Eduardo Jorge Anzorena, SJ

Homelessness and Poverty in America:
Over the past year, over 3 million men, women, and children were homeless. In 1995 the demand for shelter increased by 11%. This demand is still increasing. More recently, in 2001, the demand for shelter rose 13%, according to a survey released in December 2001 by the U.S. Conference of Mayors on hunger and homelessness.
And even more Americans are at risk of homelessness. A January 2001 report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found that 4.9 million low-income American households had worst case housing needs, paying more than 50% of their income on rent, while HUD estimates that this figure should be no more than 30%.
A missed paycheck, a health crisis, or an unpaid bill pushes poor families over the edge into homelessness.
The homeless population is diverse. According to the 27 cities surveyed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, including Boston, Burlington, Charleston, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Louisville, Nashville, New Orleans, Norfolk, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland, Providence, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, San Diego, Santa Monica, Seattle, St. Louis, St. Paul, Trenton and Washington, D.C., the homeless population can be classified by the following demographic information:

- 20% have no work.
- 40% are single men.
- 14% are single women.
- 4% are unaccompanied children.
- 40% are families with children.
- 67% are single parent families.
- 39% are mentally disabled.
- 11% are veterans.
- 34% are drug or alcohol dependent.
- 50% are African-American
- 35% are White
- 35% are White
- 12% are Hispanic
- 2% are Native American
- 1% is Asian
To end homelessness, new policies must be implemented to address its fundamental causes:
When I received the call I could reconfirm inside myself the urge, "since you finished your years of formation you offered yourself to me. Come to this place with the same heart".
* Lack of Affordable Housing: Today, fewer than 30% of those eligible for low-income housing receive it. According to HUD's January 2001 report, the number of units affordable to low-income households dropped by 1.14 million between 1997 and 1999.
* Lagging Incomes: Incomes for the poorest Americans have not kept pace with rising housing costs. Millions of workers are shut out of the private housing market.
* Slashed Services and Government Assistance: At the same time earned income for the poor was decreasing, assistance programs were severely cut. Over 40% of homeless persons are eligible for disability benefits, but only 11% actually receive them. Most are eligible for food stamps, but only 37% receive them. Most families are eligible for welfare benefits, but only 52% receive them. Some 12% of children are denied access to school, despite federal law.
Opinion polls show that the majority of Americans support solutions to end homelessness. To achieve this goal, vigorous advocacy is needed.

The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), established in 1984, is the oldest national organization founded to advocate on behalf of people who are homeless. NCH is comprised of local and statewide homeless coalitions, service providers, faith-based organizations, grassroots activists and people experiencing homelessness. The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP), established in 1989, works toward solutions that address the causes of homelessness, placing homelessness in the larger context of poverty. To this end, the NLCHP employs litigation, legislation, and education of the public as critical strategies.
NCH and the NLCHP, nearly 20 years ago, began to hear reports from communities throughout the United States that local responses to increasing homelessness were the arrest and police harassment of individuals experiencing homelessness through the selective enforcement of existing laws and the passage of laws targeting people experiencing homelessness. This report is the latest effort to document unconstitutional local practices that, when analyzed in the aggregate, reveal a national trend of criminalization of people experiencing homelessness. The NLCHP has previously published four such reports.
Local governments often attempt to regulate visible homelessness as a result of pressure by downtown business interests who are unaware of alternative responses that address root causes of poverty and homelessness. Local police and city parks and sanitation workers are dispatched to "clean up" downtown areas with little or no training on what local resources exist or how to work effectively with people who may be experiencing mental health, chemical addiction or chronic medical issues.
This report is the latest in the effort to document local practices which have, when challenged, often been modified or stopped and when litigated, have often been determined in both local and federal courts of law to be unconstitutional. This report also highlights organizing victories and puts forth recommendations based on successes in communities throughout the country, during the past 20 years of our collective experience.

Fifty seven (57) communities in twenty nine (29) states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico were surveyed, using a standard survey instrument developed by NCH's Civil Rights Work Group and the NLCHP. The survey was conducted by the staff and volunteers of the National Homeless Civil Rights Organizing Project which works with local grassroots advocates, organizers and service providers to ensure the basic constitutional rights of people experiencing homelessness by building power for homeless people and their allies. Many of those interviewed are engaged at the local level in monitoring arrest and policing patterns as they impact people experiencing homelessness. All of those interviewed for this report have daily contact with people experiencing homelessness, and some interviewed are currently homeless. This report represents the most substantive attempt to date to document how criminalization impacts people experiencing homelessness in local communities throughout the United States.
Taken in the aggregate, these reports point to an unacceptable pattern and practice of unconstitutional police practices with national scope.

The passage of laws that target behaviors associated with the state of being homeless, such as sleeping, bathing, sitting, cooking, lying down, urinating, or storing personal belongings in public spaces are unconstitutional because collectively, they target people based on their housing status, not for behaviors that, in and of themselves are criminal. These laws and practices are designed to criminalize homelessness without mentioning the words "homeless" or "housing" because they target behaviors most likely to be conducted by people experiencing homelessness.
The following report will demonstrate that people experiencing homelessness are targeted in a discriminatory manner for conducting what is generally considered private behavior in public spaces because they lack the privacy, housing or even shelter in which to conduct them.

