U.S. Laws Criminalizing Sleeping in Public Have Grown as Much as 60 Percent in Just a Few Years

Human Rights

There is a war on, and it concerns the homeless’ right to sleep. Across the United States, recent years have seen a spate of municipal laws that criminalize the act of sleeping in public places. These laws often target the act of sleeping in private vehicles under the guise of “anti-camping” legislation.

The problem is, the growing number of homeless in this country — more than 600,000 on any given night — often have nowhere else to go. The federal government this summer weighed in on the side of the homeless and their advocates, but the matter is far from settled.

To better understand the legal landscape of public sleep, Van Winkle’s spoke with Tristia Bauman, a senior attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

How new is this phenomenon of criminalizing sleep?

We’ve seen laws that criminalize public sleeping for years. But they’ve been going through explosive growth in the last couple of years, as much as 60 percent. Many of these ordinances punish “camping,” which is broadly defined to include any sleeping. Anti-camping laws have exploded. There is a 119 percent growth in laws prohibiting living in your vehicle, or even sitting with your belongings.

What’s the cause of this spike?

Visible homelessness continues to rise while downtown areas undergo revitalization efforts. Neighborhoods that have been blighted and ignored — where homelessness was high — are now seen as “back for business” with regard to home values. So the stakeholders are turning to local governments for a law enforcement response to the visible presence of homeless people in public places.

We’re seeing laws that directly target sleep in cities that have been [more tolerant] in the past, places like D.C., Chicago, Baltimore. Now that encampments have been growing, with affordable housing crisis and burdening on shelter system, these cities are cracking down under the guise of protecting public health and safety. But they rarely provide evidence.

Tent cities are being disbanded because they are unsightly to the business and neighbors in the area. Regionally we’re not seeing much of a difference in anti-sleeping laws. Or an urban-rural split. It’s a national trend.

Your organization has published data showing why this response is the worst one for everybody, including taxpayers. Why is this the case?

For one, we know that these laws don’t work. You cannot criminalize your way out of homelessness. In addition to not addressing the underlying causes of homelessness, these laws actually entrench the problem and make it harder on an individual basis.

They are also incredibly wasteful of taxpayer resources. If you look at the data, it’s actually two to three times to criminalize homelessness than it is to provide housing and support to people. Building housing is also more effective in keeping people off the streets and achieving the shared goal. Criminalization often merely chases people underground, into more dangerous places, or onto private property, to evade law enforcement.

How have advocates for the homeless been fighting back?

There’s a lot happening on both sides. Take a place like Santa Cruz. We are seeing aggressive enforcement of anti-sleeping laws, and activist groups like the Freedom Sleepers, who are demonstrating outside of city hall. Other groups around the country are using direct action and civil disobedience.

Recently the federal government stepped in with an opinion on the matter.

The [Department of Justice] filed a brief in one of our cases over the summer stating that these laws often represent an Eighth Amendment violation against the prohibition of Cruel and Unusual Punishment. It argued that, when there is not enough shelter space, to punish that person for the human act of sleeping — which must occur at some point — essentially punishes a person for their status as a homeless person, and is therefore a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Can you imagine this issue reaching the Supreme Court?

I definitely can see the possibility of a Supreme Court decision. But I don’t know if it’s anyone’s desire to have a Supreme Court decision on the Constitutionality of anti-sleeping ordinances; a more effective way to solve this is to use the funds to have local governments invest that money in the shelter and housing capacity needed to meet the human needs of the homeless.

There’s a circuit split. Not all courts have found an Eighth Amendment violation. This could lead to a Supreme Court decision on what the law of the land is.

Beyond U.S. civil law, is it important to understand sleep as a basic human right?

Even if it’s not recognized as that, it is the reality. Human rights language is important to help people understand that it isn’t just an activity that everyone must perform, it’s part of liberty, health and happiness. To have those in life, you must sleep.

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