Vera Report Links Homelessness to the Criminal Justice System

People without housing are 11 times more likely to be arrested and experience additional complications navigating the criminal justice system

NEW YORK, NY – In a report released today, the Vera Institute of Justice, with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, highlights the ways the homelessness crisis, now even more dire in the face of COVID-19, is perpetuated by a justice system that criminalizes survival behaviors, fails to account for the impossible odds after arrest, and increases obstacles for people experiencing homeless after release from jail.

On any given night in the United States, more than 550,000 people experience homelessness and because of punitive laws and enforcement practices, are 11 times more likely to be arrested. Homelessness is between 7.5 and 11.3 times more prevalent among the jail population, and can be higher in some places. A 2013 survey in San Francisco found that between 10 and 24 percent of people in jail identified as being homeless at the time of arrest.

“People experiencing homelessness face unique challenges in navigating the legal system. The lack of a stable mailing address to receive notification of court dates, exclusion from pretrial diversion programs due to lack of housing or employment, and inability to realistically abide by certain standard conditions of probation are just a few of the disadvantages people experiencing homelessness face once they are caught in the criminal legal system,” said Madeline Bailey, program associate in Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections.

“As cities and counties look to reform their criminal justice systems to lower jail populations and address racial and ethnic disparities, examining the intersection of housing and the criminal justice system is a critical step. Instead of arresting and booking people who are without stable housing into jail for minor or nuisance offenses, communities should be offering these individuals help finding permanent and affordable housing, behavioral health services, and other assistance,” said Laurie Garduque, director of criminal justice at the MacArthur Foundation.

The link between homelessness and incarceration highlights the need for social services that protect the health, safety, and dignity of this population and other alternatives to frequent police contact.


The Vera Institute of Justice is a justice reform change agent. Vera produces ideas, analysis, and research that inspire change in the systems people rely on for safety and justice. Vera collaborates with the communities most impacted by these systems and works in close partnership with government and civic leaders to implement change. Across projects, Vera is committed to explicitly and effectively reducing the burdens of the justice system on people of color and frames all work with an understanding of our country’s history of racial oppression. Vera is currently pursuing core priorities of ending the misuse of jails, transforming conditions of confinement, providing legal services for immigrants, and ensuring that justice systems more effectively serve America’s increasingly diverse communities. Vera has offices in Brooklyn, NY; Washington, DC; New Orleans; and Los Angeles.


The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation supports creative people, effective institutions, and influential networks building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. MacArthur is placing a few big bets that truly significant progress is possible on some of the world’s most pressing social challenges, including advancing global climate solutions, decreasing nuclear risk, promoting local justice reform in the U.S., and reducing corruption in Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria. In addition to the MacArthur Fellows Program and the global 100&Change competition, the Foundation continues its historic commitments to the role of journalism in a responsive democracy as well as the vitality of our headquarters city, Chicago.

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