The systematic abuse of the civil rights of homeless people is used as a strategy to remove homeless people from sight by local governments and private business districts.
Community revitalization efforts have led to increased incidences of policing to remove homeless people from gentrified areas and areas frequented by tourists.
Business Improvement Districts often hire private security guards to restrict access to areas of the community based on economic profiling.
Existing laws are selectively enforced, and new laws created with the goal of moving people experiencing homelessness out of certain areas.
Access to public space for people experiencing homelessness is being restricted: public parks are being designated as "family parks" disallowing individuals without children; communities invest public money to insert bars in the middle of park benches to prohibit people from lying down on them, and people are being banned from designated neighborhoods altogether in some cities, from Athens (GA) to Cincinnati to Portland (OR).
Sweeps before sporting or political events are cited in dozens of communities interviewed.
People experiencing homelessness report incidences of police brutality in communities from Jacksonville (FL), to Sioux Falls, (SD).
Sweeps before sporting or political events are cited in dozens of communities interviewed.
People experiencing homelessness report incidences of police brutality in communities from Jacksonville (FL), to Sioux Falls, (SD).
Fines from $50 to $2,000 are being imposed on the poorest of our communities because they lack housing, and without the ability to pay, fines result in jail time.
Police resort to waking up people who are sleeping outside with nowhere to go, ordering them to "move along" in communities, from Valdosta (GA), to New York City.
100% of communities surveyed lack enough shelter beds to meet demand and housing costs are out of reach for many, including the working poor.
The number of people experiencing homelessness has increased due to a shortfall in housing units available for the very poor on the private market and in the public sector.
More than 37% of those people seeking shelter are unable to access it, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 2001.
There is no state or local jurisdiction in the country where minimum wage income can afford HUD's fair market rents for housing.
Declining availability of income supports like TANF and SSI contribute to increased homelessness.
Families that transition from welfare to work still do not make enough to afford housing in their communities.
The lack of access to health care, including mental health and substance abuse treatment, exacerbates homelessness, and people living with mental health issues are disproportionately impacted by criminalization in many communities.
The lack of access to health care, including mental health and substance abuse treatment, exacerbates homelessness, and people living with mental health issues are disproportionately impacted by criminalization in many communities.
People needing or receiving treatment or medication are reportedly unlikely to continue to receive it in jail.
Nationally 16% of inmates in jails and prisons have a diagnosed mental illness. That number is four times the number of Americans in state mental hospitals.
The Los Angeles County jail is the largest mental health facility in the United States.
Police are using deadly force to subdue mentally ill homeless persons.
Communities are diverting scarce resources from solutions for homelessness to criminalization.
The cost of arresting, processing and jailing homeless people is higher than the cost of creating housing.
Although few communities have committed resources to tracking arrests by housing status, in Atlanta alone, 18,000 to 19,000 people were cited for "quality of life" violations annually, and 43,000 were cited in one year in San Francisco.
People experiencing homelessness in Baltimore spend an average of 35 days per year in jail.
Criminalization of homelessness leads to increased barriers to accessing shelter and housing due to a criminal record.
People experiencing homelessness often plead "no contest" instead of "not guilty" to get off with time served, due to lack of legal representation and a lack of knowledge of their rights.
Replicable models are being developed in communities nationwide as a result of partnerships between people who are homeless, their allies and local government.
Police departments have teamed up with outreach workers and service providers to create innovative models in communities from Sacramento to Memphis.
Legal victories in communities from Portland (OR), to Austin to Cleveland to Miami set important national precedent that can inform local advocacy.
Although no precedent is set, settlements in class action lawsuits brought by homeless people are often more flexible than judicial decisions, such as in Richardson v. Atlanta.
Litigation combined with grassroots organizing is more effective than relying on the court system.
Grassroots organizing has effectively changed anti-homeless city policies from Baltimore to Portland (OR) to San Francisco.

Educate people experiencing homelessness, and their allies, about their constitutional rights.
People experiencing homelessness must be educated about their civil rights and have access to legal representation when those rights are violated on an individual and collective basis.
People experiencing homelessness must be involved in public policy decision-making at the local level.
Efforts to ensure that the civil rights of people experiencing homelessness are respected must link with mainstream civil rights organizations.
Immediate support for local monitoring projects and data collection activities to challenge local abuses, support local best practices, and building a national resource data bank.
Police should be required to document the housing status of each person they arrest or to whom they issue citations.
A central tracking system that is independent of the local police force should be established to track patterns of abuse and harassment.
Citizen review boards should be established and include representation of people experiencing homelessness, and be charged with reviewing all arrests and citations of people experiencing homelessness.
Local data should be forwarded to a statewide and national entity charged with monitoring police practices in relation to people experiencing homelessness.
Training should be required of all police officers on homelessness and civil rights as relevant to people experiencing homelessness.
Police should contact outreach workers to assist with interventions with people experiencing homelessness.
Best practices should be documented and distributed to police departments, local governments, grassroots, and advocacy organizations.
Federal action is required to investigate patterns and practices of the civil rights violations of people experiencing homelessness.
Adequate federal funding to create housing affordable for the very poor will address the primary root cause of homelessness, thereby eliminating unconstitutional laws and practices.
Pass federal protected class resolution based on socio-economic status.
Voting is a right. Voter registration should not be based on housing status.
Hate crimes legislation must be passed at the federal level and fully enforced.
Ensure the rights of homeless children to mainstream education and other public services.
Litigation around selective enforcement, zoning regulations and housing exclusion practices must be aggressively pursued.
Federal funding to local communities that criminalize homelessness should be suspended.
Combine litigation with grassroots organizing and public education efforts.
All people experiencing homelessness who are arrested must be advised of their right to counsel and given the phone number of an advocacy organization to track and independently document the arrest.
Local police-watch projects should be fully funded so that people experiencing homelessness and their allies can independently document police intervention.
Develop, document, disseminate and replicate successful organizing models.

Public education activities around cost of incarceration vs. housing, is critical.
Public support for long-term solutions revolves around public education. Investment in adequate local community resources depends upon public support.
[For further information contact NLCHP] email: or
=====     Copyright ®1997-2007 Jesuit Social Center All Rights Reserved     =====