J&J Lovelace Alliance

The Criminalization of Homelessness In America

The Criminalization of Homelessness In America

For people experiencing homelessness, eating, sleeping, sitting, and asking for money or resources in public spaces are mere acts of survival.

However, more and more across America state policies are targeting their most vulnerable communities by making it difficult, and even illegal, for people experiencing homelessness to simply exist in public despite there being no other alternatives. 

This act of criminalizing homelessness is not only costly and ineffective, it’s counterproductive as it essentially perpetuates homelessness by creating additional expenses, stressors, and barriers to housing and employment. 

What Is the Criminalization of Homelessness?

Over the past decade, the criminalization of homelessness has got increasingly worse as more legislation make it illegal or virutally impossible for people experiencing homelessness to engage in basic, life sustaining activities. 

“These laws and policies not only violate constitutional, civil, and human rights, they also traumatize homeless individuals, negatively impact their physical and mental health, and create arrest records, fines, and fees that stand in the way of homeless people securing jobs or housing.”

For many states, this looks like implementing laws that prevent people from sitting, sleeping, asking for money, or simply existing (often referred to as “loitering”) in public areas. For others, this means making it illegal for people to live in their vehicle, a place that for many unhoused people is their only form of shelter. 

In fact, a National Homelessness Law Center (NHLC) report found that between 2006 and 2019, there was a:

  • 92% increase in citywide bans on camping in public
  • 50% increase in citywide bans on sleeping in public
  • 78% increase in citywide bans on sitting/lying in public
  • 103% increase in citywide bans on loitering in public 
  • 213% increase in citywide bans on living in a vehicle

San Diego even went as far as to cite an unhoused man for spitting on a public sidewalk while brushing his teeth – an act that ended up costing him over $1,000. 

Essentially, government policies – the ones that are supposed to be made in the best interest of the people – are instead being weaponized against their communities most vulnerable populations. 

BIPOC Communities Are Disproportionately Impacted

This is especially true for BIPOC communities who not only experience homelessness at significantly disproportionate rates but have also been historically discriminated against and attacked by the law enforcement and legal systems in America. 

For example, Black and African Americans, who represent 13 percent of the general population, make up 39 percent of people experiencing homelessness and over half of homeless families with children. They are also six times more likely to be incarcerated than their White counterpart. 

In short, “Black and Brown people are at far greater risk of being targeted, profiled and arrested for minor offenses.”  

Criminalizing Homelessness Is Costly and Ineffective

Once a person has a criminal record, they face many more obstacles in obtaining future housing and employment, making it significantly more difficult to exit homelessness. Essentially, these policies penalize homelessness, but do nothing to reduce it.

On top of that, enforcing the criminalization of homelessness is costly with some estimates appraising enforcement efforts at over $3 million annually in a mid-sized city. 

Instead, this money could, and should, be invested into housing first solutions that first and foremost connect people with permanent stable housing (without conditions or barriers), and also provide them with access to support such as mental health counseling, substance use treatment, emergency services, education, and employment opportunities. 

Be Part Of the Change

In partnership with The Alpha Project, and through the collective support of those in our communities, the J&J Lovelace Foundation is raising funds to provide housing first solutions including rapid rehousing services, substance use treatment, mental health care, training and employment opportunities, and more. 

With the help of kind and compassionate people like you, we have the ability to empower those without safe, stable housing through self-sufficiency, dignity, and respect. 

Be part of the change by making a donation to support those who are struggling most.


-Written by Cassie Cipolla for J&J Lovelace Foundation