Criminalizing Poverty


One of my favorite phrases is Anatole France’s comment in praising the “majestic equality of the French Law” in that it prohibits both the rich and the poor from sleeping under bridges, in parks, etc.  For several centuries the poor have been the target of the criminalization process, starting at least with the coming of vagrancy laws in the 15th century.  A large number of similar laws were passed and enforced with vigor throughout the South starting right after the end of the Civil War, resulting in thousands of poor blacks doing time in that region’s notorious “convict lease” system and the numerous “plantation prisons.”


In recent years there has been a significant increase in the enforcement of local ordinances specifically designed to criminalize the poor – especially the homeless.  Yes, it is a crime to be poor in the richest country in the world.


Two recent studies have documented this, both conducted by the National Coalition for the Homeless.


The first is A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities published in 2006 ( The second is Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities published in July of 2009 (


The first report focused on a survey of laws and practices in 224 cities, plus a survey of lawsuits challenging some of these laws. Among other findings include the following.



• Legislation that makes it illegal to sleep, sit, or store personal belongings in public

spaces in cities where people are forced to live in public spaces;


• Selective enforcement of more neutral laws, such as loitering or open container

laws, against homeless persons;


• Sweeps of city areas where homeless persons are living to drive them out of the

area, frequently resulting in the destruction of those persons’ personal property,

including important personal documents and medication; and


• Laws that punish people for begging or panhandling to move poor or homeless

persons out of a city or downtown area.


The report also notes the following:


City ordinances frequently serve as a prominent tool to criminalize homelessness. Of the

224 cities surveyed for our report:


• 28% prohibit “camping” in particular public places in the city and 16% had citywide

prohibitions on “camping.”


• 27% prohibit sitting/lying in certain public places.


• 39% prohibit loitering in particular public areas and 16% prohibit loitering citywide.


• 43% prohibit begging in particular public places; 45% prohibit aggressive

panhandling and 21% have city-wide prohibitions on begging.


Additionally, in 2002 there were these:


• a 12% increase laws prohibiting begging in certain public places and an

18% increase in laws that prohibit aggressive panhandling.


• a 14% increase in laws prohibiting sitting or lying in certain public spaces.


• a 3% increase in laws prohibiting loitering, loafing, or vagrancy laws.


The report also includes a list of the 20 “meanest cities” based on “the number of anti-homeless laws in the city, the enforcement of those laws and severities of penalties, the general political climate toward homeless people in the city, local advocate support for the meanest designation, the city’s history of criminalization measures, and the existence of pending or recently enacted criminalization legislation in the city.”


The top five were as follows:


#1 Sarasota, FL. After two successive Sarasota anti-lodging laws were overturned as unconstitutional by state courts, Sarasota passed a third law banning lodging outdoors. This latest version appears to be explicitly aimed at homeless persons. One of the elements necessary for arrest under the law is that the person “has no other place to live.”


#2 Lawrence, KS. After a group of downtown Lawrence business leaders urged the city to cut social services and pass ordinances to target homeless persons, the city passed three “civility” ordinances, including an aggressive panhandling law, a law prohibiting trespass on rooftops, and a law limiting sleeping or sitting on city sidewalks.


#3 Little Rock, AR. Homeless persons have reported being kicked out of bus stations in Little Rock, even when they had valid bus tickets. Two homeless men reported that officers of the Little Rock Police Department, in separate incidents, had kicked them out of the Little Rock Bus Station, even after showing the police their tickets. In other instances, homeless persons have been told that they could not wait at the bus station "because you are homeless."


#4 Atlanta, GA. Amid waves of public protest and testimony opposing the Mayor’s proposed comprehensive ban on panhandling, the City Council passed the anti-panhandling ordinance in August 2005. In the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Atlanta stood firm in its resolve to criminalize panhandlers. A Katrina evacuee who was sleeping in his car with his family after seeking refuge in Atlanta was arrested for panhandling at a mall in the affluent Buckhead 11 neighborhood, even after he showed the police his Louisiana driver’s license, car tag, and registration as proof that he was a Katrina evacuee. In addition, during

the first week in December, the Atlanta Zoning Review Board approved a ban on supportive housing inside the city limits.


#5 Las Vegas, NV. Even as the city shelters are overcrowded and the city’s Crisis Intervention Center recently closed due to lack of funding, the city continues to target homeless persons living outside. The police conduct habitual sweeps of encampments which lead to extended jail time for repeat misdemeanor offenders. In order to keep homeless individuals out of future parks, the city considered privatizing the parks, enabling owners to kick out unwanted people. Mayor Oscar Goodman fervently supported the idea, saying, “I don’t want them there. They’re not going to be there. I’m not going to let it happen. They think I’m mean now; wait until the homeless try to go over there.”


