Saturday, January 29, 2011

Criminalizing Homelessness— A Violation of Human Rights?

If you've lived in Memphis for any length of time, you're bound to have participated in a discussion concerning the issue of the issue of homelessness in this city.

Many cities in the U.S. have some kind of anti-homeless ordinances and policies. Most of them prohibit certain behavior common among homeless people, thereby essentially criminalizing the lifestyle of homelessness. According to a recent survey of service providers in 50 of the largest U.S. cities, 86% of the cities surveyed had laws that prohibited or restricted begging, while 73% prohibited or restricted sleeping and/or camping. Over 33% of the cities surveyed have initiated crackdowns on homeless people, according to the survey respondents, and almost 50% of the cities have engaged in police "sweeps" in the past two years.

The following list includes some examples of actions that have been outlawed in various U.S. cities with the aim of criminalizing homelessness:

  • trespassing on rooftops
  • laying or sitting on a sidewalk in a way that blocks the path of a pedestrian or requires pedestrians to reroute their course
  • camping on private property without the express permission of the property owner
  • panhandling
  • taking a shopping cart off store property
  • setting down a backpack for more than ten minutes on any sidewalk
  • lying or sitting on any sidewalk in the city
  • shaving, bathing or washing clothing items in any public restrooms
  • sleeping anywhere in a vehicle
  • wandering abroad and begging or "going about in public or private ways for the purpose of begging or to receive alms"
  • lying or sitting down on a public sidewalk, or upon a blanket, chair, stool, or other object between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. in certain areas of the city

Although access to safe and secure housing seems to be only human rights issue concerning homeless people, homelessness is not just about housing. Through the above laws, our cities may be directly causing and/or aggravating the violation of the homeless person's right to an adequate standard of living, the right to education, the right to liberty and security of the person, the right to free movement, the right to privacy, the right to social security and the right to freedom from discrimination.

So what do you think? Do these laws effectively make it illegal to be homeless? Are the laws mentioned a direct or indirect violation of the inherent human rights of the homeless? Or are they a just and legal protection of private property and public peace? Which laws, specifically?



  1. It is so intriguing that the phrase," criminalizing homelessness" is used as if the presence of the homeless is a crime. The actions that some U.S. cities take to "criminalize homelessness" are only in place as to not disturb the normal culture of society. So to answer your third question, I see the listed actions as a way to protect public peace- though I do not find such actions against homelessness to be just. Those who are homeless should not considered to be guilty of violating basic societal peace but they should be helped, instead, to improve their life style rather than being punished. I am basing this viewpoint simply on what I have read in this blog post so it probably is a larger issue but those listed actions seem to be trying to create a more ideal society by pushing homelessness away from the center society through "criminalization."

  2. I agree with Manali that the issue of criminalzing certain actions typical of many homeless is broader than just screwing over people who are already downtrodden. It is the job of the society to look after all its citizens, not simply the ones at the bottom of the ladder. Everyone is entitled to that. Further, living in Memphis, I don't think I could function at night moving location to location without a few ordinances restricting excessive action on the part of homeless. Yes, the government should attempt to cultivate laws that potentiate growth and upward mobility, but one should also recognize that in a country that prides itself on being "free," the right to screw up unimpeded is indeed one subtext of that freedom. Homeless should be assisted when possible and not infringing on the rights of others, but their situation does not automatically entitle them to a social "get out of jail free card" beyond other citizens based on their circumstances.

  3. Homelessness is a horrible plight, and Memphis entertains many a wanderer. In our everyday lives we experience homelessness as marginal, there's always a bum asking for change. In the scheme of things, no, homeless people probably don't stimulate the economy, but they are as American as any of us. We must also refrain from the impulse that somehow they are responsible for their plight. Being homeless and jobless, these folks are on their own and really have no one to give a fuck about them.

    Ryley makes good points about why the laws may be necessary so that normal society is not impeded. Still, more must be done then sweeping them into whatever dingy corner or back alley we don't want to look at. Homelessness is a serious and growing problem. Its high time folks and government stopped hoarding money for whatever excuses of entitlement and realize that not only are the homeless Americans too, but that our nation is founded on unity, not marginalization of our downtrodden under the heavy wheels of capitalism.

  4. Ryley, I think you have established a solid position that considers both the side of the homeless as well as the other citizens of our country. I think that laws stating certain social obligations that concern being respectful of the public property is necessary within our communities. If these were not there, I feel there would be no standard for the ways in which the public areas would be treated. Although I feel that these laws are necessary, I also feel that to compensate there needs to be more social concern regarding the homelessness within these large cities. It is often hard for people to give money or time to people they don't feel deserve it, yet this is often not the case. There needs to be more social awareness of the normal people that end up homeless and on the street especially in our economic struggles. With public awareness and education on the different situations these people have undergone, our stereotypical impression of homeless people may be availed and more compassion will be shown towards the homeless within a community.

  5. I agree with Minali's critique of the phrase "criminalizing homelessness." I think that the phrase in itself connotes an idea of homelessness that is far from correct. As far as your question about the inherent human rights of the homeless, I do think that, while many of the laws listed above make it more difficult for the homeless to live in those places, I am not sure that they impede upon their inherent human rights. When talking about their right to "an adequate standard of living," I think a complicated discussion could arise. What is defined as "adequate" in this situation? What should we then do, as a part of the society who has this "adequate" standard of living to help push them towards that same standard? Do we have an obligation to do so? It needs to be considered whether some people end up homeless through less fault of their own, and are they then more deserving of help?

  6. Although these laws are seemingly directed at the homeless, most of them would also apply to people who have provided a legitimate shelter for themselves and can legally call some place "their" home. An individual would not need to be homeless to "trespass on rooftops," "camp on private property without the express permission of the property owner," or "take a shopping cart off store property." These actions may normally be associated with the homeless, but I imagine that there are numerous violations of these laws involving your average teenage hooligan or petty criminal. No citizen has the right to any of these actions, which is why I find it hard for the rights of the homeless to be violated in this particular situation.

    In addition, we may be getting ahead of ourselves if we accuse cities of "criminalizing" the homeless. There are many institutions within the city of Memphis (as well as all other major cities in the US) that provide both food and shelter for people without homes. If these laws are truly directed at the homeless and it is their rights alone which are violated, the fact that the city also provides for this group of people specifically should balance out some of the weight.

  7. Wow, I think that this is astounding! I had no idea there were such laws in place and I find it outrageous. I think that these laws are similar to those passed in Arizona in regards to checking hispanic people's identification. They are absolutely targeting only homeless people, as I am sure that I, being a home-owning citizen, could leave my backpack on a sidewalk, or shave in a public restroom without fear of being harassed by the authorities. This is astonishing.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.