(December 1, 2021, Washington, D.C.) – The National Homelessness Law Center (Law Center) today 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 such acts of survival as public sleeping, camping and asking for charity.
Key findings of this research include:
- Almost every state, 48 in total, has at least one law restricting behaviors that prohibit or restrict conduct of people experiencing homelessness.
- 24 states have laws restricting loitering, loafing, and vagrancy in particular public places.
- 4 states have laws restricting lodging, living, or sleeping in vehicles.
- 16 states have laws restricting loitering, loafing, and vagrancy state-wide.
- 15 states have laws restricting camping in particular public places.
This report supplements the Law Center’s Housing Not Handcuffs 2019 report, looking at municipal level laws criminalizing homelessness in 187 cities across the country.
“Criminalizing homelessness is unconstitutional, racially discriminatory, and just bad policy,” said Eric Tars, legal director at the NHLC. “Unfortunately, as our report shows, almost every state in the country has these laws on the books. If we want to end homelessness, we first need to stop using these laws to punish people who have been the victims of our bad housing policies, and then focus on fixing those policies to ensure the basic human right to housing for all.”
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found it unconstitutional to punish a person experiencing homelessness for sleeping outside, in the absence of adequate alternatives. Since no state meets that bar by providing adequate alternatives, the growing number of these laws are likely to face intense judicial scrutiny.
Although many of these laws date back to Jim Crow era Black codes, the report also reveals a concerning new trend: state governments coercing municipalities into enforcing these unconstitutional criminal statutes. For example, Texas recently passed a law that would take away state funding and support from any local entity that “prohibits or discourages enforcement of any public camping ban.”
Laws that criminalize homelessness do not solve the underlying causes of homelessness. Instead, criminalization exacerbates a person’s homelessness, often by creating additional barriers to housing and employment. The Law Center urges states with state-level statutes that criminalize homelessness to repeal these statutes and instead pursue constructive policies that end homelessness and invest in affordable housing at levels necessary to end homelessness in their respective states.
The Law Center will host a webinar to discuss the report on Wednesday, December 1, at 2pm ET/11am PT. Register here.
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.