Commentary: Is homelessness a criminal act?


Community residents should keep a sharp eye on what their elected officials are doing. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty recently published a study entitled; “No Safe Place.” They collected data from 187 different cities in the U.S. and found that many of these cities had passed laws that prohibit:

  1. Camping in public (64 cities)
  2. Sitting or lying down in certain public places (99 cities)
  3. Sleeping in a car (81 cities)
  4. Sharing food with homeless people (17 cities)
  5. Begging in public (142 cities)
  6. Loitering, loafing and vagrancy (67 cities)

Those arrested and convicted of violating these laws accumulate a criminal record that makes their life even more difficult. Of course many law-enforcement officers are, understandably, reluctant to enforce these laws. That can translate to sporadic and/or discriminatory enforcement.

In Portland, Maine it is illegal to stand on a median strip. The law was justified as a solution to a public safety threat for people asking for alms and, according to a city council member, for motorists as well. A federal judge has declared the law unconstitutional but the city is appealing. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could solve the problems associated with homelessness by passing laws?

However there is some good news. The Houston Police Department has a homeless outreach program. Sgt. Steve Wick who heads the program says: “You can’t tell a person that’s been living on the street for a long time ‘You need to do this, this, this and this in order to get off the street—because that can’t do it…If you don’t kind of help them through the whole process, they’re just kind of stuck.’ “ Officers and a caseworker guide Houston’s homeless through the confusing bureaucracy helping them secure the services they need. Many of these homeless folks have mental health and/or substance abuse problems and are incapable of dealing effectively with the bureaucracy. Studies have shown that programs of this nature are cost-effective since fewer resources are required than for incarceration, emergency health services, or hospitalization for long-neglected health issues.

The great Jewish philosopher and jurist Maimonides had an interesting take on charity: “He who gives alms to a poor man with a hostile countenance and with his face averted to the ground, loses his merit and forfeits it…He should rather give with a friendly countenance and joyfully. He should commiserate with the recipient in his distress…” Maimonides further taught that the alms giver must identify with the alms seeker’s plight and psychological state including his or her desperate and humiliating situation.

Are we working to address the homeless problem or are we just averting our eyes?

— By David Gross


3 Replies to “Commentary: Is homelessness a criminal act?”

  1. Thank you Mr. Gross for this editorial on homelessness. There are many homeless and mentally ill sitting in our jails all over the country right now. Many of these jails are for profit and make gains from their incarceration rates. That this has become a business is shamefull. We as a people can do better. We need to do better. We all have it in us to reach out and help lift these people up. The homeless are STUCK in a vicious circle.


  2. Thank you for advocating for people living without homes. They are still people. Criminalizing poverty does nothing to help these people who are our sisters and brothers. We need to act with compassion and provide the support, social work and mental health care. Seattle has a program called LEAD where police officers work with social workers to present alternatives to jail to people living on the street. It’s been a successful program that seeks to rehab and support people struggling with homelessness, drug addiction and any mental illness instead of the failed system of incarceration that provides punishment without compassionate care.


  3. Thanks you to Tere Ryder and Natalia Flor for your comments and interest. My understanding of the LEAD program is that it helps people who have been arrested for low level drug infractions and for prostitution to get them help and support to turn their lives around rather than serve time in jail. This is a very worthwhile effort but doesn’t address the problem of homelessness directly, especially family homelessness.


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