Recently, the plight of homeless people has been increasingly criminalized in various regions across the United States, with North Texas being one of the notable culprits. Despite it not being a crime to be homeless in Texas, various laws targeting homeless people have led to widespread criminalization. This harsh approach towards homelessness has seen cities in North Texas make national headlines for their uncompromising stance.
Targeting the Homeless Through Legislation
A report by CBS highlighted how cities in North Texas, among others in the U.S., are implementing laws that target homeless individuals1. These laws typically prohibit living in vehicles, camping in public spaces, and panhandling. Such measures have had the effect of criminalizing aspects of homelessness, creating an environment where those without shelter are often left with no legal means to survive.
Case Study: Dallas
Dallas's approach toward homelessness has drawn significant criticism over the years. An article by the Dallas Observer details the conflict. Public sleeping has been illegal in Dallas since the early 1990s, and in 2016, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings’ Commission on Homelessness faced backlash from critics during a public meeting.
In response to a rising homelessness issue, Dallas introduced new laws and established curfews for its public parks. Actions like rummaging through trash, panhandling, and drinking alcohol in public were declared offenses, marking a severe approach toward the city's homeless population.
The city also aggressively dismantled homeless encampments, with an instance in 1994 where an encampment of several hundred tents beneath the freeway separating downtown from Deep Ellum was bulldozed. However, a federal judge issued an injunction against the city for enforcing its controversial sleeping in public ordinance. The judge referred to the lack of shelter beds and the rules attached to them, arguing that the city was effectively making it a crime to be homeless.
Dallas was subsequently included in a list of the 20 meanest cities in the country regarding homelessness policies. From 2012 to 2015, Dallas police ticketed more than 11,000 people accused of sleeping in public, further aggravating the problem as these individuals often lacked the resources to pay fines and frequently drifted in and out of incarceration. It is also important to note that the top 20 most hostile cities list featured a total of four Texas cities.
Is Homelessness a Threat?
The driving force behind criminalizing homelessness is the perceived threat to public safety. Similarly, laws surrounding trespassing, traffic, and public intoxication are backed by the same hypothesis. This is not to say that there is no legitimate reason for laws limiting drunk driving – driving under the influence is a proven threat to the driver and those who share the road with them.
Where the difference lies in consent. Under the law, drunk drivers choose to get behind the wheel and subject other drivers to their negligence. Homelessness, on the other hand, is ‘nonconsensual’ in both a literal and figurative sense. Housing insecurity occurs due to many factors, from intentional scarcity to drive up real estate value to economic crises that leave people without an income.
Although most homeless people are homeless despite their best efforts, many believe in stereotypes like drug addicts giving up their homes for a hit. Like nearly all stereotypes, there is a grain of truth, but it fails to apply to the majority. In most cases, addiction and a turn toward criminal behavior are a direct result of the desperation that comes from being unhoused.
So, if homelessness is not a choice and those who make up the majority of the homeless population are not violent drug addicts, then is it a threat to public safety? According to Texas legislators, yes, it is.
The primary talking points used by lawmakers include the following:
- Crime and Safety Concerns: Homelessness can be associated with higher rates of certain crimes, including petty theft, loitering, and public drug use. However, it is crucial to note that most homeless individuals are not involved in criminal activities. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, "most homeless people are not criminals," and "being homeless is difficult and dangerous."
- Health and Sanitation Issues: Homeless populations living in crowded and unsanitary conditions may increase the risk of spreading infectious diseases. This can pose a potential public health threat. The World Health Organization (WHO) emphasizes the importance of adequate shelter for maintaining public health.
- Public Perception and Fear: Some members of the public may feel unsafe or uncomfortable around homeless individuals, especially if they have misconceptions about homelessness. This fear can impact social interactions and community cohesion.
- Emergency Services Utilization: Homelessness can lead to increased use of emergency services, such as police and ambulance responses, and an added burden on public resources. According to a study published in the Journal of Urban Health, homeless individuals often use emergency services at a higher rate than the general population.
- Victimization and Vulnerability: Homeless individuals are often more vulnerable to becoming victims of crime due to their living conditions and lack of secure housing. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness states that homeless people are more likely to experience victimization.
It is crucial to remember that attributing homelessness as the sole cause of public safety issues oversimplifies the matter. Many complex social, economic, and systemic factors contribute to homelessness and public safety concerns.
Addressing homelessness and its potential impact on public safety requires comprehensive and compassionate strategies, including affordable housing initiatives, access to healthcare, mental health support, and social services to help individuals reintegrate into society. However, it is easier to implement sweeping policies to reduce the homeless population by any means than to work toward systemic change.
Within the conversation about housing insecurity, there is a point to be made about the role of the justice system. Convicted felons experience more housing insecurity than those convicted of misdemeanors or minor offenses. At Shane Phelps Law, we recognize the importance of accessible legal guidance and are proud to support those who need it most.
If you have been accused of a crime, contact our experienced legal team at Shane Phelps Law.