The following is the executive summary of an article released by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness in March 2012. Find the entire article, “Searching Out Solutions: Constructive Alternatives to Criminalization” here:
In recent years, the United States has seen the proliferation of local measures to criminalize “acts of living” laws that prohibit sleeping, eating, sitting, or panhandling in public spaces. City, town, and county officials are turning to criminalization measures in an effort to broadcast a zero-tolerance approach to street homelessness and to temporarily reduce the visibility of homelessness in their communities. Although individuals experiencing homelessness should be afforded the same dignity, compassion, and support provided to others, criminalization policies further marginalize men and women who are experiencing homelessness, fuel inflammatory attitudes, and may even unduly restrict constitutionally protected liberties. Moreover, there is ample evidence that alternatives to criminalization policies can adequately balance the needs of all parties. Community residents, government agencies, businesses, and men and women who are experiencing homelessness are better served by solutions that do not marginalize people experiencing homelessness, but rather strike at the core factors contributing to homelessness.
Criminalization policies are costly and consume substantial state and local resources. In today’s economic climate, it is important for state, county, and local entities to invest in programs that work rather than spend money on activities that are unlikely to achieve the desired result and which may, in some cases, open the jurisdiction to liability. In addition to the increase in public resources used to carry out these criminalization measures, Individuals who are arrested or fined for “act of living” crimes in public spaces now have a criminal record; resulting in barriers to work, and difficulty in receiving mainstream services and housing that often bar individuals with criminal histories. These policies are a temporary solution to street homelessness and create greater barriers for these individuals to exit homelessness successfully, providing neither a permanent or sustainable solution to homelessness.
The federal government has an important responsibility to provide leadership, share best practices, and provide technical support to localities in their efforts to find constructive ways of addressing the needs of individuals experiencing homelessness. Specifically, the 2009 HEARTH Act charged the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) with “develop[ing] alternatives to laws and policies that prohibit sleeping, eating, sitting, resting, or lying in public spaces when there are no suitable alternatives, result in the destruction of property belonging to people experiencing homelessness without due process, or are selectively enforced against people experiencing homelessness.” One of the strategies of Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness is to reduce criminalization of homelessness by defining constructive approaches to address street homelessness and considering incentives to urge cities to adopt these practices.
The alternatives to criminalization policies identified in this report have been effective in reducing and preventing homelessness in several cities around the country. These solutions can be relatively inexpensive to implement, result in overall cost-savings, and have a lasting positive impact on the quality of life for individuals experiencing homelessness and the larger community.
In December 2010, USICH and the Access to Justice Initiative of the U.S Department of Justice (DOJ), with support from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), held a summit on the development of constructive alternatives to the criminalization of homelessness, titled Searching for Balance: Civic Engagement in Communities Responding to Homelessness (hereinafter “Searching for Balance Summit”). A list of the December 2010 Summit participants is attached as Appendix III.
The Searching for Balance Summit engaged a variety of community stakeholders, including city and county government officials, police officers, business improvement district leaders, court officials, health providers, Continuum of Care representatives, national advocates, federal partners, and men and women who have experienced homelessness. The day-long forum resulted in several recommended alternatives to criminalization, characterized by three overarching themes:
I. Creation of Comprehensive and Seamless Systems of Care
II. Collaboration among Law Enforcement and Behavioral Health and Social Service Providers
III. Alternative Justice System Strategies
This report explores the themes and solutions that were identified at the Searching for Balance Summit. It also chronicles the experiences of several local communities in their endeavors to develop programs that treat individuals experiencing homelessness with dignity and respect, while simultaneously meeting the needs of community safety and maintaining civic order. Community leaders who are exploring constructive alternatives to criminalization will want to consider the strategies discussed within each of the three solution sections and select the appropriate combination of strategies to craft an approach that best addresses their community’s needs. Though presented in three themes, the solutions proposed are interrelated and reinforcing.
Many successful strategies were identified during the Searching for Balance Summit, but communitywide engagement emerged as a common thread among all of them. The needs of all parties must be considered in the development of solutions for individuals experiencing homelessness. The Searching for Balance Summit participants emphasized: (1) collaboration across all sectors including the alignment and sharing of resources; (2) developing and implementing strategic plans to end homelessness (sometimes referred to as Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness); and (3) implementing only proven or promising practices. Success turns on a willingness to consider multiple perspectives and balance competing needs, openness to new partnerships and new approaches, and a readiness to commit and pool resources to fund solutions.
Solution I: The creation of comprehensive and seamless systems of care that combine housing with behavioral health and social service supports have been shown to prevent and end homelessness.
Communities around the country have been working in partnership with the federal government to develop comprehensive systems of care that can effectively prevent and end homelessness. In an effort to address duplication of activities, gaps in service delivery, and costly use of emergency systems as safety nets, many local partners developed a host of combined housing and service programs. 1 These combined housing and service strategies, supported by communitywide involvement in planning and implementation, have proven to achieve long-term reductions in street homelessness and connect individuals with benefits and services that improve stability.2
1 Jennifer Perlman and John Parvensky. Denver Housing First Collaborative Cost Benefit Analysis and Program Outcomes Report. Denver, CO: Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. (December 2006).
