USICH Blog

04/15/2014 - Criminalizing Homelessness is Costly, Ineffective, and Infringes on Human Rights

By Amy Sawyer, Regional Coordinator, USICH

Without housing options, people often are forced to rely on culverts, public parks, streets, and abandoned buildings as places to sleep and carry out daily activities that many people in our country reserve for the privacy of their own home. As communities recognize and struggle with the fact that people without homes often live in public spaces, multiple strategies arise. Unfortunately, many of these strategies include policies that criminalize homelessness.

Penalizing people experiencing homelessness tends only to exacerbate mental and physical health problems, create or increase criminal records, and result in the loss of key personal documents that can make it even harder for people to access the housing, services and supports they need to exit homelessness.

Policies that criminalize homelessness are costly and rarely result in housing stability for individuals and families or an overall decrease in homelessness in the community.

Recognizing the importance of finding alternatives to criminalization, USICH partnered with the Department of Justice, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and national and community representatives to better understand what alternatives exist for communities. As a result, we published “Searching Out Solutions” in 2010, a resource that provides perspective and examples from communities that focus on housing to address homelessness, rather than less effective and costly policies that criminalize homelessness.

More recently, USICH convened a conversation to further explore how the Federal government can better support communities to protect human rights and eliminate criminalization of homelessness. This conversation not only sharpened our focus on what was happening and where potential areas for action were, but it also brought in the voice of an important national partner, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. The National Law Center works with a network of agencies and communities to illuminate the issue of human rights, offering helpful tools and support for communities seeking to eliminate criminalization of homelessness.

The Department of State also participated. As part of the the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights, overseen by the Human Rights Committee, State had been asked to report out to the United Nations on the issue. In March of this year, State brought a delegation to Geneva, Switzerland to present on key human rights issues, including what the U.S. is doing to eliminate the criminalization of homelessness. In Geneva, representatives from State, along with Kevin Washburnof the Department of the Interior, and Mayor Ralph Becker of Salt Lake City provided detail about what we are doing as a nation to eliminate the criminalization of homelessness.

It is clear that our leaders, as well as leaders in the international community, are invested in ensuring every person is treated with dignity and respect. It is clear that human rights must be at the center of every aspect of planning and implementation

We will continue to explore, learn, and share from the community strategies that end homelessness instead of criminalize it. We invite you to do the same, and if your community is struggling in this area, we urge you reach out to your peers, national partners, and to us. We are your partners for success and for human rights.

To learn more about this, visit our Human Rights and Alternatives to Criminalization webpage.

Amy Sawyer is a regional coordinator with USICH based out of Philadelphia, PA.

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