6 U.S. Cities That Criminalize Homelessness

The solutions to homelessness may not be simple, but that doesn’t mean we have to compound the problems. Yet that’s precisely the route that several of American cities have taken. Rather than finding ways to provide assistance to some of the country’s least fortunate citizens, lawmakers have developed strict regulations to criminalize homeless people’s activities, as if they were sleeping on the sidewalk and panhandling out of malice rather than necessity.

Here are 6 cities that have tried to eliminate its homeless population – many of whom are either mentally ill, grappling with addiction, or facing financial woes – by declaring them criminals (Spoiler Alert: it doesn’t work):

1. Los Angeles, California

Advocacy groups have labeled L.A. the city that is the “meanest” toward homeless people. By prohibiting sleeping on sidewalks, holding belongings in certain public spaces, and asking passersby for change, the city has made life as difficult as possible for its homeless population.

Perhaps most egregious is LAPD’s notorious “selective enforcement” of minor infractions like loitering and jaywalking. Homeless individuals in particular find themselves a target of these often overlooked crimes, resulting in fines they cannot pay and arrest. In fact, Los Angeles spends more money funding extra officers to monitor Skid Row (the area with the city’s highest concentration of homeless people) than it does on services for the homeless.

2. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Mayor Michael Nutter decided to ban “outdoor feeding of the homeless” to “prevent foodborne illness” and “help charitable agencies reach the homeless more easily.” While the first reason amounted to a lame excuse, the second proved to be just plain false. Hiding these services made them less accessible to those in need, and its real intentions were clear: move homeless individuals indoors so they are out of sight, out of mind to the general public. Church groups, however, have defied the law and continued to serve food outdoors anyway.

3. Orlando, Florida

Organizations in Orlando are facing similar problems due to the city’s ban on providing food to groups of people. Despite the law, volunteers at Food Not Bombs have continued offering free food in parks, claiming they won’t cower to an unjust law. This defiance has resulted in multiple arrests. In essence, the city has found a way to not only criminalize homelessness, but also criminalize people who offer aid to the less fortunate.

4. Nevada City, California

After the area’s homeless population grew in the past year, Police Chief James Wickham convinced the city council to pass new ordinances that banned people from setting up tents, sleeping in the woods and living in an automobile. While the city grants some exceptions to this law in the form of permits, since they are only offering 6-10 permits to a homeless population of at least 10 times that number, most of Nevada City’s homeless residents are subject to arrest.

5. Kalamazoo, Michigan

Though Kalamazoo cites its homeless population for trumped up infractions like the other cities, it also literally criminalizes them by turning something like sleeping on a park bench into a criminal charge, which stays on the individual’s permanent record. As a result, this criminal record prevents homeless people from obtaining housing, thus exacerbating their situation.

The city also has a history of ticketing/arresting people waiting at bus stops police deemed were not actually waiting for the bus. Even after the citations were found to be discriminatory and dropped, similar citations have continued.

6. St. Petersburg, Florida

St. Petersburg has enacted harsh panhandling laws throughout the entire city. Those who are caught begging are fined $500 or sentenced to 90 days in jail. It’s a brutal tactic to drive impoverished people out of the city… or into prison.

In fact, prison seems to be the city’s go-to approach. After the city banned outdoor sleeping entirely, police who find homeless individuals outside overnight give them an immediate proposition: find a space in a shelter, or come to jail.


The list need not stop at six — throughout the country hundreds of cities have enacted similar laws that prevent homeless people from sleeping outdoors, receiving food or asking for financial assistance. The idea may be for these cities to intimidate the homeless population into leaving for other areas, but with just about every region pulling these stunts, where do the less fortunate have to go?

Making homelessness illegal will not make the problem go away.


Related Stories:

Alabama Man Feeds the Homeless by Teaching Them to Grow Their Own Food

10 Reasons Homeless People Sleep Out in the Cold

Homeless Youth Help Homeless Animals

What to Do When You Encounter Homeless People with Pets



Past Member 1 years ago

I've seen problems in other cities, too. One of the most basic is, "no sleeping in a car, or no parking overnight, even at road rest stops" I understand the logic, of course, but what are these people supposed to DO?

Roberto Meritoni
Roberto Meritoni1 years ago


Roberto Meritoni
Roberto Meritoni1 years ago


Elizabeth S
Elizabeth Skiba1 years ago

Being homeless is not criminal, it is unfortunate, those people are humans
treat them with respect, they need help not judgment.

Angie P.
Angie P1 years ago

I am sure the list is much longer than just these 6 cities and just about every town in the US has homeless people. I live here in the Tampa Bay area, and I see St. Petersburg made the list. They don't treat the homeless well at all around here.

I wish the US government instead of helping every other country around the world would use our tax dollars here in the US and feed the hungry since so many people including children go hungry every day, and put a roof over the homeless people and families' heads.

Carol C.
Carol Cox2 years ago

i have never understood why it is not allowed to give perfectly good "left-over" food to the homeless... many fast food places and even up scale restaurants have a certain amount of food leftover every day and are obliged to throw it out instead of donating to a homeless shelter... you see this with the problem of FOOD in the garbage dumps. and people "dumpster diving" for perfectly edible food... my niece in Venezuela had a restaurant at one time, and the "scraps" from cleaning the cuts of meat were saved in a large plastic container for my mom to feed her dogs. mom was often horrified at the amount of good beef, not just fat or gristle, but ROUND and chuck... stuff that could be made into ground beef but was discarded.... too much waste. and too many hungry people. something needs to be done.

Ema Alvarado
Ema Alvarado2 years ago

I do voluntary work for a NGO, that serves a hot meal and a refreshment from Monday to Friday in the porch of a Catholic Church, of a por neighborhood, come to this place some older persons homeles, other jobless, the majority men, some women, the food we served is provided by persons tha prepare them in their homes, or some restaurants provide food of the day. We take care these foods are well prepared
In the rest of the country there are some, not to many organizations or private persons that help homeless people to get at least one daily meal, of course this occurs in a Latin American country. Of course, from time to time the municipal authorities go to streets and take some of these persons to a shelter for bathing them giving them clothes, or if they have drug additions insert then in a Program to rehabilitate, not yet have reached those levels of inhumanity mentioned in those places.

Billy M.
William M3 years ago

Bradenton, Florida, needs to be added to that list. Bradenton is SUPPOSED to be "The Friendly City," but what I saw and experienced during my two months undercover on the streets of Downtown Bradenton would have me believe otherwise.

There's a reason Bradenton is the 9th Meanest City in America when it comes to the Homeless Population.

Diane Riley
Diane Riley3 years ago

I am willing to bet that there are Private prisons ner these cities that want to keep their quota up and that is why they are criminalizing homelessness. I can't believe that they would treat people this way when most of the men who are homeless served our Country in the armed forces. The Right spent close to four trillion dollars on the Iraq ( for oil) and Afghanistan wars and expect us to foot the bill through cuts to the poor, which has also taken away funds to help the homeless.