Criminalization of Homelessness

The criminalization of homelessness refers to measures that prohibit life-sustaining activities such as sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and/or asking for money/resources in public spaces.

These ordinances include criminal penalties for violations of these acts. There are multiple types of criminalization measures which include:

  • Carrying out sweeps (confiscating personal property including tents, bedding, papers, clothing, medications, etc.) in city areas where homeless people live.
  • Making panhandling illegal.
  • Making it illegal for groups to share food with homeless persons in public spaces.
  • Enforcing a “quality of life” ordinance relating to public activity and hygiene.

Unfortunately, over the past 25 years, cities across the country have penalized people who are forced to carryout out life-sustaining activities on the street and in public spaces; despite the fact these communities lack adequate affordable housing and shelter space. Ultimately, many of these measures are designed to move homeless persons out of sight, and at times out of a given city.


Criminalization measures that punish homelessness and activities necessary to survive on the street are counterproductive to ending homelessness. Associated fines and criminal records provide greater barriers for many to becoming re-housed, and often perpetuate negative sentiments towards people who are homeless. The US Interagency Council on Homelessness has strongly advised local governments not to enact laws criminalizing homelessness because they create additional barriers for homeless people, fail to increase access to services, and undermine the impact of service providers. Consequently, many criminalization measures:


  • A criminal record adds to the already difficult situation of finding employment, getting housing, or being eligible for certain services.
  • Additionally, the criminalization of homelessness adds to an already overburdened criminal justice system by detaining individuals who have not committed serious crimes. One night in jail costs 3x more on average than a shelter, and law enforcement is both unprepared and incapable of handling homelessness and related issues.


By focusing on reversing the criminalization of homelessness, the additional obstacles homeless people face can be removed from the already difficult task of helping resolve homelessness. Many statewide Homeless Bill of Rights have passed or are being considered that provide alternatives to criminalization and protection of the civil rights of people experiencing homelessness.

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