No Right to Rest: Police Enforcement Patterns and Quality of Life Consequences of the Criminalization of Homelessness

By Tony Robinson (University of Colorado Denver)

In response to a persistently high number of people experiencing homelessness, concerns have grown among many local officials that the urban environment is being undermined by the presence of unsheltered homeless people, living in public places. An associated concern is that when homeless people are allowed to conduct acts of living in public spaces (such as sleeping or panhandling), they fall into unhealthy behavioral patterns that lengthen their spell of homelessness and undermine their long-term prospects. As a response, an increasing number of cities are criminalizing activities common to homeless people, passing laws that prohibit such things as sleeping, sitting, eating, panhandling, or sheltering in public spaces.  

Officials justify such “quality of life” laws as a “tough love” effort to force dysfunctional homeless people into indoor services, where they will allegedly receive the support they need to improve their lives.  Honolulu’s Mayor described anti-homeless as “compassionate disruption,” requiring homeless people to get off the streets and to take responsibility for improving their lives. In Denver, a “camping ban” restricting homeless people from using any form of shelter from the elements other than clothing was described by one official as a helpful “stick” driving the homeless towards the “carrot” of services.  In response to such claims,critics argue that quality of life laws do not help homeless people connect to services (which are inadequate to begin with), but only expose them to police harassment and drive them into unsafe hiding places where they are harder to reach by social workers. Such laws undermine the ability of homeless people to hold a job, stay healthy, or improve their lives because of increased police harassment and the growth of their criminal record. 

To inform this debate, my article in Urban Affairs Review reports on two surveys of more than 1000 homeless individuals in Denver regarding their experiences with “quality of life” laws. The article finds that these laws are: 1) ineffective in moving homeless people off the streets and into services, and 2) harmful to the quality of life of homeless people.

Survey responses show that police contact is prevalent for Colorado’s homeless: 90% report at least one police contact for a “quality of life offense,” with most being contacted multiple times. During those frequent police contacts, more than 80% of homeless people were asked to “move along” without an offer of services, 71% were checked for arrest warrants, and 36% were cited or arrested at least once, often for such things as violating park curfew, sitting or lying down where prohibited, or sleeping in a business alcove (i.e., trespassing). Survey data shows that during these police contacts, social workers are only contacted about 5% of the time.  The chart below shows the patterns of police contact, for all measured quality of life crimes. In this chart, “curfew” refers to violation of park curfew hours. “Using a Restroom” refers to using an access-controlled restroom without permission. “Receiving Food” refers to accepting food in locations or hours where it is illegal to do so. “Music/Performance Art” and “Having a Pet” refers to engaging in these activities without the proper license.

Policy-makers supporting “quality of life” ordinances hope these laws will reduce outdoor sleeping and prompt homeless people to shift to indoor services. But the data shows that the most common response of homeless people to quality of life policing is not to move into already overburdened indoor services, but simply to “move along” more frequently (83%), and to avoid sleeping in well-lit areas in favor of more hidden and less centralized outdoor locales (66% of respondents). Although  40% of respondents increased their efforts to access indoor shelters in response to a recent ban on outdoor sheltering in Denver, almost all respondents (73%) have been turned away from shelters due to lack of space.

For such reasons, 90% of homeless respondents report that their lives have become more stressful and difficult following passage of “quality of life” laws. Respondents find it more necessary to avoid police (58%), they increasingly avoid well-lit and safe downtown areas for hidden and scattered locales (66%), they feel less safe at night (53%), they travel long distances to avoid police (39%), they get less sleep (60%), and they are finding it increasingly difficult to access overcrowded shelters and other services (62%). One respondent described the situation well: “I now get little to no sleep at night due to harassment by the police. I’m in constant movement. I’ve learned to avoid the police only by sleeping in hidden places, where I get harassed by the crack-heads.”

As an effort to force policy makers to abandon such ordinances, there are growing movements to encode rights for homeless people into local law (such as by declaring a right to sit in public). Some jurisdictions have responded by passing “Homeless Bills of Rights” (such as Connecticut, Illinois, Rhode Island and Puerto Rico). Both Madison (WI) and Indianapolis (IA) have considered municipal “Homeless Bill of Rights” legislation, which would declare the right of homeless people to move freely in public places and require notice before police could displace a homeless person from a public camp. The Western Regional Advocacy Project, a network of homeless advocacy groups, has recently pushed a “Right to Rest Act” in Oregon, California and Colorado—an act that would declare a right of all people to unobstructively use and move freely in public spaces (including sitting, sleeping, and basic sheltering).

Though proponents of “coercive care” and  “tough love” may wish for quality of life laws to improve prospects and life-outcomes for homeless people, evidence suggests that these laws actually increase citations and arrests, cause sleep fatigue, induce a churn of aimless wandering, drive people into less safe hiding places, increase demands on already overburdened shelters, and increase stress levels. Quality of life laws are counterproductive to improving the lives of homeless people and do not deserve the justificatory patina of “tough love” that proponents often give them.

Read the UAR article here.

Photo by Ev on Unsplash

Author Biography

Tony Robinson is associate professor and chair of the University of Colorado Denver Department of Political Science. His research specializes in urban politics, with a focus on issues of affordable housing and homelessness, grass-roots social activism and challenges facing immigrant workforces. 

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