The Criminalization of Poverty and Homelessness

Homeless encampment between I-5 and Harborview Medical Center. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign, 2020

As our country edges towards post-pandemic individual and community life, we see clear evidence of deepening economic and racial inequities. Any walk or drive through our urban areas, from Washington, DC to Los Angeles, reveals a steep rise in visible poverty and homelessness, especially for persons of color. With this rise comes an increased push to criminalize people for being homeless. From my nearly forty years as a nurse and researcher working with homeless populations, and my lived experience of homelessness as a young adult, I know that criminalizing poverty and homelessness does not work. It only worsens the problem.

Here in Seattle, which already had one of our nation’s highest rates of homelessness and income disparities before the pandemic, tents and other temporary living structures made of cast-off materials line the hillsides along I-5, appear on sidewalks, and in green spaces such as ravines and city parks. Cars, RVs, and trucks with screened off windows and windshields—the temporary homes of vehicle residents— dot the landscape. A house next door to my own home in a mixed-income neighborhood near the university where I work, has changed from being an informal refuge for homeless squatters to a ‘flipped’ single-family home currently on the market for $1.2 million.

Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, when we were asked to shelter at home and congregate living spaces such as emergency shelters were known to flame the spread of the virus, public health officials locally and nationally moved to limit shelter capacity and placed moratoriums on both evictions from housing and homeless encampment clearances. Motels were turned into Covid isolation and recovery units for unhoused people. Despite the motels and pauses on evictions, visible homelessness increased exponentially.

Eviction moratoriums, an effort to prevent a wave of new homelessness in the economic fallout from the pandemic, although being challenged, appear to have more staying power than the hold on encampment clearances. In February of this year, the city of Mercer Island, one of the highest income ZIP Codes in the Seattle-King County area, enacted legislation to ban camping in public parks. (1) The Auburn City Council recently passed more punitive anti-homelessness legislation, allowing the charging of criminal trespassing for people camping overnight on any city property. (2) People now face a $1,000 fine and/or 90 days in jail if they fail to follow through with individualized plans aimed at either moving them into housing or at least out of the jurisdiction. Council members who voted in favor of this criminal penalty characterize the new law as “compassionate accountability.” In Seattle, a group composed of mainly business people is calling their effort to resume encampment clearances “Compassionate Seattle.” (3) They aim to secure enough signatures to bring to vote a change in the Seattle City Charter requiring the city to provide more permanent, supportive housing and simultaneously to clear parks and other public spaces of homeless encampments by criminalizing them.

Criminalizing homelessness has a long history in our country despite the fact that it has never worked. As the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty documents, criminalization worsens homelessness and racial inequities by weighing down already impoverished people with hefty fines, jail sentences, and criminal records. (4, 5) Criminalization diverts money away from supportive housing, and basic health—including mental health and substance use disorder treatment—that are more cost-effective at preventing and addressing homelessness. Communities that criminalize homelessness have higher rates of violence against people living or even appearing to be homeless. (6)

If criminalizing homelessness does not work, why do we keep returning to it? Part of the reason has to do with the fact that it was foundational to our country. Our various state-level poor laws, including vagrancy laws, are based on the Elizabethan Poor Laws adopted by the original thirteen British colonies. British social historian David Hitchcock points out that “Christian charity and proper punishment were delicately connected in English culture,” a connection reflected in the English Poor Laws. (7) English paupers were sent to the colonies as punishment, in what Hitchcock terms “welfare colonialism.” (8)

Benjamin Franklin, the vocal proponent of the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” American metaphor of personal transformation through hard work, openly despised poor people and advocated for sending them to the western frontier, which at that time was Western Pennsylvania. (9) Franklin viewed this practice as a survival-of-the-fittest sort of endeavor that would simultaneously rid the East Coast cities of urban blight and disease, force the assimilation of immigrants, and improve the character and hardiness of Americans.

This westering, frontier mentality has reverberations today in Seattle, from the increase in Tiny House Villages looking eerily like the shacktown Hoovervilles of the Great Depression, to the burgeoning vehicle residents similar to the Dust Bowl’s Rubber Tramps who lined city parks, as well as the RV residents depicted in “Nomadland.” Recently, a team of human rights lawyers invoked the frontier-era Homestead Act of 1862 in King County Superior Court. (10) They were representing a homeless construction worker who lived in his truck against the city of Seattle for impounding his truck and charging him $557 in impound fees. (The city of Seattle appealed the ruling to the Washington Supreme Court, which heard arguments on March 16, with a ruling expected within a few months.)

Punishing people for being down and out and homeless is not the answer. Increased and sustained funding for safe, affordable, supportive housing, well-connected with primary health care that is inclusive of mental health and substance use treatment, is what works to address homelessness. Policies and programs led by people with the lived experience of homelessness make them more innovative and effective.

Sources:

1. Sydney Brownstone, “Auburn City Council votes to create criminal penalty for camping on city property,” The Seattle Times, April 19, 2021, https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/homeless/auburn-city-council-creates-criminal-penalty-for-camping-on-city-property/.

2.Paige Cornwell, “Mercer Island restricts camping on public property in near-unanimous vote,” The Seattle Times, February 16, 2021, https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/eastside/in-near-unanimous-vote-mercer-island-restricts-camping-on-public-property/.

3. Daniel Beekman and Scott Greenstone, “Proposal to address homelessness in Seattle city charter met with intrigue, skepticism,” The Seattle Times, April 13 2021, https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/seattle-begins-to-digest-proposal-that-would-change-city-charter-to-address-homelessness/.

4. National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, “Housing Not Handcuffs: What is Criminalization of Homelessness?” https://nlchp.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/criminalization-one-pager.pdf, accessed 4-29-21.

5. Joseph W. Mead and Sara Rankin, “Why turning homelessness into a crime is cruel and costly,” The Conversation, June 20, 2018, https://theconversation.com/why-turning-homelessness-into-a-crime-is-cruel-and-costly-97290

6.National Coalition for the Homeless, “No Safe Street: A Survey of Violence Committed Against Homeless People,” https://nationalhomeless.org/no-safe-place/, accessed 4-29-21.

7. David Hitchcock, “’Punishment Is All the Charity That the Law Affordith Them’: Penal Transportation, Vagrancy, and the Charitable Impulse in the British Atlantic, c. 1600-1750,” New Global Studies 12, no. 2 (2018): 195-215 (quote, 200), https//doi.org/10.1515/ngs-2018-0029.

8. Hitchcock.

9. Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-year Untold History of Class in America, (New York: Viking, 2016)

10. Ann LoGerfo and Ali Bilow, “Washington Supreme Court to Hear Oral Argument March 16 in Case Concerning Seattle’s Practice of Impounding Vehicles Used as Homes,” Columbia Legal Services, https://columbialegal.org/impact_litigations/city-of-seattle-v-steven-long-2/.

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