1. I am part of the steering committee that is working to try to decriminalize homelessness and create a safer place for people at night called "Safe Ground". The police are wearing our people out, there are helicopters every night shining lights on our people just trying to get a nights sleep - and now they sleep without any outer protection because all of the tents have been confiscated as "evidence" of breaking the law of "camping". If you can help join us at

  2. Jen,

    When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that Montgomery, Alabama, bus in 1955, it wasn't staged. The bus she was on wasn't owned by her lawyer.

    The C Street situation has a side to it that doesn't get reported on. It is a manufactured event and concocted grievence.

    I am 100% in agreement that homeless people in Sacramento don't have "places to just be" -- and that is because the general public doesn't want them near by.

    BUT is the solution to do away with zoning laws? To pack 30 people in a space that is maybe 10 yards by 30 yards? To make homeowner Pablo Hernandez's life miserable!?

    In the mild weather we're having, there is an open secret that the homeless people on C Street have other places to go. Indeed, there are other encampments that L&F has organized and that exist. Things aren't as dire, right now, as the wrenching publicity machine has people thinking.

    The "criminalizing of homelessness" really begins with the longstanding problem that John Irwin identified in 1986, in his book The Jail: Managing the Underclass in American Society, of "warehousing the rabble."

    The "homeless-help industry" in Sacramento is ruinous to homeless people by their conduct. Mayor Johnson, who truly seems to want to help, has been stabbed in the back three times. The City which doesn't have prime responsibility here -- the county does -- came up with a million dollars to extend Winter Shelter early in 2008 and help relocate the people of Tent City. The mayor also was working on a legal encampment, Stepping Stone, that the C Street homeless-theatre thing undercuts.

    The public is understandably confused and ill-informed. The "homeless advocacy" crowd and their projects, protests and manipulations have brought us closer to disasters.

  3. By the way, Loaves & Fishes Friendship Park is as directly a part of "warehousing the rabble" as anything the police are doing (though I agree with Tina Reynolds that the Sacramento police are being meanspirited and lawless, typically, and that is to be greatly condemned).

    The effort should begin with ending this "warehousing" mentality. The homeless need new advocates and to be rid of the old crowd.