Federal Report Decries Rising Criminalization Of Homelessness
The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelesssness released a report last week admonishing the rising trend of laws criminalizing homelessness. Citing National Law Center On Homelessness and Poverty data, it pointed out a 50% rise in “camping bans” in the last 15 years.
The report says prosecuting people experiencing homelessness can be three times as expensive as securing housing for them. Criminalization is more likely to exacerbate homelessness due to loss of social support and laws that exclude people with arrest records from housing. Despite this, 48 states have laws on the books that criminalize homelessness or poverty in some way, according to the report.
The agency released guidance in June for cities to address encampments without criminalization. The recommendations include coordinated outreach from housing and homelessness agencies, including encampment residents in discussions on solutions, and providing a path to permanent housing. Most cities have failed to take these steps when addressing encampments, relying on a mix of police sweeps and promises of permanent housing that never materialize.
Camping bans are spreading in part due to the Cicero Institute, a think tank pushing model legislation called the Reducing Street Homelessness Act. The legislation encourages camping bans and restricting permanent housing funds, according to the Pennsylvania Capital-Star and Invisible People.
HUD released millions of dollars in funding last summer to address unsheltered homelessness and signaled that it would prioritize jurisdictions that took a collaborative approach, but the agency stopped short of penalizing jurisdictions that criminalize homelessness.
Kent, Washington, Tightens Camping Ban
Despite federal recommendations, cities are still pushing new camping bans or strengthening old ones. Kent, Washington, has had a camping ban since 2000, but this week the city council voted to increase its penalty to a misdemeanor, according to the Seattle Times.
Other cities across the state have implemented bans, including Edmonds, Mercer Island and Auburn, according to the Times. Some of these cities have risked violating Martin v. Boise, a ruling which makes it illegal to implement camping bans when there is no available shelter space. According to the outlet, Edmonds has no overnight homeless shelter, and people experiencing homelessness who violate the camping ban can be punished if they do not accept shelter 35 miles away. A city official in Kent also told the Seattle Times that he didn’t interpret Martin v. Boise as requiring shelter nearby, an interpretation that may not stand up to lawsuits.
San Diego City Council Says Housing Is A Human Right
San Diego has implemented its share of homeless sweeps, but may be a step closer to keeping people in their homes by strengthening tenant protections. San Diego’s city council voted on a resolution on Monday declaring housing to be a human right, according to KPBS.
The resolution is part of a set of new tenant protections that will not go into effect until a city attorney has reviewed them and another vote occurs, according to the San Diego Tribune. Among the renter protections: Landlords must pay renters three months of rent if they serve a no-fault eviction, the city would provide relocation assistance to seniors facing no-fault evictions, and landlords would have to offer tenants their rental property again if they remove the tenant to facilitate repairs.
Landlord groups opposed the policies, including the language declaring housing a human right, arguing that it meant all tenants would have free housing.
The rallying cry that housing is a human right has grown into an organizing principle for advocates since the pandemic. A bill introduced in congress last year titled the Housing is a Human Right Act would have added funding to HUD using changes in the property tax code. It would have also restricted funds for cities that criminalize homelessness.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, 66% of likely California voters support amending the state constitution to include housing as a human right. According to NLIHC, “While saying housing is a human right and making it happen in policy are two different things, changing the rhetorical frame is important to changing the policy.” The declaration of housing as a human right can strengthen housing legislation against lawsuits and support individual legal claims, NLIHC said.
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Roshan Abraham is Next City's housing correspondent and a former Equitable Cities fellow. He is based in Queens. Follow him on Twitter at @roshantone.