Homelessness and human rights: alternatives to criminalization


Photo: Lisa Scheer

According to a study published last week by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the criminalization of activities like sleeping, eating, sitting, or begging in public spaces is on the upswing in cities across the country. Even serving food to homeless people in public spaces is being targeted–as we know from recent events at Moore Square in Raleigh.

Reporting on 187 cities that it tracked for five years, the Law Center finds that

(1) Homeless people are criminally punished for being in public even when they have no other alternatives, and

(2) The criminalization of homelessness has increased, with the most dramatic increase in citywide bans on “fundamental human activities” like sleeping in vehicles and sitting/lying down in public.

The report concludes that “[c]riminalization is the most expensive and least effective way of addressing homelessness.”

A homeless person with a criminal conviction finds it even harder to find housing, or a job, than a homeless person without a criminal conviction. We all lose, because it then becomes even harder to help that person out of poverty.

The Law Center recommends that these laws be replaced with constructive solutions to ending homelessness. Support for affordable housing, including permanent supportive housing (the “housing first” model), is a key solution.

Another recommended solution starts with the criminal justice system itself. Alternative courts can offer a person a choice. Homeless people caught violating a panhandling ordinance, urinating in public, or committing other crimes related to their status are offered a treatment regimen appropriate to their needs–often addressing issues of mental health or substance abuse. If they succeed in the follow-through, they can emerge with no criminal record, and in the ideal case, with housing.

Orange County’s Outreach Court, started two years ago on the good initiative of Jeff Nieman, an assistant district attorney, is implementing this model–the first of its kind in the state. A team composed of court officials, mental health providers, law enforcement officers, and representatives from Community Empowerment Fund, Housing for New Hope, the UNC School of Law, and the UNC School of Social Work come together to create a treatment plan.

The success rate is under 20 percent. But there are lots of ways to measure success, says Elizabeth Waugh-Duford, who until recently was the temporary coordinator for the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness. “It is not necessarily a failure when people do not follow through because they have made connections with community advisors and they know about more resources.”

In Chapel Hill, it is illegal to sleep on a public bench downtown. It is also illegal to sleep on any bus stop bench or even to sit there unless you are waiting for the bus. (Did you know that?) Reasonable people can debate the utility of laws like that. What is beyond reasonable debate is the value of constructive alternatives to criminalization, such as the promise that the Outreach Court holds for those folks who are willing to accept the help that they need.

Following the lead of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the U.S. Department of Justice agree that courts like our Outreach Court are appropriate responses to homelessness that honor an individual’s human rights. I am proud of all involved.



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