It is Illegal for Homeless People to Sit on the Sidewalk in More Than Half of U.S. Cities

Written by Scott Keyes

A new study has found that ordinances effectively making homelessness a crime, such as sitting on the sidewalk, are increasing across the country.

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty has tracked laws in 187 cities since 2009 to study the spread of measures that criminalize homelessness. The latestreport, released Wednesday, found an uptick in nearly every type of different criminalization ordinance.

Theseanti-homeless laws can take a number of different forms. Fort Lauderdale recentlymoved to make it illegal for homeless people to have possessions with them, whileHonolulu is considering a law to criminalize sitting or lying down on sidewalks. Last year, Tampapassed a new law to make it illegal to sleep in public and Palo Alto adopted a measure toprohibit homeless people from sleeping in their cars, for instance.

Of the 187 cities NLCHP looked at, here are how the various measures to criminalize homelessness have changed:

Laws prohibiting camping in public

  • 34 percent of cities impose city-wide bans on
    camping in public, an increase of 60 percent since 2011
  • 57 percent of cities prohibit camping in particular public places, an increase of 16 percent since 2011

Laws prohibiting sleeping in public

  • 18 percent of cities impose city-wide bans on sleeping in public, unchanged since 2011
  • 27 percent of cities prohibit sleeping in particular public places, such as in public parks, a decrease of 34 percent since 2011

Laws prohibiting begging in public

  • 24 percent of cities impose city-wide bans on begging in public, an increase of 25 percent since 2011
  • 76 percent of cities prohibit begging in particular public places, an increase of 20 percent since 2011

Laws prohibiting loitering, loafing, and vagrancy

  • 33 percent of cities make it illegal to loiter in public throughout an entire city, an increase of 35 percent since 2011
  • 65 percent of cities prohibit the activity in particular public places

Laws prohibit sitting or lying down in public

  • 53 percent of cities prohibit sitting or lying down in particular public places, a decrease of 3 percent since 2011

Laws prohibiting sleeping in vehicles

  • 43 percent of cities prohibit sleeping in vehicles, an increase of 119 percent since 2011

Laws prohibiting food sharing

  • 9 percent of cities prohibit sharing food with homeless people.

The NLCHP report criticized cities for violating homeless people’s basic rights. “Courts have invalidated or enjoined enforcement of criminalization laws on the grounds that they violate constitutional protections,” the report said, “such as the right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment, and the right to due process of law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”

These laws also make little sense from a fiscal standpoint. A recent study in one Florida countyfound that local taxpayers had spent more than $5 million over the last decade to repeatedly jail just 37 homeless people for quality-of-life offenses. In fact, a separate study showed that, when accounting for criminalization and hospitalization, leaving homeless people on the streets is overthree times more expensive than simply giving them a place to live.

Finally, the report notes, criminalization is an ineffective approach for the simple fact that it does “nothing to address the underlying causes of homelessness.” These laws do not provide housing to poor people, or help alcoholics with their disease, or provide childcare to struggling parents. They simply trap homeless people in a cycle that criminalizes their very existence. For example, ThinkProgressprofiled a homeless veteran living in south Florida, Franklin, who was recently ticketed for breaking a law that makes it illegal to ask motorists for money on highway exit ramps. Because Franklin didn’t have any money to pay off the $64.50 citation, he was faced with a tragic choice: break the very same law again in order to try to amass enough money to cover the fine, or go to jail.

NLCHP’s report calls on the federal government to combat local efforts to criminalize homelessness in a few different ways. First, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Justice could send less grant money to municipalities that pass such laws. Second, the United States Interagency Council on Homeless should “publicly oppose specific local criminalization measures,” a move they have been reticent to do. NLCHP also recommended state governments pass and enforce bills enacting a Homeless Bill of Rights as Connecticut, Illinois, and Rhode Island have done to prohibit local criminalization ordinances.

This post originally appeared on Think Progress.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock


Debbie Crowe
Debbie Crowe3 years ago

This is too unreal. What do they expect the homeless to do??
Maybe the government should just go around and shoot all the homeless. That would get them off the streets!
That's just as stupid as what they are doing now with all the restrictions!

Jennifer H.
Jennifer H3 years ago

Pure idiocy. The gap is widening as Michele B said, The haves want to make sure they keep theirs and to make sure the have nots never get anything including help or assistance of any kind.. This is not what the US used to be nor should be. More and more people are losing everything; are they going to fill up the jails with homeless because they have taken any other option away from them,

Mark Donners
Mark Donner3 years ago

If the Fish and Wildlife "Services" can massacre 40 million wildlife a year, I'm under no illusions that the US government can murder and jail homeless just because they are not part of the profit machine. That is the nature of US "democracy".. death and slavery for profit.

Melania Padilla
Melania P3 years ago

Nice going US!!

Arlene C.
Arlene C3 years ago


Carole R.
Carole R3 years ago

Sad on so many levels.

Carla van der Meer

What kind of monster attacks people who have no options Isn't a society supposed to be judged by hoe it treats the most needy among them ( sorry, I am paraphrasing). How far have we strayed from basic human compassion and empathy to have fallen so low?

cathie S.
cathie S3 years ago

This really makes me mad, most of these people did NOT asked to be homeless. What we need to do is to help them get off the streets not LOCK them up

Teresa W.
Teresa W3 years ago

Should they levitate or disappear????

Nikolas K.
Nikolas K3 years ago

Its becoming very apparent just how enslaved Americans are and just how much their constitution is not worth the paper its written on especially now t is suspended by the presidents on an annual basis since the murder of Kennedy by elements of his own government. I wonder just how many homes in America have spare rooms that they could help one of the homeless to get back on their feet. sadly i do not see this happening just like i do not see them waking up to the voting scam of putting puppets of the bankers in office.