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Criminalizing homelessness has a human cost, researchers say

Interactions with police effects sleep and mental health
Posted at 10:55 AM, Aug 28, 2020

DENVER, Colo. – Living outside, having no place to rest your head, can take a toll.

Having to worry about if you might get hassled or arrested for sleeping makes it even worse.

“Frequently we see that through camping bans, through move along orders, or other ways that local law enforcement is able to enforce this type of policing on this community,” said Marisa Westbrook, a PhD student at the University of Colorado Denver.

She published research on the human costs of criminalizing homelessness.

“People are achieving very little sleep and only sleeping in short bursts and they’re particularly stressed about the potential encounters with law enforcement, not just the repercussions of actual encounters with law enforcement. People are then seeking out less visible areas and moving along towards areas were the maybe more vulnerable to assault or physical bodily threat,” Westbrook said.

On one street in Denver, more than a dozen tents were lined up. No one wanted to talk or even be recorded on camera, but some told us they felt abandoned by the system and that they’d had bad interactions with the police.

“Criminalizing homelessness, it generally means that police are arresting people who are sleeping outside or sitting outside or living outside for offenses that they have to commit because they have nowhere else to live,” said Nan Roman, the president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Roman says on any given night, there are more than half a million homeless people in the United States.

There are not enough shelter beds in the U.S. to meet the homeless population, no matter where you are. From Los Angeles to North Carolina, North Dakota to Chicago, there is simply nowhere for the homeless to go.

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty has been tracking the laws that criminalize homelessness since 2006. The most recent data says 33% of those cities prohibit camping in public citywide, 18% prohibit sleeping, 47% ban lying down and 39% ban living in vehicles.

“Criminalizing homelessness is not an effective strategy. It doesn’t solve the problem because you give someone a citation or you put them in jail overnight, but they leave the next day, they’re still homeless,” said Roman.

So, what can be done?

“The solutions that people need are long-term, stable, adequate housing,” said Westbrook.

It might seem obvious, but many groups say building more affordable housing is the most effective way to end homelessness.

According to the Coalition for the Homeless federal programs like Housing Choice Vouchers, also known as Section 8 housing, are the most cost-effective way to get people into homes.

“Provide people who are eligible by income and need it with rental assistance so that the market could address the affordable housing shortage,” said Roman.

And provide mental health services. Many mental health issues are exacerbated by homelessness.

“Folks are sleeping less because of their anxiety, waking up in the middle of the night, sleeping short bursts so that they can move along or move camp to make sure they aren’t exposing themselves to interactions with law enforcement,” said Westbrook.

Solutions can be complicated, expensive and not as simple as making arrests.