Criminalization of Homelessness Increases in U.S. Cities

A report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) found an increase in the criminalization of homelessness over the past 10 years in U.S. cities. NLCHP recommends more sensible, humane, and effective policies to address homelessness that range from repealing laws that criminalize homelessness to expanding access to affordable housing.

Local governments increasingly face dwindling resources, particularly for affordable housing, to contend with homelessness. Rather than focus on the root causes of homelessness, many cities have enacted laws that make life-sustaining activities for the homeless, such as sleeping in public spaces, illegal. These laws represent a clear intent to remove the homeless from public spaces, despite the lack of other options for homeless individuals.

NLCHP surveyed the ordinances of 187 cities for the last 10 years. Among these cities:

  • Thirty-three percent prohibit camping in public citywide, and 50% prohibit camping in particular public places.
  • Eighteen percent prohibit sleeping in public citywide, and 27% prohibit sleeping in particular public places.
  • Thirty-nine percent prohibit living in vehicles.
  • Forty-seven percent prohibit sitting and lying down in particular public places.
  • Twenty-seven percent prohibit panhandling citywide, and 61% prohibit panhandling in particular public places.
  • Thirty-two percent have citywide prohibitions on loitering, loafing, and vagrancy, and 54% have similar prohibitions for specific public places.

The prevalence of these laws, particularly citywide prohibitions, have dramatically increased over the past 10 years. Since 2006, citywide bans on loitering, loafing, and vagrancy increased by 88%, on sitting and lying down in certain public places increased by 52%, on panhandling grew by 43%, on camping increased by 69%, and on sleeping in public increased by 31%.

The report recommends repealing laws that criminalize homelessness and training law enforcement officials on how to respond to a homeless person with a mental health crisis to reduce the likelihood of them going to jail rather than getting treatment. The report identifies the lack of affordable housing as the key issue driving homelessness. The report recommends strengthening tenant protections, increasing the minimum wage, and expanding the supply of housing affordable to the lowest income households.

Housing Not Handcuffs: Ending the Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities is available at: