Economy

Criminalizing Homelessness Can Now Cost Cities Federal Money

CREDIT: Shawn Davis

After arguing last month that local ordinances criminalizing people for being homeless are unconstitutional, the Obama administration will now tie federal funding to whether municipalities are cracking down on criminalization measures.

Every year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) gives out $1.9 billion in grants to local Continuums of Care, public-private partnerships that tackle homelessness in a specific area. These grants are doled out in a competitive process whereby applicants must fill out a lengthy questionnaire about how they plan to use the money, as well as their current policies.

Last week, though, HUD announced that it would begin asking applicants to describe the steps they are taking to reduce the criminalization of homelessness. Ordinances that criminalize homelessness, also known as “anti-vagrancy” or “quality of life” laws, include making it illegal to sit down on a sidewalk, ask passersby for spare change, or sleep in a public place. Applicants for the federal money will have to show they are engaging with local policymakers or law enforcement about criminalization policies, as well as implementing new community plans to ensure homelessness is not criminalized. Failing to combat such ordinances will hurt a Continuum of Care’s chances of winning new funds.

The change comes after the administration filed a brief in federal court arguing that criminalization violates the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, hailed the latest move. “We welcome the federal government’s direction of tax limited dollars to the places that will most effectively use that money to address homelessness,” Foscarinis said in a statement. She also noted that HUD is giving sufficient weight to criminalization policies that the question “in many cases could be the difference between receiving funding and not.”

The Obama administration has made a pattern of connecting federal funding to desired outcomes in localities. Its signature education achievement, Race to the Top, encouraged schools across the country to raise their standards by making it a prerequisite to receive more federal funding. Obamacare ties some hospital funding to how effectively they avoid preventable infections and patient re-admissions. Homeless advocates hope that connecting HUD funding to the fight against homeless criminalization will have a similar impact.

It would come at a time that these policies have been popping up at an alarming rate. A study this year from the UC Berkeley law school identified over 500 anti-homeless laws on the books in just 58 California cities, while researchers at the Seattle University School of Law found criminalization ordinances in Washington had risen over 50 percent since 2000.

Criminalization policies are problematic not only from a human rights perspective, but also because they’re costly and counterproductive. A new report from the California Homeless Youth Project argued that “saddling a young person with a criminal history impedes their efforts to obtain a job, housing, safety net resources, and education, including both secondary and post-secondary education.” Criminalizing homelessness also hurts taxpayers. When accounting for law enforcement and emergency health care costs, numerous studies have found that leaving homeless people on the streets winds up costing taxpayers more than three times as much as simply giving them housing and supportive services.