2 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2010 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR), (July 2011). Martha Burt et al. Strategies for Reducing Chronic Street Homelessness: Final Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research. (January 2004).
Potential solutions include:
Develop and implement communitywide plans to end homelessness that bring together a variety of stakeholders such as consumers, businesses, law enforcement, mayors and other city/town officials, schools, philanthropy, and community members to create collaborative and innovative solutions
Develop “Housing First” permanent supportive housing to provide persons experiencing chronic homelessness immediate options, directly reducing the number of people living in public spaces
Ensure 24-hour access to shelters and/or services that offer alternatives to living in public spaces and access to services that meet the basic needs of individuals experiencing homelessness in order to reduce visible street homelessness and contribute to reductions in homelessness
Create street outreach teams and provide safe havens to help chronically homeless individuals exit the streets
Employ communitywide collaboration through education, volunteerism and donations to provide solutions to homelessness
Coordinate food sharing activities and set uniform standards for the preparation and distribution of food that promote access to food.
Improve access to mainstream benefit programs (SNAP, Medicaid, SSI/SSDI) by ensuring all those eligible receive benefits through streamlining application processes for multiple benefit programs and enhanced outreach by service providers
Solution II: Collaboration between law enforcement and behavioral health and social service providers results in tailored interventions that connect people with housing, services, and treatment and meet the community’s goal of reducing the number of people inhabiting public spaces.
Local and county governments frequently devote significant resources to deploying law enforcement to disperse people experiencing homelessness from public spaces; however, these interventions do little to stop the cycle of homelessness. Law enforcement engagement not only provides a temporary solution to the problem, it contributes to a culture of distrust, pitting individuals experiencing homelessness against the broader community. Further, police action to move or arrest people experiencing homelessness is rarely effective because those who sleep unsheltered on the streets are often chronically homeless with no access to housing and have underlying mental health issues and other disabilities. It is not a solution to force someone to move when they have nowhere else to go; but in many cities police do not have the tools they need to offer solutions – they can only disperse or arrest.
In some instances, disperse or arrest activities subject police and sheriff departments to civil rights lawsuits brought by parties aggrieved by forcible removal actions.
Potential solutions include the following:
Outreach and engagement involving police and service provider collaboration to link people with supportive housing and avoid their arrest
Cross-training of police officers and service providers to facilitate information sharing and promote ongoing coordination
Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) with specially trained police officers working with behavioral health professionals to respond to crises involving people with mental illness
Solution III: Implementation of alternative justice system strategies can reduce homeless involvement with the criminal justice system, decrease recidivism, and facilitate connection with other systems of care.
People experiencing homelessness often struggle with a variety of legal problems that interfere with their ability to find employment, access benefits, and obtain housing. Additionally, mental illness, substance abuse disorders, and logistical difficulties, such as lack of transportation and inability to store or retrieve personal records, as well as the daily search to meet basic needs, present substantial barriers to complying with court orders and paying applicable fines. For those incarcerated in prisons or jails, release into homelessness is strongly correlated with recidivism. The cost to public systems is substantial, as a small number of individuals absorb significant amounts of limited resources as they cycle through jails and prisons to shelters, emergency rooms, and mental health crisis centers without ever receiving the level of care and treatment needed to resolve their underlying problems.
Potential solutions include the following:
Problem-solving courts, including homeless courts, mental health courts, drug courts and Veterans courts, that focus on the underlying causes of illegal activities with the intention of reducing recidivism and encouraging reintegration into society
Citation dismissal programs that allow individuals who are homeless with low-level infractions to participate in service or diversion programs or link them with appropriate services in lieu of paying a fine
Create holistic public defender offices, enabling them to provide a range of social services in addition to standard legal services for populations with special needs
Volunteer legal projects and pro bono attorneys that provide essential legal services for homeless populations and for the agencies serving them
Reentry or transition planning to prepare people in prison or jails to return to the community by linking them to housing and needed services and treatment
Reentry housing, specialized housing with support services tailored to the needs of ex-offenders, designed to help them make a successful transition from incarceration back to the community
Reentry employment, transitional work and supportive employment services to individuals shortly after their release from jail/prison.
USICH will continue to facilitate dialogue and investigate constructive alternatives to criminalization measures at all levels of government. At the Federal level, agencies can provide leadership and technical assistance to encourage communitywide collaboration, partnerships and needed coordination on the ground. Participants at the Summit noted that legislative action could also be taken, recommending that Congress ensure that funding streams that support law enforcement activities are not allowed to support activities that criminalize the basic life activities of people experiencing homelessness.
We are enthusiastic about the promising approaches identified in this report and eager to support the efforts of local communities who are moving beyond marginalization to instead answer the needs of individuals experiencing homelessness.