The Criminalization of Homelessness: How Are the Rights of the Homeless Community Infringed Upon by American Society?

(“Homelessness Statistics.”).


The homeless community has been unfairly prosecuted in the United States for centuries, although it has not gained much attention. Starting in the 1700s, vagrancy laws, laws that made many of the behaviors of people in poverty illegal, first started to gain popularity in America (O’Brassill-Kulfan, “The United States’ Long History of Criminalizing Homelessness.”). Punishment for violating these laws was imprisonment in jail from anywhere between a few days to several months. Eventually in 1972, vagrancy laws were deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, but unfortunately, this did not stop the creation of similar laws under different names (O’Brassill-Kulfan, “The United States’ Long History”). Throughout the 1900s, the Supreme Court continued to challenge the constitutionality of some of the laws which criminalized the homeless (Goluboff).

Unfortunately, in the present day, the treatment of the homeless community has not improved very much. The homeless population, as well as the criminalization of homelessness are increasing (Bauman, “Housing Not Handcuffs 2019”). Current laws which criminalize the homeless cause homeless people to be routinely harassed, cited, and even arrested for basic human behaviors, such as sitting, lying down, and sleeping in public (Boden and Messman). With the criminalization of homelessness on the rise, luckily there are some widespread efforts being made to combat it. The two efforts I address are a homeless bill of rights and challenging the constitutionality of antihomeless laws (Speri; Sarma and Brand).

My Interest

To learn more about my interest and the background information of the criminalization of homelessness, please click here.

What You Need to Know

Decades Without Shelter: The Criminalization of Homelessness Throughout History

The criminalization of homelessness has been an issue in America since colonial times. Vagrancy laws, laws which made many of the actions of homeless, poor, and transient people illegal, were the most common manifestations of this issue (Yeamans). Town communities disliked and criminalized vagrants not just because of their low economic status, but also because society viewed vagrancy and poverty as an unfortunate moral condition (Childers). 

As slavery gained a greater foothold in America, vagrancy laws began to be used more often to target vagrants of color, especially runaway slaves. Free African Americans were almost always suspected to be runaway slaves who were fleeing to the North. Although some of these African Americans were runaway slaves, some of them were truly free American Americans who were wrongly accused (O’Brassill-Kulfan, “Vagabonds and Paupers: Race and Illicit Mobility in the Early Republic.”). 


Free African Americans and runaway slaves were both a large portion of the homeless population. During the 1820s, at the Philadelphia Almshouse, a house which was built to aid people in poverty, 25% of people aided were African American. Furthermore, 48% of people in Philadelphia’s debtor and vagrant prison were African American (O’Brassill-Kulfan, “Vagabonds and Paupers”).

(“Bettering House – Philadelphia Almshouse.”).

In postbellum America, hateful attitudes and vagrancy laws specific to homeless African Americans became even more widespread. The abolishment of slavery increased the mobility of African Americans who traveled to search for work. The South viewed these African Americans as transients, and disapproved of their newfound mobility (O’Brassill-Kulfan, “Vagabonds and Paupers”). Southern vagrancy laws were used to force African Americans into peonage, or debt servitude. Many people did not see an issue with this unjust practice, due to the popular beliefs of the time. Religion governed the minds of many people, so a common belief was, “No man is in mischief when he is at work. It is only the idle hands that Satan finds mischief for” (“VAGRANCY LAWS.”).

(Forde, Kathy Roberts, and Bryan Bowman).

To read my full essay about the history of the criminalization of homelessness, please click here.

Guilty or Not?: Serving Justice for the Homeless Community

In the United States, it is estimated that 3.5 million people experience homelessness per year (Bauman, “From Wrongs to Rights”). Not only is the homeless population increasing, but so is the criminalization of homelessness (Bauman, “Housing Not Handcuffs 2019”). Americans pride themselves for living in a country which promises that “all people have the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” However, for the homeless these rights are nowhere near a guarantee (Bauman, “From Wrongs to Rights”). Homeless people are criminalized through antihomeless laws, which make the everyday behaviors of homeless people illegal (Aykanian and Lee). The Western Regional Advocacy Project conducted a survey on 1,298 homeless people to discover how many homeless people surveyed had been harassed, cited, or arrested for sleeping, loitering, or lying or sitting down in public (Boden and Messman).


