Cities that Criminalize the Poor Risk Losing HUD Funding

It’s one thing to show the fallacy of giving tickets to people with no money, and wasting police resources on issues which would disappear if everybody had somewhere to live. But HUD is offering to share two billion dollars in federal funding with cities —if they stop criminalizing the poor.

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A Column on Human Rights

by Carol Denney

Is your local politician immune to moral shaming? Does he or she pass ordinances targeting homeless people for sitting down, sleeping in public, or having sleeping bags or blankets? Are homeless people in your city reeling from a barrage of repressive laws and police raids? Are you scratching your head wondering how to make it stop?

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development might be able to help.

Almost two billion dollars of “Continuum of Care” grant money is slated to go to applicants who use proven, effective strategies to address homelessness. Applicants will compete for funding based on their willingness to adopt best practices — such as permanent housing — and avoid destructive practices — such as the criminalization of homelessness.

It’s one thing to stack up position papers showing the fallacy of giving tickets to people with no money, cycling people through emergency rooms instead of providing housing and services, and wasting police resources on issues which would disappear if everybody simply had somewhere to live.

But it’s quite another thing to hold a steaming pot of two billion dollars of public funding under municipal and county noses with an offer to share it — if and only if it isn’t wasted.

Treating people who have nowhere to go as though they were criminals isn’t just bewildering, ineffective, and immoral — it’s wasteful. The HUD guidelines are clear. They want proof that cities are using proven strategies that have a lasting impact on a local level, a focus on root causes, a commitment to decriminalization, and housing first as an effective strategy.

The guidelines were issued only a few short weeks after the Department of Justice’s Statement of Interest clarified that laws criminalizing sleeping, sitting down, etc., are cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of constitutional rights.

Eric Tars of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty explained that “for the first time HUD is asking Continuums to ‘describe how they are reducing criminalization of homelessness.’ In the extremely competitive funding process, Continuums’ ability to fully respond to this question can determine up to two points in the funding application, and in many cases could be the difference between receiving funding and not.”

Santa Cruz police surround activist Robert Norse at the sleep-out near City Hall. City officials have criminalized the essential act of sleeping. Alex Carocy photo

Santa Cruz police surround activist Robert Norse at the sleep-out near City Hall. City officials have criminalized the essential act of sleeping. Alex Carocy photo


Imagine the city of Santa Cruz, which has criminalized sleeping, or the city of Sacramento, which has criminalized “camping” on public or private property without a permit, attempting to address this particular portion of an application for federal funds.

No one can be sure whether this clear signal regarding Continuum of Care grant money is something cities can sidestep semantically by referring to what we recognize as anti-poor laws as something else. Perhaps they will claim they are only “safety enhancement” laws to keep sidewalks from being blocked? Park protection laws to keep public lawns healthy?

Politicians use stock phrases to defend anti-poor laws, suggesting that they’re trying to make sidewalks accessible, or enhance “commercial vitality,” or address a public “perception” of danger, etc.

And certainly, HUD’s even more recent announcement that it is proposing a reduction in the East Bay’s Section 8 fair market rents, which will increase the number of households unable to use Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers, indicates that the housing crisis will not disappear overnight.

But the Department of Justice’s recent Statement of Interest announcing that Boise’s anti-homeless law is flatly unconstitutional and the HUD grant guidelines asking cities to describe “how they are reducing criminalization of homelessness” are a clear signal that, at least in these waning days of the Obama administration, there is agreement that wasting money is bad policy.

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