The inhumane criminalization of homelessness won’t solve the problem

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Body language from the U.S. Supreme Court suggests cities could soon criminalize the homeless as a way to address the growing problem of outdoor encampments. No one wants to be homeless, and everyone agrees something must be done — but inhumane approaches such as these won’t solve America’s housing crisis.  

Viewing homeless people as criminals for having nowhere to go reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what we need to do to address a system that’s failed our country’s most needy constituency.  

A prior ruling by the 9th Circuit effectively burdens municipalities to provide enough shelter beds to accommodate the region’s entire homeless community. Only when the number of homeless exceeds bed availability, the ruling found, can law enforcement pursue action against them for sleeping in public.  

That’s a heavy responsibility for cities to shoulder. The 9th Circuit case is being challenged and based on the tenor of last week’s oral arguments by the Supreme Court majority, it may be overturned. 

Leaders of every political persuasion are grappling with how to handle homeless encampments in their communities. Over 650,000 people experienced homelessness last year, up 12 percent from the year before. Increasing rates of homelessness result from both economic and policy issues that range from a lack of affordable housing to structural racism. 

Nearly a third include families with children, and over 20 percent are known to struggle with serious mental illness.   

We shouldn’t be surprised. Homelessness is a housing issue, pure and simple. Housing costs are out of reach for many Americans, and the number of migrants entering the U.S. with no place to live has pushed some cities to their limits.   

The Supreme Court’s 2021 rejection of Biden’s attempt to extend a COVID-era moratorium preventing landlords from evicting renters forced many low-income Americans out of their homes, exacerbating an already untenable problem. Even more suffering for the homeless could be on the horizon.  

City and federal officials have historically focused on treating the conditions of homelessness rather than addressing its pathways. Issuing citations or pushing the homeless down the road to another jurisdiction is akin to giving an aspirin to someone with a broken foot.  

The criminalization of the homeless is neither the answer nor a sustainable solution. The epidemic demands a national response and a whole-of-government policy. 

There is good news: a proven model already exists to reduce homelessness in America. It just takes a willingness on the part of Congress to fund it and make it a priority.  

It’s a program called Housing First. 

Designed to help America’s veterans, the central premise of the joint initiative by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is that everyone — regardless of background, mental health status or addiction history — has the right to shelter. It provides services and support to ensure veterans receive the help they need to lead dignified lives.  

Housing First doesn’t treat the symptoms of homelessness; instead, it asks, “Why is this person homeless,” and maps a plan to support the individual. “Everyone is ‘housing ready,’” HUD says. “Sobriety, compliance in treatment, or even criminal histories are not necessary to succeed in housing.” 

The initiative takes a human-centered approach to help homeless veterans heal and get back on their feet. It doesn’t view them as criminals who should be penalized for not having a place to call home.   

The program proudly states there are no barriers to receiving permanent housing in the program. And studies show it works, especially for those facing mental health challenges. A HUD analysis found the initiative resulted in “long-term housing stability, improved physical and behavioral outcomes and reduced use of crisis services such as emergency departments, hospitals, and jails.”  

Much like the migrant emergency, municipalities can’t be expected to solve the homeless crisis on their own. Mayor Karen Bass of Los Angeles made fixing homelessness a priority of her campaign, yet questions remain about the long-term sustainability of her administration’s efforts because the problem is far too costly for the city alone to handle.   

Cities and states need federal help to combat this national problem. Congress must step forward and do its part. The homeless encampments existing in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol should serve as a daily reminder that the nation is counting on them to act.  

Some compassion by our nation’s chief justices would be nice too.  

Lyndon Haviland, DrPH, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy. 

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