With the criminalization of homelessness on the rise, a widespread effort to combat it is a homeless bill of rights. This bill addresses the essential rights of the homeless, like the right to access toilets, to eat and share food in public, and to sleep in parked cars and public parks (Speri). In 2012, Rhode Island was the first state to pass a homeless bill of rights. This motivated the 2013 passages of homeless bills of rights in Illinois and Connecticut. In 2013, California proposed its own homeless bill of rights, but it was too ambitious and was rejected (Speri).


For a homeless bill of rights to be passed, there must be strong support from legislators who will sponsor the bill. For example, the Rhode Island Homeless Bill of Rights was primarily successful due to the support it had from former Senator John Tassoni. Tassoni had the bill assigned to his own committee, which successfully passed the bill. However, if the bill had been voted on by a Judiciary Committee instead, there is a fair chance that the bill would not have passed (Bauman, “From Wrongs to Rights”).

Despite Rhode Island passing a homeless bill of rights, which was an important victory, the bill is pretty ineffective. In the initial stages of the bill, there was more focus on the right of food and housing. Unfortunately, this section of the bill was removed because advocates thought that it made the bill too radical and would cause it not pass (Grovum). The lack of food and shelter guarantees are what primarily make the bill ineffective. Despite this, Rhode Island’s Homeless Bill of Rights did have some positive effects. The bill’s main success is that it spread awareness about the criminalization of homelessness, and motivated other states to propose their own homeless bill of rights (Grovum).

(“Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless.”).

Another popular effort to combat the criminalization of homelessness is challenging the constitutionality of antihomeless laws. Most antihomeless laws could be declared unconstitutional under the First, Eighth, or Fourteenth Amendments. In the 2018 Martin v. City of Boise case in the Ninth Circuit, two ordinances banning sleeping and camping in public were declared unconstitutional due to the Eighth Amendment, which states that “cruel and unusual punishments” cannot be inflicted (“EIGHTH AMENDMENT – CRIMINALIZATION OF HOMELESSNESS.”; “Eighth Amendment.”). The judge declared that any ordinance which makes “sitting, sleeping, or lying outside on public property for homeless individuals” illegal, unconstitutionally criminalizes homelessness (“EIGHTH AMENDMENT – CRIMINALIZATION OF HOMELESSNESS.”).

(Fearon, Gregory, and Adrienne Lauby).

In 2011, in the Anderson v. City of Portland case, an ordinance which prohibited camping was declared unconstitutional under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. It was declared that the ordinance violated the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits the criminalization of status, since the homeless status of the plaintiff was involuntary (Hansel). The ordinance was also declared unconstitutional for violating the rights of the Fourteenth Amendment, which are “the rights of travel, movement, freedom, and equal protection” (Hansel). Cases like these have shown that suing for the unconstitutionality of antihomeless laws is one of the most effective and successful ways to prevent the criminalization of homelessness (“EIGHTH AMENDMENT – CRIMINALIZATION OF HOMELESSNESS.”). 

(Dos Santos).

To read my complete present day essay on the criminalization of homelessness, please click here.

For Now

Moving Forward: How You Can Make a Change

1.) Lobbying. An effective way to help prevent the criminalization of homelessness is lobbying. An individual could lobby to challenge the constitutionality of antihomeless laws or for a homeless bill of rights. Majority of antihomeless policies could be found unconstitutional under the First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments (Sarma and Brand). If these laws are declared unconstitutional they will be repealed. To learn more about the unconstitutionality of laws which criminalize homelessness visit: Another cause you could lobby for is the establishment of a homeless bill of rights within the state you live in. Establishing a homeless bill of rights would help end the criminalization of homelessness by instating laws which protect the basic rights of homeless people. Currently, the only states that have a homeless bill of rights are Rhode Island, Illinois, and Connecticut (Speri). To learn more about the homeless bill of rights and how to get involved, specifically in California, visit:

2.) Hunger & Homeless Awareness Week. Participating in this week is an effective way to spread awareness and educate more people about the issues of hunger and homelessness, like the criminalization of homelessness. To participate you can host, organize, volunteer, donate, or attend a Hunger & Homeless Awareness Week within your own community. During this week, “educational, service, fundraising, and advocacy events,” which address the issues of hunger and homelessness will take place (“Join the Movement to End Hunger and Homelessness.”). This year, Hunger & Homeless Awareness Week takes place from November 15-22. There are events across the nation, so finding one close to you should not be too difficult (“Join the Movement”). To learn more about and register for a local event visit:

What Society Can Do: Macro Level Solutions

1.) Collaboration. A partnership between social services and law enforcement, either on a municipal or national level, could decrease the unjust arrests of homeless people. Social services and law enforcement could collaborate to create new systems which divert the homeless from the criminal justice system. Educational programs could be also be created that teach law enforcement about people experiencing homelessness. This would improve interactions between the homeless and law enforcement, leading to less unjust criminalization (Aykanian and Lee). Lastly, programs could be created to connect homeless people recently out of the jail to needed services. These services could help the homeless with obtaining employment, housing, and government subsidies (Sarma and Brand). 

