By Nino Monea*
If you take a stroll through Cambridge, Massachusetts, you probably wouldn’t pay much attention to the park benches. But if you did, might notice handrails jutting out in the middle of many of the benches. Though seemingly benign, this feature means that a person trying to stretch out cannot sleep on the bench.
Not every bench in Cambridge is like that, and perhaps the design has no ill-intent. But many communities created bench designs that prevent a homeless person from sleeping on them. To dissuade the homeless, some benches are made so that one cannot even sit comfortably on them, much less lie down. Beyond awkward benches, building owners have gone as far as to place spikes on the ground so that homeless people could not sleep on the pavement.
And that’s not even the worst of it. Between 2011 and 2014, there has been a sharp increase in the number of cities that have banned sleeping in cars and lying in public spaces, a practice that sharply increased after the Great Recession. Others have banned begging. Some laws go even further—they target good Samaritans. About 30 cities restricted food sharing, such as banning serving food in public parks in 2012. These sorts of laws hamper food shelters and churches that seek to help.
Violations of some of the laws can result in fines, but others can lead to jail time. On one unusually cold night in Miami, no fewer than forty-one homeless persons were arrested for sleeping in the streets, a result of shelters in the city being full. An arrest and conviction for sleeping outside can prevent a person from getting employment, public benefits, and ironically, access to public housing. The result is that criminalizing homelessness only makes the problem worse.
To make matters worse, these laws may be unevenly applied. For example, there is evidence that such laws are disproportionately enforced against vulnerable populations. A law that bars sleeping on subways is more likely to target a homeless person than a person in a suit. And substantial numbers of homeless transgender persons report being arrested “strictly due to bias of police officers on the basis of gender identity/expression.”
Cities understandably want to create a welcoming environment for residents. The problem is that fighting homelessness with punitive measures is not only overly harsh; it is ineffective. For starters, it is more expensive to incarcerate an individual than it is to provide them shelter. A program in Charlotte, North Carolina was able to provide housing to the homeless for only $14,000 per year. Comparatively, incarcerating someone costs over $31,000 per year on average, and can be as high as $167,000. More broadly, punishing homeless persons does not address the driver of homelessness: lack of affordable housing.
Shortage of affordable housing has been identified as a main cause of homelessness, and the leading cause among families with children. After all, poor, renting families devote more than half of their incomes to housing costs, so when prices rise, these families feel great pressure. Lack of affordable housing is also a key driver of rural homelessness, as many rural areas face low wages and high unemployment. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a recent drop in chronic homelessness was partially the result of an increase in permanent supportive housing in the country. The decline in chronic homelessness came in spite of the fact that the unemployment rate was higher in 2015 than it was in 2007.
We cannot expect the federal government to solve this problem. Between 1980 and 2003, federal support for low-income housing has been halved. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s block grant program for low-income housing was also cut in half between 2010 and 2015. It is unlikely that Donald Trump and the newly elected Congress will reverse this trend.
Local leaders still have the power to advance this issue. In Washington, D.C., the 2015 budget contained the most funding ever for affordable housing: over $200 million. The City Council of Portland, Oregon, has unanimously voted to boost funding as well. And it is not only liberal enclaves either. Utah, with the support of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, reduced its chronic homeless population by 90% by working hard to provide them with housing. Expanding these reforms would do a great deal more good for communities than arresting people for sleeping on park benches.
Laws that penalize the homeless don’t solve the problem. They merely sweep it under the rug. We can do better.
*Nino is a third-year student at Harvard Law School, where he is Student Body President of Harvard Law School and a President of the Harvard Journal on Legislation. He is from Livonia, Michigan, and graduated in 2014 from Eastern Michigan University.
 Robert Rosenberger, How Cities Use Design to Drive Homeless People Away, Atlantic (June 19, 2014) http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/06/how-cities-use-design-to-drive-homeless-people-away/373067/.
 Marisol Bello, Report: More cities pass laws that hurt the homeless, USA Today (July 16, 2014) http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/07/16/criminalizing-homeless-no-camping-laws/12723745/.
 Carolyn Beeler, Laws That Target Homeless Imperil Programs That Feed Them Outdoors, NPR: The Salt (July 6, 2012) http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2012/07/30/156328035/philadelphia-bans-serving-food-to-the-homeless-in-public.
 Bello, supra note 3.
 Donald E. Baker, “Anti-Homeless” Legislation: Unconstitutional Efforts to Punish the Homeless, 45 U. Miami L. Rev. 417, 418 (1991).
 Erin Bell, Increasing number of laws target cities’ homeless population, Scripps Howard Found. Wire (Aug. 14, 2014) http://www.shfwire.com/node9426/.
 Dilara Yarbrough, Enforcement of Anti-Homeless Laws Targets People of Color, Trans People, Street Sheet http://www.streetsheet.org/?p=1764.
 Kathleen Miles, Housing The Homeless Not Only Saves Lives — It’s Actually Cheaper Than Doing Nothing, Huffington Post (Mar. 25, 2014) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/25/housing-first-homeless-charlotte_n_5022628.html.
 Marc Santora, City’s Annual Cost Per Inmate Is $168,000, Study Finds, N.Y. Times (Aug. 23, 2013) http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/24/nyregion/citys-annual-cost-per-inmate-is-nearly-168000-study-says.html?_r=0.
 Understanding Homelessness, Citizens for Adequate Housing http://cahns.org/the-facts/.
 Report Ties Lack of Affordable Housing to Family Homelessness, Nat’l Low Income Housing Coalition (Dec. 22, 2014) http://nlihc.org/article/report-ties-lack-affordable-housing-family-homelessness.
 Matthew Desmond, Unaffordable America: Poverty, housing, and eviction 1 (March 2015) http://www.irp.wisc.edu/publications/fastfocus/pdfs/FF22-2015.pdf.
 Rural Homelessness, Nat’l Coalition for the Homeless 2 (Aug. 2007) http://nationalhomeless.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Rural-Homelessness-Fact-Sheet.pdf.
 Chronic Homelessness – Policy, Nat’l Alliance to End Homelessness, http://www.endhomelessness.org/pages/chronic_homelessness_policy.
 Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, Bur. Labor Stat. (Jan. 20, 2016) http://data.bls.gov/timeseries/LNS14000000.
 Why Are People Homeless? Nat’l Coalition for the Homeless (July 2009), http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/why.html.
 Christina Hoag, Low-Income Housing Funds Are Drying Up All Over America, takepart (Jan. 13, 2015) http://www.takepart.com/article/2015/01/13/low-income-housing.
 Cheryl Cort, DC’s affordable housing programs are slated to get more money than ever before, Greater Greater Washington (June 8, 2015) http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/27002/dcs-affordable-housing-programs-are-slated-to-get-more-money-than-ever-before/.
 Amelia Templeton, Portland City Council Increases Funding for Affordable Housing, OPB (Oct. 28, 2015) http://www.opb.org/news/article/portland-city-council-votes-to-increase-funding-for-affordable-housing/.
 Kelly McEvers, Utah Reduced Chronic Homelessness By 91 Percent; Here’s How, NPR (Dec. 10, 2015) http://www.npr.org/2015/12/10/459100751/utah-reduced-chronic-homelessness-by-91-percent-heres-how.