Legal Perils of Homelessness

According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, poverty and troubled family environments are among the reasons that upward of 3.5 million people in the United States experience episodes of homelessness in the course of one year. Many of them also disproportionately have social, educational, economic, medical and mental health challenges. Because people are often unable to access public services, they may commit “survival crimes” or regulatory offenses—such as sleeping on the street—that lead them into a cycle of punishment and incarceration that is difficult to overcome.

For instance, homeless people who are arrested for sleeping on the street will not likely be released on the promise to return to court, because they do not have an address. They may also be unable to pay even low bail amounts, leading to time behind bars while awaiting a trial. (Twenty-six percent of people in jail reported being homeless within a year before incarceration, according to the Corporation for Supportive Housing.)

After release, a criminal record may make it even harder for homeless people and their families to acquire or retain public benefits, housing, or employment, given the common practice by government agencies, potential landlords, public housing authorities, and potential employers of screening for and excluding those with criminal histories. These consequences are further exacerbated by some states’ policies—often described as public health, public safety, or quality-of-life measures—that focus solely on removing the visibility of homelessness by pushing homeless people out of tourist, commercial, or more affluent districts, and at times by legally restricting where people can perform certain basic behaviors, such as sitting, lying down, or sleeping.

3.5 Million Americans experience episodes of homelessness in the course of one year

Fortunately, a number of places have embraced strategies that better address homelessness. For example, Utah recently adopted a “housing-first” approach, which places homeless people as quickly as possible into their own shelter and provides wraparound services necessary to help them maintain housing stability. With these policies, Utah has decreased its rate of chronic homelessness by 74 percent, with significant savings to the state: from $20,000 a year—aggregating the cost of shelters, emergency room visits, ambulances, and police and jail stays per one homeless person—to just $8,000. A similar program in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has seen comparable benefits. After one year in operation, a housing-first approach saw a dramatic reduction in emergency room costs and criminal justice expenses, including a 64 percent reduction in the city’s jail costs.

Police departments in different cities have also created outreach efforts to connect homeless people with services upon initial contact. For example, Santa Monica’s Homeless Liaison Program has a specially trained unit of six police officers who reach out to homeless people and refer them to necessary resources, such as short- and long-term housing providers, job placement services, and mental health and substance use treatment programs.

Utah has decreased its rate of chronic homelessness by 74%

These programs have the potential to keep people from an endless cycle of homelessness and incarceration that leads to ever-shrinking opportunities for stability. With policymakers and law enforcement agencies increasing outreach efforts, people without housing can better access public services that improve their quality of life and affirm their human dignity.