2.) Prevention. One way to stop the criminalization of homelessness is to stop homelessness in general. This is a difficult task, but one of the most effective solutions to homelessness is the prevention of housing crises. Housing crises often occur when there is a lack of affordable housing, which leads to homelessness (“Prevent Homelessness.”). A way to get ahead of a housing crisis is to establish policies, which focus on providing enough affordable housing, as well as increasing frequency of housing status assessments. If the amount of accessible affordable housing increases, homelessness will decrease. Frequent housing status assessments on affordable housing units are vital. These assessments identify at-risk households. Knowing that a house is at-risk is very important, because the sooner it is discovered, the sooner the owner of the house can seek out supportive services and resources to address the state of their home. If these services are not quickly sought out, the crisis will only get worse and the owner could potentially lose their home (“Prevent Homelessness.”).

Works Cited


Thank you very much for reading my webpage! In the comments section below, could you please provide feedback about how viable and constructive you think my solutions would be. Also, if you have any ideas for solutions, please feel free to comment them too!

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  1. April 23, 2020 by Corrie Martin

    Hello, Lindsay! Thank you for this incredibly comprehensive overview of this issue, which is not often analyzed within its historical context of racism and the deliberate targeting of working class people and communities of color! I especially appreciated your discussion of legal and judicial action at the national and state levels in Rhode Island. One suggestion I have is that your proposed solutions (in themselves well-reasoned) are also disconnected from the important historical and contemporary contexts of racialized discriminatory state actions targeting people and communities of color. Do you think your proposed solutions could entail addressing this racist agenda, or perhaps another strategy is altogether needed?

    • April 24, 2020 by Lindsay Coupe

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful feedback! My solutions were more focused on the present part of the issue, but proposing possible solutions which would address the connection between race and homelessness is an intriguing idea. I think that my solutions could possibly address this racist agenda. However, I feel like new solutions specifically addressing this deeper issue could be more effective.

  2. April 25, 2020 by Katie

    Hello! Great job on your project. Your research was super thorough and interesting.

    • April 26, 2020 by Lindsay Coupe

      Thank you so much!

  3. April 25, 2020 by Artemisia

    Hi Lindsay, I really enjoyed reading your web page. It was very rich in information, history, and statistics, especially on how the vagrancy laws were really more of a way to suppress poor people of color. I had always been aware of the homeless problem in the US, but I had not known that antihomelessness laws were still in effect and about the efforts being made to combat them. I was wondering whether volunteering at homeless shelters was a viable individual solution to the homeless problem, or whether this was more of a way to deal with the consequences of the issue rather than dealing with the sources of homelessness, such as the lack of affordable housing?

    • April 25, 2020 by Lindsay Coupe

      Hi Artemisia! Thank you for spending the time to read my webpage. To answer your question, I think that volunteering at homeless shelters is an effective way to support the homeless community, but I do not think that it is a solution to homelessness or its root causes. In order to end homelessness, solutions would have to be created that address affordable housing and unemployment issues.

  4. April 26, 2020 by Aman Kapoor

    Hey Lindsay, your page is backed with statistics, facts, and history. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Do you have a solution to combat homelessness in a time like this when the Coronavirus threatens everyone in the open?

  5. April 27, 2020 by Stephanie

    Hi Lindsay, I really enjoyed your project and how you delved deep into the root of homelessness using historical meaning. I think that in the current situation, America is extremely divided in partisan politics and struggle to develop a neutral Bill that will be strong enough to vote on and passed by both parties. The basic human rights that the homeless population is unable to afford due to deep-seated stigmas and as you said, historical and racial context, must be dealt with by society in an effective and meaningful way. I really enjoyed your solutions to combat this in the present time and where I’m from (Vancouver, BC), there are definitely many student-led initiatives similar to the ones you suggested. Thank you!

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