Cities across the U.S. have adopted ordinances against “unlawful camping” in an attempt to prevent citizens from sleeping in parks, vacant parking lots, beaches, sidewalks or other public spaces. Anti-camping laws have drawn immense criticism from lawyers, community groups and even the federal government, who all agree that such ordinances are designed to criminalize homelessness.
Proponents may say that unlawful camping laws keep communities safe, but safe for who? Certainly not the homeless. Anyone arrested for not having somewhere better to sleep gets a night in jail before being released back onto the streets, where they still have nowhere to go. Only now they have a criminal record, which makes fining a job more difficult, and they are stuck with fines that they cannot pay. Homeless people obviously can’t afford attorneys, so public defenders are also burdened by these cases. Lots of resources get wasted on a policy that accomplishes nothing except making life even harder than it already is for the homeless.
Unlawful camping laws include creative wording to criminalize homelessness. For example, the anti-camping ordinance in Everett, Washington prohibits the use of tents, sleeping bags and blankets in public spaces. Of course, families having picnics on blankets in the middle of the day aren’t being harassed by police; however, homeless citizens are almost always either asked or forced to leave.
No one sleeps in a public park for fun. Were there plenty of better alternatives such as more homeless shelters and drug treatment programs in Everett and other places, anti-camping laws might make more sense. Unfortunately, as of now, Everett has just one shelter for homeless adult men. Because of limited space and high demand, the shelter often uses a lottery system to decide who can spend the night. Everyone else has no where to go except for the streets or jail.
Fortunately, some people are speaking out against the criminalization of homelessness. Judge Timothy Odell has called Everett’s resources for the homeless “grossly inadequate,” and he went as far to call unlawful camping laws unconstitutional. The U.S. Department of Justice actually interceded in a court challenge to a similar law in Boise, Idaho. The DOJ agreed with Judge Odell that enforcing unlawful camping laws is cruel and unusual punishment, which is forbidden by the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment. The announcement convinced one city, Vancouver, Washington, to repeal it’s unlawful camping ordinance.
There are many ways for cities to address homelessness and poverty. Subsidizing shelters, sponsoring job fairs and mandating mixed-income housing for new construction projects are all good ways to start. A recent Vanderbilt University study suggests that simply giving homeless people vouchers for housing is the most effective and cost-efficient way to prevent homelessness.
Sadly, laws that make homelessness a crime continue to proliferate. To be clear, unlawful camping laws are not about camping; they are meant to keep homeless people out of sight and out of mind. City governments have an obligation to protect all of their citizens, not just those with homes, so they should strive to better serve society’s most vulnerable members.