Cities in the United States often face challenges and problems that are unique to urban areas. The high density of people concentrated into cities can lead to crime, the rapid spread of disease, pollution, and other problems. One of the challenges faced by cities across the country is the issue of homelessness. As the recession that began in 2008 grew worse, the number of homeless people throughout the U.S. began to climb, and cities such as New York are faced with record high numbers of homeless people. Historically a number of different policies and actions have been developed and implemented in an effort to combat the problem, but despite these efforts the numbers continue to grow. This paper will examine the issue of homelessness in U.S. cities, discuss a number of the policies that have been enacted to address the issue, and determine which of the policy approaches to dealing with the issue of homelessness seem to be the most effective.
According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, New York City had approximately 50,000 homeless people living on its streets in January of 2013 (Saul, 2013). This number sets a new record for New York, and serves as evidence that the problem is getting worse and the policies New York has established for dealing with is homeless population are ineffective. It is not just New York that is seeing growing numbers of homeless people: Boston; Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Los Angeles; these cities and more are faced with a rapidly-growing homeless population (Saul). The economic recession has led to a disturbing new trend, as families who have been losing their homes are ending up on the streets. Boston reported that from 2011 to 2012 the number of homeless families in the city grew by almost 8%; in that same period the number of homeless families in Washington, D.C. jumped by a staggering 18% (Saul). As the number of homeless people in U.S. cities continues to climb, the resources needed to help alleviate the problem are often simply unavailable.
Cities and town across the country have established homeless shelters, food banks, and other facilities and programs designed to help people in need. On the national level the federal government runs a program that is still referred to as “food stamps,” despite the fact that individuals enrolled in this program now receive their benefits through and debit-style electronic card (usich.gov, 2012). This federal program can help feed people who are homeless, but there are no significant federal programs that provide shelter for homeless individuals or families. The development and operation of homeless shelters are coordinated at the state level, through the federal government does offer some funding for the state programs.
Cities such as New York have historically had a relatively large number of homeless people, and have taken a number of different policy approaches to dealing with the issues related to the city’s homeless population. The most obvious of these approaches is the development of homeless shelters, but a number of other options have been explored as well. New York City has both publicly-operated and privately-operated facilities that provide meals to the homeless and hungry; while the city operates some of these facilities –which have historically been referred to as “soup kitchens”- many more are operated by the charitable organizations established by a number of the city’s different churches and other religious organizations (Burt, 2001).
Along with the facilities in New York City that are intended to provide food and shelter to the homeless, there are a variety of other programs designed to help the homeless and those who are living in poverty. These include services that provide medical check-ups, referrals to Medicare and Medicaid, HIV and hepatitis screening, assistance with applying for food-stamp benefits, job training programs and work referrals, clothing donations of work clothes, outfits to wear on job interviews, and a number of other programs aimed at providing support to those who need it and help transitioning back to the workforce for those who are able (Jackowitz, 2012). Such programs and services take a generally positive approach to assisting the homeless and those facing severe economic challenges.
As the number of homeless people in U.S. cities has grown so rapidly during the economic downturn, however, a number of cities have resorted to taking much tougher and stricter approaches to dealing with the issue. According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), these tough new measures are “criminalizing” homelessness in a number of ways. According to a 2012 report from the USICH, there has been a “proliferation of local measures to criminalize “acts of living” laws that prohibit sleeping, eating, sitting, or panhandling in public spaces” (usich.gov). The USICH report details the “zero tolerance” policies enacted in a significant number of U.S. cities, noting that these efforts are generally aimed at reducing the “visibility” of each city’s homeless problem, while often failing to address the underlying causes of the problem and potentially contributing to make the problem worse over time (usich.gov). In some cities it is now a crime to feed a homeless person in public, making criminals of the homeless and of those who try to help them (Pearce, 2012).
The USICH report expresses a number of concerns with the trend towards criminalizing “acts of living,” noting that exercising such laws can use of much-needed resources that could be used elsewhere, and perhaps to better effect. The report also claims that by criminalizing homelessness, cities may be further “marginalizing” homeless people, and creating a whole new set of problems for a subset of society that already faces enormous challenges. The report notes that the processes involved in arresting homeless people and charging them with “acts of living” offenses can be prohibitively expensive, as this involves paying the salaries of police officers whose services could be used for other purposes, and clogs up the court systems that are already overburdened with backlogs of many different types of cases (usich.gov).
The other major problem with the criminalization of homelessness is that it brings many people into the legal system who have never before been in trouble with the law, and who would otherwise not be considered to be criminals. This is particularly relevant when considering the fact that many of those who have become homeless in recent years are families or members of families who, until fairly recently, had jobs, owned or rented homes, and were otherwise considered to be functioning members of society. More than one third of foreclosures in the last decade have been on homes that were used as rental properties, which often left residents out on the street with little notice as many were unaware that foreclosure proceedings were underway until the process was completed (Saul). For many of these homeless families, some or all members of each family might now be burdened with criminal records, a situation that may make it that much more difficult to find new homes, find employment, and emerge from being homeless back to functioning well in society.
The USICH report examines a number of alternatives to the “acts of living” laws that have been implemented in several U.S. cities. The report identifies three primary alternative models: 1. Creation of Comprehensive and Seamless Systems of Care; 2. Collaboration among Law Enforcement and Behavioral Health and Social Service Providers; 3. Alternative Justice System Strategies (usich.gov). Included in these different approaches are such initiatives as “housing first” programs that “provide persons experiencing chronic homelessness immediate options, directly reducing the number of people living in public spaces” (usich.gov); increased investment in emergency and temporary shelters; and “coordinated interventions” that forgo sending homeless people to jail and instead send them to shelters or housing units where they can be individually assessed for referrals to support programs and services (usich.gov).
There have been some recent signs that the U.S. economy is improving, but even in the best economic times the problem of homelessness will not disappear. As cities are faced with record numbers of homeless people living on their streets it some of these cities would enact laws that are aimed is understandable that are aimed at simply getting people off the streets, even if that means sending them to jail. This approach to criminalizing homelessness has significant downsides, though; it is expensive, and uses resources that could be used elsewhere; it also leaves many homeless people with criminal records, which can make it difficult to escape the cycle of poverty and homelessness. The proactive programs and policies put forth by the USICH are aimed at addressing the underlying causes and problems related to homelessness, which is more likely than criminalizing homelessness to help alleviate the problem in the long term.
Burt, M. R. (2001). Helping America’s homeless: Emergency shelter or affordable housing?. Washington, D.C: Urban Institute Press.
Jackowitz, A. (2012, May). Homelessness in America: The Meanest Cities in the US Make Homelessness a Crime. Retrieved from http://www.policymic.com/articles/10325/homelessness-in-america-the-meanest-cities-in-the-us-make-homelessness-a-crime
Pearce, M. (2012, June 11). Philadelphia’s new homeless feeding ban part of a nationwide trend – Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jun/11/nation/la-na-nn-homeless-feeding-bans-20120611
Saul, M. H. (2013, March 4). New York City Leads Jump in Homeless – WSJ.com. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324539404578340731809639210.html
Searching for Balance Summit : Civic Engagement in Communities Responding to Homelessness (2010 : Washington, D.C.) (2012). Searching out solutions: Constructive alternatives to the criminalization of homelessness. Retrieved from United States Interagency Council on Homelessness website: http://www.usich.gov/resources/uploads/asset_library/RPT_SoS_March2012.pdf