Among the typical charges in Las Vegas (where I live) include trespassing, jaywalking, pedestrians failing to obey traffic signals, and urinating in public.


The rest of the top 20 are:


6. Dallas, TX

7. Houston, TX

8. San Juan, PR

9. Santa Monica, CA

10. Flagstaff, AZ

11. San Francisco, CA

12. Chicago, IL

13. San Antonio, TX

14. New York City, NY

15. Austin, TX

16. Anchorage, AK

17. Phoenix, AZ

18. Los Angeles, CA

19. St. Louis, MO

20. Pittsburgh, PA


Some of the measures enacted have been overturned by the courts as unconstitutional (e.g., begging is protected by the First Amendment’s protection of free speech and destroying personal property of the homeless violates the Fourth Amendment’s protection against illegal search and seizure).


The report closes with a detailed summary of dozens of state and federal courts cases. The follow this discussion with a list of the many “crimes” that have resulted in an arrest around the country, which include: 1)Spitting, 2) Having/Abandoning shopping carts away from premises of owner, 3) Failure to disperse, 4) Maintaining junk or storage of property, 5) Street performer, 6) Prohibition to enter vacant building, 7) Rummaging/scavenging, 8) Creating odor, 9) Vehicular residence, 10) Walking on highway, 11) Bringing paupers/insane persons into city, 12) Washing cars or windshields, 13) Demolition of vacant property habitually inhabited by “vagrants”, 14) Prohibition to allow “vagrants” to use one’s property, 15)Prohibition to panhandle w/out permit, 16)Prohibition to help park a car or watch over cars.


A lot of this enforcement stems from the so-called “Broken Windows” theory of crime and the resulting “zero tolerance” policies that began in the 1990s in New York City.  This “theory” has been shown to be without much empirical foundation and the negative results of “zero tolerance” policies are well known (see and



The most recent report, Homes Not Handcuffs, provides some updates of the other report noted above. This includes a new survey, this time of 235 cities, that noted increases in the number of cities with ordinances that target the poor. 



• 33% now prohibit “camping” in particular public places in the city and 17% have citywide prohibitions on “camping,” up from 28% in the previous report.


• 30% prohibit sitting/lying in certain public places, up from 27%.


• 47% prohibit loitering in particular public areas and 19% prohibit loitering citywide, up from 39%.


• 47% prohibit begging in particular public places (up from 43%); 49% prohibit aggressive panhandling (up from 45%) and 23% have citywide prohibitions on begging (up from 21%).



The new report also notes the following changes:


• There has been a 7% increase in laws prohibiting “camping” in particular public places.


• There has been an 11% increase in laws prohibiting loitering in particular public places.


• There has been a 6% increase in laws prohibiting begging in particular public places and a 5% increase in laws prohibiting aggressive panhandling.


As far as “mean cities” are concerned, Los Angeles is highlighted in this report, where the authors note the following:


According to a study by UCLA released in September 2007, Los Angeles was spending $6 million a year to pay for fifty extra police officers as part of its Safe City Initiative to crack down on crime in the Skid Row area at a time when the city budgeted only $5.7 million for homeless services. Advocates found that during an 11-month period 24 people were arrested 201 times, with an estimated cost of $3.6 million for use of police, the jail system, prosecutors, public defenders and the courts. Advocates asserted that the money could have instead provided supportive housing for 225 people. Many of the citations issued to homeless persons in the Skid Row area were for jaywalking and loitering -- “crimes” that rarely produce written citations in other parts of Los Angeles (p. 11).


They also cite Orlando, Florida:


In 2006, the Orlando City Council passed a law that prohibited groups sharing food with 25 or more people in downtown parks covered under the ordinance from doing so more than twice a year. A member of one of the groups that shares food regularly with homeless and poor people in Orlando parks was actually arrested under the ordinance for sharing food. A federal district court found the law unconstitutional; however, the City of Orlando has appealed the decision (p. 11).


This latest report brings together data from various parts of the country documenting the devastating effects of the current recession. They refer to a CBS News report noting that 38% of all foreclosures in the country were for rental properties, affecting 168,000 households.  A report by the Sarasota, Florida Herald Tribune estimated that more than 311,000 tenants nationwide have been evicted from homes this year after lenders took over the properties.  This has resulted in growing numbers of people utilizing social service agency services.  Massachusetts has seen a 33% increase in the number of families living in shelters just in the past year. In Atlanta, Georgia, 30% of all people coming into the Day Services Center daily are newly homeless. A food pantry in Concord, New Hampshire serves about 4,000 meals to over 800 people each month, double the rate from 2007 (p. 8). 


