Decriminalize Homelessness and Poverty

Homelessness and poverty are a national issue, the product of rising income inequality and decades of failed federal housing policy. Many local communities have responded to this national issue with increasingly punitive policy measures designed to reduce the visibility of homeless people. These laws target activities that all people must do to survive, but some people are forced by economic necessity to do in public spaces.

The federal government played a major role in creating homelessness by cutting tens of billions of dollars from affordable housing programs beginning in the early 1980s. While the construction of federal housing stalled, creating a sudden and steady increase in homelessness, local communities have responded with criminalization measures. Fort Collins is among these communities.

It is common for housed people in Fort Collins to believe that there are abundant services for everyone in need. This suggests that the problem is individual rather than systemic – that all that a homeless person needs to do is apply herself, and she will promptly find all the resources she needs to escape homelessness (and, by extension, that a person who remains homeless does so thanks to individual choices or failings). In fact, services are very limited and fall short of meeting many needs. For example, as this article from the Coloradoan illustrates, by even the most conservative estimate there are more than a hundred more people who need shelter each night than space in our current shelters, and the space available is not suitable for every person. Sleeping outside is consistently characterized as a matter of individual choice. In fact, many people who currently sleep outside would choose otherwise if there were options that met their needs.

Being poor is not a crime. Being unable to afford housing is not a crime. Writing criminal citations to people when we know for a fact that we have more homeless people than beds in our shelters is inhumane.

For many people experiencing homelessness, the only “service” they need is housing. Affordable housing in Fort Collins remains drastically limited. Most people apply for housing programs at their earliest opportunity; in Fort Collins, they are told they must then wait 2-4 years for a chance at one of our existing housing units. We desperately need to commit to more affordable housing.

In Fort Collins, there are no legal places to sleep in public. And yet police routinely wake people who are sleeping outside or in vehicles and ask them to “move on.” Depriving people of sleep is recognized as a form of torture, and keeping men and women continuously moving from point to point is inhumane and dangerous to health and safety. When people ask the police “move on to where?” the police have no answer.

Criminalization wastes resources while moving us further from real solutions. Criminalization also imposes heavy burdens on the most vulnerable among us. Citations, fines, and incarceration are costly for all of us, but most of all for the person targeted. Criminalization is part of a system that traps people in a cycle of poverty, fines, incarceration, criminal records that create barriers to housing and employment, and subsequently deeper poverty. Criminalization makes it harder for people to escape homelessness. To read more about the impact of criminalization policies, visit Denver Homeless Out Loud’s website.

Stereotypes about homeless people help give rise to criminalization measures, and criminalization polices help create and strengthen stereotypes about homeless people. In Fort Collins, performing universal human acts, such as resting or eating, in public spaces is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless. Treating these acts as criminal means treating the people who must engage in them as criminal by nature.

When our city leaders choose to criminalize homelessness, they are leading by example; criminalization policies increase hostility toward homeless people throughout our community.

In August, 2015, the US Department of Justice wrote in a legal brief: “It should be uncontroversial that punishing conduct that is a universal and unavoidable consequence of being human violates the Eighth Amendment. . . Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity-i.e., it must occur at some time in some place. If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”

Homelessness is systemic, and criminalization polices are a part of this broken system. Until we effect fundamental, systemic change, we will not be able to make homelessness “rare, short-lived, and non-reoccurring.”

Ending criminalization policies is one way to begin to break this cycle. If we step away from dehumanizing stereotypes and policies, we free up resources for real, long-term, meaningful solutions. We can choose to stop perpetuating damaging policies, stop targeting individuals for being homeless in public, stop telling people to “move on” when there is no place for them to rest.

Please join the Fort Collins Homeless Coalition in asking Fort Collins to stop ticketing and harassing people for resting, sleeping, or camping in public; in standing against Sit/Lie bans; in supporting people’s First Amendment right to ask for help; and in resisting all attempts to criminalize homelessness and poverty in our community.