Anti-Homeless Laws Across the U.S. Criminalize Survival

U.S. cities with a high number of people without housing keep passing new laws to push unhoused people out of view. Camping is often banned, as well as sleeping in public and living in vehicles. People are routinely evicted from encampments, many losing their belongings.

Government restriction of these essential, life-sustaining activities criminalizes the very attempt to survive. Cities usually can’t provide enough shelter beds and these people literally have nowhere to go but city parks and sidewalks.

Anti Camping Bills

Metal studs deployed outside a property to deter public sleeping.

The Texas Senate just approved legislation that will create a statewide public camping ban, making it a Class C misdemeanor that carries a maximum $500 fine, if a person is busted living in a tent or even sleeping under a blanket in public.

The Texas bill (House Bill 1925) also bans cities and counties from adopting or enforcing policies that allow public camping, and it authorizes the state to take legal action against local governments that do not comply. It exempts public camps only if local authorities provide law enforcement officers, mental health services, and healthcare provisions for those residing in the camp.

Austin voters had already just approved a ballot proposition to reinstate the city’s old camping ban rolled back in 2019.

A Scottsdale, Arizona camping ban was passed by Scottsdale City Council in early May. It criminalizes camping on nearly half of the city’s public park land. The ordinance’s broad definition of camping includes sleeping and also bans “camp paraphernalia”. A person could potentially violate the ordinance simply if they have a sleeping bag, blanket, or other personal belongings with them in a park.

Violators can be charged with a class 3 misdemeanor, which carries a maximum fine of $500 and 30 days in jail. The city justified the new ordinance in the name of public safety, citing flash-flooding. There is currently only one homeless shelter in Scottsdale.

Meanwhile in Washington state, unhoused people receive fines and jail time in Seattle suburbs  like Auburn where a new law imposes fines of $1,000 and 90 days in jail for sleeping in public in cases of unsheltered people who are completely resistant to shelter. Tacoma is considering similar penalties for people without housing.

A typical crowd outside a small Phoenix, AZ shelter.

But shelters aren’t a good solution for some people. Many shelters don’t let families stay together. Some don’t allow people to bring in belongings and people stand to lose all their possessions. Some people experience anxiety and PTSD in crowds. Others can’t comply with strict curfews. Sweeps of Turlock, CA camps show that many unhoused people do not want the type of shelter provided as an alternative.

Cities aren’t solving homelessness with these ordinances. They’re shuffling unhoused people out of sight and mind. A Nashville encampment is being relocated from Jefferson Street Bridge on June first. People will be moved to another crowded encampment that is also slated for closure. There are between 1,200 and 1,600 unhoused people living in camps in Nashville.

Homeless encampments in Portland started being swept away May 24th. Residents are being given just 24 hours to leave, with immediate eviction notices being posted at multiple high-impact campsites that have eight or more structures.

The city didn’t strive to provide shelter or services prior to eviction. They claimed camps were unsanitary though didn’t offer a sanitary solution. The city doesn’t know how quickly or how many new shelters on city property or elsewhere will open.

Multiple campsites in Medford, Oregon were just cleared out under a local ordinance that prohibits people from sleeping outside. The ordinance makes it a crime for people to sleep or lie down in public for more than 24 hours at a time.

In Boulder a new city ordinance prohibits tents in public parks and limits the number of propane tanks allowed. The City Council just voted to spend $2.7 million over 18 months on efforts to enforce its current camping ban, including an extra Boulder Police Department unit and an internal cleanup team to clear encampments.

An Aurora Colorado camping ban proposal would ban unhoused people from public camping and cite or arrest anyone who doesn’t relocate after receiving a verbal warning.

In Houston, an unhoused person can’t have a heating device. They can’t carry around large belongings that take up space more than three feet long, three feet wide, three feet tall. They risk arrest and a $500 fine. Last year though, a federal judge ruled that L.A. couldn’t seize property based on size.

Property of displaced people has routinely been seized and destroyed.

 

Anti Homeless Laws are Unconstitutional

Advocates argue that unhoused people should not be displaced unless an adequate alternative is provided, and that the Supreme Court seems to agree; in 2019 the high Court declined to hear a major case on homelessness. This let stand a ruling (Martin vs City of Boise) that protects homeless people’s right to sleep on the sidewalk or in public parks if no other shelter is available, in nine Western states, including California.

The court had ruled that the anti-camping ordinance in Boise, Idaho, was cruel and unusual punishment, violating the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment. “A state may not criminalize conduct that is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless.”

In April a judge ordered the City of Los Angeles to finally offer shelter to all the unhoused people living in infamous Skid Row within 180 days. Way back in 2006 police sweeps of the unhoused population there were found unconstitutional. Though there are more than 27,000 people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in L.A. at any given time, there are only about 8,100 shelter beds.

Skid Row, Los Angeles (photo by K-a-P-p-Y)

The top six U.S. cities experiencing homelessness are in California, where hundreds of codes and ordinances have been passed, restricting the activities of unsheltered people. Some California cities have found ways to keep in place their own “sit-lie” ordinances that make it a criminal offense to sit, lie, or sleep on a public sidewalk.

For instance, San Francisco police can enforce them but only during the hours of 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. and Oakland passed a law last summer claiming it’s unlawful for any person to obstruct a public walkway with their body after sunset by lying on the public walkway. Other cities have made ordinances against unhoused people living in their vehicles.

Some cities are going after panhandling, making it illegal to sit on sidewalks or intersections. In Lee County, Florida, panhandling at intersections is a misdemeanor charge that carries a fine of $500 or less and/or 60 days in jail.

 

While cities decide how to handle their homeless communities, the people within them are just trying to survive.

Shifting from one camp to another trying to avoid arrest could make securing food resources an even harder than typical quest. Hunger shouldn’t be another desperate concern for people just trying to exist despite their lack of housing.

FBB’s Food Security Project fundraisers are responding to an increased crackdown on unhoused populations. Funds go to grants supporting effective local volunteer groups which specialize in giveaways of food and other needs identified by unsheltered people. $2.50 could supply an entire meal for someone right now.

 

A Food Security Project team (Atheists United, Los Angeles)