The report further notes that: “Of the 25 cities surveyed by the US Conference of Mayors for its annual Hunger and Homelessness Report, 19 reported an increase in homelessness in 2008. On average, cities reported a 12 percent increase. The lack of available shelter space leaves many homeless persons with no choice but to struggle to survive on the streets of our cities” (p. 8).


It could get worse, as a new report noted that during the second quarter of 2009 the rate of mortgage defaults rose to 13% nationwide, a new record (,0,4202530.story).



Not surprisingly, the cost of criminalizing poverty and homelessness is huge.  A study of the effectiveness of a downtown Minneapolis public safety initiative published in 2005 examined data on 1,891 individuals who had 2,691 police contacts during the time period examined – April 17, 2005 through August 30, 2005.  Among 33 homeless individuals who had four or more police contacts in the city’s newly established Safe Zone during the period of April 17, 2005 through June 17, 2005, the following costs were incurred:


• $876,741 for Hennepin County Jail Costs Since 1994

• $184,200 for Hennepin County Law Enforcement Costs Since 1994

• $140,251 for Hennepin County Court Costs Since 1985

• $2,651,732 Total Criminal Justice Related Costs (including $829,790 in Minnesota State Prison Costs Since 1991)



A study in San Francisco found that this city spent $9,847,027 on 56,567 “quality of life” citations between January 2004 and March 2008 that targeted homeless individuals for activities ranging from blocking the sidewalk to camping in the park (p. 21).



Both of these reports provide many excellent alternatives to using police powers to address the problem of poverty and homelessness.  These alternatives are being tested in cities all over the country with some good results reported so far.  Examples include:


·         Alternative to food sharing restrictions (Cleveland)

·         Downtown Street Team to reduce panhandling and homelessness (Daytona Beach)

·         “A Key Not a Card”  offering permanent housing immediately to people living on the street (Portland, OR)

·         1811 Eastlake Project supportive housing for 75 formerly homeless men and women living with chronic alcohol addiction (Seattle)


The report concludes with a summary of some noteworthy court cases.



Both reports are among several published by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.  Their web site is:



Barbara Ehrenreich (author of, among other books, Nickled and Dimed) wrote a 3-part series in the New York Times this summer on the subject of homelessness and poverty ( Among other things, she notes that people who apply for food stamps and other forms of assistance are often treated as if they are criminal suspects. She writes that “under a national program called Operation Talon, food stamp offices share applicants’ personal data with law enforcement agencies, making it hazardous for anyone who might have an outstanding warrant — for failing to show up for a court hearing on an unpaid debt, for example — to apply.”  In all likelihood more will fall into poverty and thus into the clutches of the legal system.  She writes: “For the not-yet-homeless, there are two main paths to criminalization — one involving debt, and the other skin color. Anyone of any color or pre-recession financial status can fall into debt, and although we pride ourselves on the abolition of debtors’ prison, in at least one state, Texas, people who can’t afford to pay their traffic fines may be made to “sit out their tickets” in jail.”


For children, the “zero tolerance” mentality often results in pushing them – and their families – further into poverty. “In New York City, a teenager caught in public housing without an ID — say, while visiting a friend or relative — can be charged with criminal trespassing and wind up in juvenile detention…a growing number of cities have taken to ticketing and sometimes handcuffing teenagers found on the streets during school hours.”


Look what else Ehrenreich discovered:


In Los Angeles, the fine for truancy is $250; in Dallas, it can be as much as $500 — crushing amounts for people living near the poverty level. According to the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, an advocacy group, 12,000 students were ticketed for truancy in 2008. Why does the Bus Riders Union care? Because it estimates that 80 percent of the “truants,” especially those who are black or Latino, are merely late for school, thanks to the way that over-filled buses whiz by them without stopping. I met people in Los Angeles who told me they keep their children home if there’s the slightest chance of their being late. It’s an ingenious anti-truancy policy that discourages parents from sending their youngsters to school.


The pattern is to curtail financing for services that might help the poor while ramping up law enforcement: starve school and public transportation budgets, then make truancy illegal. Shut down public housing, then make it a crime to be homeless. Be sure to harass street vendors when there are few other opportunities for employment. The experience of the poor, and especially poor minorities, comes to resemble that of a rat in a cage scrambling to avoid erratically administered electric shocks.


For more on the subject of the “school to prison pipeline” see a study by the Children’s Defense Fund called “America’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline” (


In what is becoming a classic in criminology, Jeff Reiman’s book The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison aptly summarizes the close connection between poverty (and inequality in general) and the criminal justice system.  At least 80% of all defendants in the criminal courts are “indigent” – meaning they are too poor to afford an attorney.  Most of those sitting in jail awaiting their day in court have little more than the shirt on their back and come from the most poverty-stricken parts of the city.


© 2009 by Randall G. Shelden. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.