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New Report Offers Constructive Alternatives to the Criminalization of Homelessness

April 09, 2012

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) released a new report, Searching Out Solutions: Constructive Alternatives to Criminalization (SOS), outlining alternatives for communities who implement local measures that criminalize “acts of living.” 

In response to the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act, USICH and the Access to Justice Initiative of the U.S. Department of Justice with support from the Department of Housing and Urban Development convened a summit on the development of constructive alternatives to the criminalization of homelessness. The summit participants shared information on effective and promising practices that serve as alternatives to criminalization and are improving the lives of individuals experiencing homelessness and the community as a whole.

The alternatives to criminalization policies identified in SOS were developed from the discussion at the summit and have been effective in reducing and preventing homelessness in several cities around the country.

“Searching Out Solutions proposes alternatives that can be relatively inexpensive to implement, result in overall cost-savings, and have a lasting positive impact on the quality of life for individuals experiencing homelessness and the larger community,” said USICH Executive Director Barbara Poppe. “In today’s economic climate, it is important for state, county, and local entities to invest in programs that work rather than spend money on activities that are unlikely to achieve the desired result.”

SOS identifies three solutions, examples of specific strategies and interventions, and their successful implementation in communities across the country.

  • The creation of comprehensive and seamless systems of care. In an effort to address gaps in service delivery, many local organizations partner with other service providers and government programs to combine housing and services that are supported by communitywide planning. These systems of care enable long-term reductions in street homelessness and connect individuals with benefits and services that improve stability.
  • Collaboration between law enforcement and behavioral health and social service providers. Collaboration between service providers and law enforcement regarding outreach to individuals and specialized crisis intervention training can limit the number of arrests for non-violent offenses. This partnership can also help link individuals experiencing street homelessness with supportive housing and services to help move individuals off the street permanently.
  • Alternative justice system strategies. Strategies that provide alternatives to prosecution and incarceration and that offer reentry planning for individuals who are returning to the community after interaction with the criminal justice system, have shown an increase in the likelihood that an individual experiencing homelessness will look for permanent housing and seek employment. This solution includes use of specialty courts, citation dismissal programs, holistic public defenders offices, and reentry programs.

Implementing alternatives to the criminalization of homelessness can adequately balance the rights and needs of all those affected by street homelessness in order to achieve the goal of ending it. USICH will continue to facilitate dialogue and investigate constructive alternatives to criminalization measures at all levels of government.

Read Searching Out Solutions