July 2015 Bar Bulletin
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July 2015 Bar Bulletin

SU Law Project Highlights Criminalization of Homelessness

By Katherine Hedland Hansen


"As long as we pretend that homelessness is a problem that should be addressed through the criminal justice system, we are not really addressing the root problems of homelessness and poverty."
-SU Law Professor Sara Rankin

The first statewide analysis of laws criminalizing homelessness finds those laws are expensive, ineffective and disproportionately impact already marginalized individuals. Those are among the key findings of a series of in-depth policy briefs released in May by the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University School of Law that examine the scope and extent of the problem of criminalization in Washington.

These briefs are the most extensive of their kind in the nation. Among the findings:

  • Washington cities are increasingly criminalizing homelessness. Since 2000, communities have enacted laws that create more than 288 new ways to punish visibly poor people for surviving in public space.
  • Millions of dollars could be saved if cities would redirect funds used for enforcement of these laws toward affordable housing.
  • Homelessness and poverty disproportionately impact people of color, women, LGBTQ youth, individuals with mental illness, and veterans.
  • The greater the income gap between the rich and the poor, the higher the rates of enforcement of these laws.
  • Modern anti-homeless ordinances share the same form, phrasing and function as historical discrimination laws, such as Jim Crow.

"The common thread is prejudice," said Professor Sara Rankin, faculty director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project. "One of the underlying premises of our research is that visible poverty makes people uncomfortable. Regrettably, we often use the law to purge visibly poor people from public space. As long as we pretend that homelessness is a problem that should be addressed through the criminal justice system, we are not really addressing the root problems of homelessness and poverty."

Prof. Rankin's students spent months collecting data, researching and writing their briefs. They presented their works-in-progress and incorporated feedback from experts, including prosecutors, defense attorneys, police, service providers and people currently experiencing homelessness.

Researchers analyzed data from 72 cities and completed in-depth case studies of seven cities: Seattle, Burien, Bellingham, Spokane, Auburn, Pasco and Vancouver. They also looked at other states that have adopted the "Housing First" movement that prioritizes providing shelter over enforcement.

"At what cost are we criminalizing homelessness?" asked one student co-author, Joshua Howard. "Criminalization is expensive and ineffective, and non-punitive options are proven to save money."

One brief estimates the City of Seattle will spend a minimum of $2.3 million in the next five years enforcing just 16 percent of the city's criminalization ordinances. Spokane will spend a minimum of $1.3 million enforcing 75 percent of the city's criminalization ordinances. Investing this same money over five years on affordable housing could house approximately 55 people experiencing homelessness per year, saving taxpayers over $2 million annually and more than $11 million total over the five years, according to the briefs.

"This research humanizes the problems and shows the ways in which the institutional response to homelessness has failed," said Scott MacDonald, one of the student co-authors.

National experts praised the research.

"These reports will leave an indelible mark on constitutional, civil and human rights discourse about how society and the law can either contribute to the problems of poverty and homelessness, or how society and the law can reverse course and contribute to more meaningful and just outcomes for all people, regardless of their housing or economic status," said Michael Stoops, director of community organizing at the National Coalition for the Homeless.

"These carefully researched reports present the most complete picture of the criminalization of homeless people in any state in the country," said Professor Jeff Selbin, a poverty law expert at U.C. Berkeley School of Law. "They demonstrate how municipal laws targeting the visibly poor in Washington are increasingly unjust, inhumane and costly. State lawmakers in Washington and elsewhere should take action to end these shameful practices."

And Tristia Bauman, senior attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, said, "As more communities across the nation criminalize the life-sustaining activities of homeless people, comprehensive research on the impact of these ineffective, expensive and often illegal policies is critical to combating them," she said. "These reports represent a model that should be replicated across the country by advocates working to end the criminalization of homelessness."

Learn more about the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project and review the briefs at www.law.seattleu.edu/hrap.


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