(August 18, 2021, Washington, D.C.) – On Thursday, August 5, 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it will investigate incidents of excessive use of force, unlawful seizure and destruction of personal property, and other civil rights abuses against people experiencing homelessness by the Phoenix, AZ police department.
According to local activists, this discrimination has taken place not only in the City of Phoenix, but also more broadly in Maricopa County, AZ. Unfortunately, this mistreatment of people experiencing homelessness is not unique. In fact, research conducted by the National Homelessness Law Center shows an increase in laws and policies criminalizing homelessness across the country in every measured category since 2006, when the Law Center began tracking these data nationwide.
Research also shows that the criminalization of homelessness contributes to mass incarceration and racial inequality. Over-policing of homeless people, who are disproportionately people of color, also exacerbates racial inequality in our criminal justice system. In Phoenix, the Black community represents only 7% of the overall population, yet constitutes approximately 27% of the homeless population.
“Not only does the Phoenix Police Department enforce sweeps under a variety of laws but they also seize and destroy homeless people’s personal property,” said Elizabeth Venable, Treasurer of the Fund for Empowerment.
She added, “This behavior is repeated and constitutes a pattern and practice of discrimination in law enforcement. The police literally trash people’s belongings and then at times order them not to touch or recover those belongings lest they be arrested. People who do not move their belongings quickly enough during sweeps may both lose belongings and get criminal charges.”
Alarmingly, unhoused people of color are more likely to be cited, searched, and have property taken than white people experiencing homelessness. Furthermore, housing cost burdens and eviction have contributed to grossly disproportionate rates of homelessness among people of color.
“With this announcement that the DOJ will be specifically including treatment of people experiencing homelessness in their civil rights investigations, the Justice Department is building on its statement in our Martin v. Boise case affirming that criminalizing basic, life-sustaining behaviors like sleeping and sheltering oneself in the absence of adequate alternatives is unconstitutional. This should put law makers and enforcers on notice: it’s not just the Law Center and its allies who are fighting to uphold the constitutional rights of people experiencing homelessness, but the Justice Department is also scrutinizing how communities treat these issues,” said Eric Tars, Legal Director of the Law Center.
The National Homelessness Law Center (the Law Center) is the only national organization dedicated solely to using the power of the law to prevent and end homelessness. With the support of a large network of pro bono lawyers, we address the immediate and long-term needs of people who are homeless or at risk through outreach and training, advocacy, impact litigation, and public education.
Fund for Empowerment is a civil rights, social action and advocacy fund raising and fund distribution in Phoenix, AZ organizing homeless and trans communities for change. Their mission is to build community resources for oppressed and marginalized people, via direct services, capacity-building training, and project support.