In many jurisdictions, behavior that can be characterized as “vagrancy” or “loitering” can lead to arrest and jail time. The enforcement of such laws has raised numerous concerns in recent years, including the ways these measures are applied to the homeless and the potential for racial profiling and the targeting of day laborers, who are often undocumented immigrants. One such law, which targeted “gangs” in Chicago, was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999 because loitering was vaguely defined and allotted police too much discretion in deciding when it should be applied.
Criminal charges for these types of low-level offenses can be especially detrimental for those experiencing homelessness. Often called “quality of life crimes,” they are often unavoidable for a person lacking shelter. A criminal record can, in turn, make it harder to get out of homelessness because of barriers to employment and housing. A report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty found an increase in laws across the country from 2011 to 2014 that ban activities such as public camping, sleeping in public and loitering. Notably, laws banning sleeping in vehicles increased by 119 percent. In Los Angeles, LAPD arrests of the homeless rose 10 percent from 2016 to 2017 for a total of 14,500 misdemeanor arrests in 2017, despite a stated stance of “anti-criminalization.” Many of these were due to an increase in enforcement of quality of life crimes. A UCLA report found that arrests of homeless Latinos by LAPD doubled from 2011 to 2016, accounting for about half of the total increase in homeless arrests.
Some cities have begun to end vagrancy laws or reduce their severity, recognizing that such measures can increase racial disparities, place undue burden on criminal justice systems and exacerbate underlying issues for homeless individuals. In 2015, Minneapolis repealed long-standing laws banning spitting and “lurking” because of their disproportionate impact on communities of color.
Other cities have deployed resources toward housing initiatives, which have led to overall cost savings. Utah implemented a statewide 10-year Housing First initiative that reduced chronic homelessness by 91 percent from 2005 to 2015. The following year, Utah reports that the population of chronically homeless individuals decreased by an additional 5.6 percent and the number of chronically homeless families decreased by 64.7 percent. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness estimated that each of these individuals cost $30,000 to $50,000 per person annually in emergency room care and other crisis services. A University of New Mexico cost analysis of the City of Albuquerque’s Heading Home Initiative, a Housing First program, found that for every dollar spent on the program, the city realized $1.78 in benefits. The savings in jail costs and services after the program’s implementation were particularly pronounced.