Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

There are less than 72 hours left in this Mid-Year Campaign and our independent journalism needs your help today.
If you value our work, please support Common Dreams. This is our hour of need.

Join the small group of generous readers who donate, keeping Common Dreams free for millions of people each year. Without your help, we won’t survive.

We must strengthen federal anti-discrimination laws, so housing can’t be denied to someone due to their source of income, poor credit, lack of rental history, or their status as a victim of domestic violence.(Photo: Shutterstock)

We must strengthen federal anti-discrimination laws, so housing can’t be denied to someone due to their source of income, poor credit, lack of rental history, or their status as a victim of domestic violence.(Photo: Shutterstock)

All Laws That Make It a Crime to be Homeless Should Be Repealed

Here's what should replace them

John TharpMaria Foscarinis

 by OtherWords

When San Diego resident Gerald Stark’s rent increased and he couldn’t afford another apartment, the retired union pipefitter moved into his RV.

But because he lacked an address, San Diego law made it almost impossible for him to park his RV legally. Soon the city confiscated it, leaving him out on the streets.

There, he was ticketed for violating another law prohibiting sleeping in public. Faced with thousands of dollars in fines and fees he was unable to pay, Stark lived every day in fear of being arrested — for simply trying to survive.

He’s not alone.

There isn’t a single county in the United States where you can rent a two-bedroom, market-rate apartment working a full-time, minimum-wage job. Many of our neighbors are just one emergency or missed paycheck away from losing their homes.

Unfortunately, law enforcement is often used as a first response to address homelessness. Many communities essentially criminalize it.

Instead of connecting people with services and housing, they drag people experiencing homelessness into the criminal justice system, making it more difficult for them to get a job or housing.

It’s a harmful myth that homeless people cause an increase in crime. Several studies show homeless people are actually more likely to be victims of crime — especially in places where they have to hide from police.

In the absence of low-cost housing, many people often have no choice but to break the law to carry out necessary, life-sustaining activities — like sleeping, resting, or using the bathroom — in public places. But instead of responding with solutions, cities like Denver, Houston, and Puyallup, Washington are enacting more laws against those activities.

Such laws are harmful, wasteful, and arguably unconstitutional.

Cities spend taxpayer dollars enforcing homeless encampment “sweeps” and “move along” policies for homeless people. And burdening homeless people with fines and fees makes it even more difficult for them to return to the tax rolls.

One homeless man, Russell Bartholow of Sacramento, received an astonishing $100,000 in fines for sleeping and camping in public. Fining people who don’t even have enough money for rent isn’t productive or humane.

Homelessness is a community issue, and it demands a community to solve it.

At the federal level, a universal voucher program, where no person pays more than 30 percent of their income on rent, would go a long way. Currently, because of funding cuts spanning almost four decades, only one-in-four of those poor enough to be eligible for federal housing help actually receives it.

Those who do are often turned away due to discrimination. We must strengthen federal anti-discrimination laws, so housing can’t be denied to someone due to their source of income, poor credit, lack of rental history, or their status as a victim of domestic violence.

At the local level, tenants in good standing should be protected from arbitrary eviction, and low-income people facing eviction should get a right to counsel.

And all laws that make it a crime to be homeless should be repealed.

Philadelphia offers an example. Earlier this year, law enforcement officials donated a vacant office in the subway station to create the HUB of Hope, where homeless people can do their laundry and stay out of bad weather. “We are not going to arrest people for being homeless,” said Major Jim Kenney.

In Syracuse, Mayor Stephanie Miner refused to follow a state order to arrest homeless people who didn’t enter shelters. Instead, the city reached out to people experiencing homelessness to connect them to housing, helping Syracuse become one of the first cities to end veteran homelessness.

With proven solutions, communities can help people like Gerald Stark, Russell Bartholow, and millions of others off the streets and onto a better path, leaving everyone safer and healthier.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

John Tharp

John Tharp is a former sheriff of Lucas County, Ohio.

Maria Foscarinis

Maria Foscarinis directs the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

Just a few days left in our crucial Mid-Year Campaign and we might not make it without your help.
Who funds our independent journalism? Readers like you who believe in our mission: To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. No corporate advertisers. No billionaire founder. Our non-partisan, nonprofit media model has only one source of revenue: The people who read and value this work and our mission. That's it.
And the model is simple: If everyone just gives whatever amount they can afford and think is reasonable—$3, $9, $29, or more—we can continue. If not enough do, we go dark.

All the small gifts add up to something otherwise impossible. Please join us today. Donate to Common Dreams. This is crunch time. We need you now.

Naomi Klein: The US Is in the Midst of a 'Shock-and-Awe Judicial Coup'

"The rolling judicial coup coming from this court is by no means over," warned the author of "The Shock Doctrine."

Jake Johnson ·


Markey, Bowman Join Climate Coalition in Urging SCOTUS Expansion

"We cannot sit idly by," said Markey, "as extremists on the Supreme Court eviscerate the authorities that the government has had for decades to combat climate change and reduce pollution."

Brett Wilkins ·


Ocasio-Cortez Says US 'Witnessing a Judicial Coup in Process'

"It is our duty to check the Court's gross overreach of power in violating people's inalienable rights and seizing for itself the powers of Congress and the president."

Brett Wilkins ·


Critics Say Biden Drilling Bonanza 'Won't Lower Gas Prices' But 'Will Worsen Climate Crisis'

"President Biden's massive public lands giveaway in the face of utter climate catastrophe is just the latest sign that his climate commitments are mere rhetoric," said one campaigner.

Kenny Stancil ·


Grave Warnings as Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Case That Threatens 'Future of Voting Rights'

"Buckle up," implores one prominent legal scholar. "An extreme decision here could fundamentally alter the balance of power in setting election rules in the states and provide a path for great threats to elections."

Brett Wilkins ·

Common Dreams Logo