Criminalization Resources

Helpful resources for combatting communities’ growing habit of criminalizing homelessness.

Housing Not Handcuffs: 2021 State Law Supplement

On, December 1, 2021, The Law Center released the first national study on state laws criminalizing homelessness. Housing Not Handcuffs 2021: State Law Supplement shows that states are increasingly targeting homeless people with criminal penalties and incarceration for acts of survival such as public sleeping, camping and asking for charity. This report supplements the Law Center’s Housing Not Handcuffs 2019 report,  which reviewed municipal level laws criminalizing homelessness in 187 cities across the country.

Housing Not Handcuffs: Ending the Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities
Homelessness remains a national crisis, as stagnated wages, rising rents, and a grossly insufficient social safety net have left millions of people homeless or at-risk. Although many people experiencing homelessness have literally no choice but to live outside and in public places, laws and enforcement practices punishing the presence of visibly homeless people in public space continue to grow. Homeless people, like all people, must engage in activities such as sleeping or sitting down to survive. Yet, in communities across the nation, these harmless, unavoidable behaviors are punished as crimes or civil infractions. This report – the only national report of its kind – provides an overview of criminalization measures in effect across the country and looks at trends in the criminalization of homelessness, based on an analysis of the laws in 187 cities that the Law Center has tracked since 2006. We also analyze trends in local enforcement, describe federal opposition to criminalization, and offer constructive alternative policies to criminalization laws and practices, making recommendations to federal, state, and local governments on how to best address the problem of visible homelessness in a sensible, humane, and legal way.

Housing Not Handcuffs: A Litigation Manual
This litigation manual provides an overview of legal theories that have been used successfully to challenge criminalization policies and practices, and it also sets forth several important considerations for bringing litigation on behalf of homeless people. In addition, it includes numerous summaries of cases that have been brought over the years to protect the civil and human rights of homeless people.

Additional Resources

  • Recorded webinar & slides (2014; new resources forthcoming)
  • Slides from “Combating the Criminalization of Homelessness”, NAEH conference, July 2014

Previous Reports & Resources

Criminalization One-Pager
This fact sheet offers a quick primer on the criminalization of homelessness. Advocates can bring this with them to meetings with public officials, distribute it at conferences or public actions, and share with others to educate them on the criminalization of homelessness.

Getting the Justice Department on Your Side: A Guide to Filing a Complaint
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a statement of interest in federal court arguing that it is unconstitutional to criminalize sleeping in public places without providing adequate shelter space in the area. While that case – Bell v. City of Boise – is now on appeal, the profusion of state and local laws facilitating abuse of homeless persons makes it likely that the DOJ will be looking for opportunities to use its enforcement powers of intervention or investigation in the future. You need not be an attorney to file a complaint, and this fact sheet provides some helpful tips to those looking to get the Justice Department on your side.

Serving and Protecting? Survey Results on Homeless New Yorkers’ Experience with Law Enforcement

This report analyzes data from surveys of people experiencing homelessness in New York City and their interactions with law enforcement. The report includes recommendations for ending the criminalization of homelessness on both the local and national level.

Letter to the Volusia County Council (Florida)
This letter to the Volusia County Council opposes the proposal recommended by Dr. Robert Marbut to construct a low-barrier shelter for the purposes of forcing homeless persons to “choose” between a shelter with an outdated approach to homelessness or going to jail. We commend the county on its willingness to commit funds to ending homelessness, but they could be much better expended following federal policy and national best practices which emphasize a Housing First approach in conjunction with not promoting the criminalization of homelessness. Following the letter, the county postponed its vote on the proposal.

Homeless Persons Access to Injustice Fact Sheet
This fact sheet, describing the challenges faced by many homeless persons in their encounters with the criminal justice system, was presented at the April 1st, 2014 consultation on Access to Justice to over fifty representatives from the Departments of Justice, State, Housing & Urban Development, and the White House Office of Domestic Policy Council.

Simply Unacceptable: Homelessness and the Human Right to Housing in the United States
Prior to the foreclosure crisis and economic recession, homelessness was already a national crisis. Since then, homelessness has increased dramatically. This report assesses the current level of U.S. compliance with the human right to housing in the context of American homelessness. In doing so, we consider the country as a whole, and policy at all levels of government, as it related to homelessness, including its prevention. It is not, and not intended to be, a comprehensive review and assessment of implementation of all aspects of the right.

From Wrongs to Rights: The Case for Homeless Bill of Rights Legislation
There is a new legislative tool gaining momentum across the country: homeless bills of rights. This report surveys the common rights violations experienced by homeless Americans, describes homeless bills of rights enacted and proposed in several states, and provides advocates with guidance for pursuing similar legislation in their states.

Additional Resources

Welcome Home: The Rise of Tent Cities in the United States
This report documents the rise of homeless encampments and “tent cities” across the United States, and the legal and policy responses to both.

Additional Resources

Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading: Homelessness in the United States under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – Submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Committee
This report details violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) stemming from U.S. policy toward the more than 3.5 million people who experience homelessness in the U.S. annually. While the U.S. government should be commended for recognizing that the imposition of criminal penalties on homeless people is counterproductive public policy in violation of the ICCPR and Convention Against Torture, criminalization of homelessness at the state and local levels continues to cause significant rights violations.

A Place at the Table: Prohibitions on Sharing Food with People Experiencing Homelessness
Uncomfortable with visible homelessness in their communities and influenced by myths about homeless people’s food access, cities use food sharing restrictions to move homeless people out of sight, an action that often exacerbates the challenges people experiencing homelessness face each day just to survive. This report focuses on ordinances, policies, and tactics that discourage or prohibit individuals and groups from sharing food with homeless persons. The report also highlights constructive alternatives to food sharing restrictions, in the form of innovative programs that both adults and youth are implementing to share food with people experiencing homelessness in their communities.

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