Cities in Washington state overwhelmingly deal with their homeless populations by criminalizing aspects of their daily lives, but it comes at a cost, while housing the homeless would bring significant savings, according to a new report from the Seattle University School of Law.
The researchers looked at municipal codes in 72 cities across the state. Since 2000, the number of ordinances aimed at the homeless rose by 50 percent, with cities finding 288 new ways to target them. “This fourteen year span has already eclipsed the previous forty-five years’ total enactment numbers, and the numbers are continuing to rise,” the report notes. The number of ordinances rose from just 31 in the 1970s to more than 100 in the last four years.
They also followed common themes: Nearly 80 percent enacted ordinances prohibiting or limiting the ability to sit, stand, or sleep in public. Another three-quarters banned urination or defecation in public, although the report notes that “cities typically fail to provide sufficient access to reasonable alternatives such as 24-hour restrooms and hygiene centers.” And nearly two-thirds outlaw “aggressive panhandling, while 22 percent criminalize storing personal property in public.”
Cities make use of these ordinances. Seattle was the most aggressive, with a total of 5,814 citations over the last five years, which comes to an average of three a day. Citations can come with a penalty that varies from anywhere from $250 to $5,000.
But they don’t just come at a cost for the homeless, who likely have few resources to pay those penalties. They also come at a cost for the cities themselves. The report estimates that just two cities, Seattle and Spokane, spent at least $3.7 million enforcing some of the ordinances over five years on policing efforts, arrests, adjudicating violations, and incarceration. “Although these figures are substantial, they still underestimate the total overall costs that these two cities spend on criminalizing homelessness,” the report notes. For example, most of the data doesn’t capture criminal violations, just civil infractions.
On the other hand, the report estimates that if the $3.7 million spent enforcing the ordinances were instead spent on housing for the homeless, it would save $2 million a year and more than $11 million over the course of five years.
The increase in the criminalization of homelessness in Washington state follows a national trend. Since 2009, 187 cities across the country have increased nearly every kind of law aimed at criminalizing the homeless, including bans on sleeping in public, sitting or lying down, or begging. But other places have already found out that spending money on housing the homeless instead of on police and emergency room interactions saves huge sums of money.