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Housing Not Handcuffs

No Safe Place Advocacy Manual 

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Criminalization One-Pager

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Model Policy

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Criminalization of Homelessness

Help us end the criminalization of homelessness.


In response to a troubling increase in laws that criminalize homelessness the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty launched the Housing Not Handcuffs campaign to help combat this trend. The Housing Not Handcuffs campaign is centered around the belief that no homeless person should be penalized for simply carrying out basic human functions and should be able to live with dignity. 

Whether you are an experienced advocate, a person experiencing or who has experienced homelessness, a concerned neighbor, a small business owner, a government official, or anyone in between, you can make a difference to this campaign. Endorse the Housing Not Handcuffs campaign today. 

Click here to endorse the campaign


Homelessness continues to be a national crisis, affecting millions of people each year, including a rising number of families. Homeless people, like all people, must engage in activities such as sleeping or sitting down in order to survive. Yet, in communities across the nation, these harmless, unavoidable behaviors are treated as criminal activity under laws that criminalize homelessness.

Homelessness is caused by a severe shortage of affordable housing.
A lack of affordable housing is the leading cause of homelessness, and the problem is worsening. Rising rents, historically low vacancy rates, and the continued decline of federally subsidized housing have led to a 7.2 million unit shortage of affordable rental units available to our nation’s lowest income renters. This means that for every 100 extremely poor households in the country, only 31 will find affordable and available rental units.
There are fewer available shelter beds than homeless people in major cities across the nation. In some places, the gap between available space and human need is significant, leaving hundreds or, in some cases, thousands of people with no choice but to struggle for survival in outdoor, public places.

Despite the lack of affordable housing and shelter space, many cities have chosen to criminally punish people living on the street for doing what any human being must do to survive.
Problems Arise when Cities turn to Criminalization Measures

Criminalization measures do nothing to address the underlying causes of homelessness and, instead, only worsen the problem. There has been an increase in laws criminalizing homelessness as indicated in the Law Center's latest report, Housing Not Handcuffs. While the increase is seen for nearly every surveyed category of criminalization law, the most dramatic uptick has been in city-wide bans on fundamental human activities. This increase in city-wide bans shows that the nature of criminalization is changing and that cities are moving toward prohibiting unavoidable, life sustaining activities throughout entire communities rather than in specific areas, effectively criminalizing a homeless person’s very existence.  
Criminalization Questions Fundamental Rights

Criminalization laws raise important constitutional concerns, and courts across the country have found that many such laws violate the rights of homeless people. Courts have invalidated or enjoined enforcement of criminalization laws on the grounds that they violate constitutional protections such as the right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment, and the right to due process of law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Moreover, the criminalization of homelessness violates international human rights treaties to which the U.S. is a party. In 2014, the U.N. Human Rights Committee, reviewing U.S. compliance under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, found that the criminalization of homelessness in the U.S. violated the treaty. 

Criminalization Misuses Public Resources

Using the criminal justice system to address homelessness misuses police resources to address a social problem. This overuse of police to solve social problems has been criticized by many – including police officers – as contributing to the current climate of tension between police and neighborhoods subjected to unnecessarily high levels of police activity.
Criminalization is Cost Ineffective 

Criminalization is the most expensive and least effective way of addressing homelessness. A growing body of research comparing the cost of homelessness (including the cost of criminalization) with the cost of providing housing to homeless people shows that housing is the most affordable option. With state and local budgets stretched to their limit, rational, cost-effective policies are needed – not ineffective measures that waste precious taxpayer dollars.

Criminalization Laws Should Be Replaced with Constructive Solutions to Ending Homelessness

Criminalization is not the answer to meeting the needs of cities that are concerned about homelessness. There are sensible, cost-effective, and humane solutions to homelessness, which a number of cities have pursued. Check out our Model Policy Menu to find out more about these solutions. 

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Criminalization is Cost Ineffective