More cities across the U.S. consider homelessness a crime

It’s getting harder to be homeless in America.

Laws that criminalize homelessness are cropping up in cities throughout the country, while simultaneously, a national shortage of shelter beds and housing options is roiling the system.

Since 2001, the U.S. has lost nearly 13 percent of its low-income housing according to a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty that surveyed 187 cities.

The advocacy group’s report found that laws placing restrictions on loitering, begging, sitting and lying down in public have increased nationwide since 2009. Eighteen percent of cities now ban sleeping in public and 42 percent of cities ban sleeping in vehicles.

And that’s a problem, NLCHP Executive Director Mary Foscarinis told NPR, because it makes it difficult for individuals to get back on their feet. 

“It’s really hard to get a job when you’re homeless anyway, or to get housing,” Foscarinis said. “You have no place to bathe, no place to dress, no money for transportation. But then if you also have an arrest record, it’s even more challenging,” she said.

In May, city officials in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, passed a series of ordinances cracking down on public drunkenness, urination and sleeping on sidewalks — all in an effort to help the homeless and preserve the city’s quality of life, city spokesman Matt Little told USA Today.

“The city of Fort Lauderdale has a distinguished history of compassion toward those in need,” Little said. “Protecting our quality of life and business environment ensures continued funding for humanitarian needs.”

NLCHP says an overwhelming increase in urban homelessness after the recession and a widespread initiative to revitalize cities’ downtown areas incited the crackdown on the homeless.

There are some cities that pool resources to provide housing and other services instead of criminalizing the homeless, the report said.

Florida’s Miami-Dade County raises money for the homeless through its Homeless and Domestic Violence Tax.

The group also urged the federal government to provide the National Housing Trust Fund with $3.5 billion dollars each year to increase affordable housing and prevent people from living on the streets.

“The federal government should play a leadership role in combating the criminalization of homelessness by local governments and promote constructive alternatives,” the report said.

Editor’s note: The lead of this piece was updated to more accurately reflect the current state of homelessness.