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April 12, 2023 HUMAN RIGHTS

Why Discrimination Against Unhoused People Makes the Housing Crisis Worse—And What We Can Do About It

by Eve Garrow

When the local homeless shelter was full, Katrina slept in its parking lot. She figured she could bang on the shelter door if she needed help. But she wasn’t safe. Police officers often woke her up around midnight and threatened to charge her with sleeping in public—a criminal offense—if she did not leave. “When police drive me out of the shelter parking lot in the middle of the night, it feels like they are saying, ‘Yeah, go out there and hopefully you will get attacked and die. It will be one less person for us to worry about,’” Katrina told me.

Negative beliefs, attitudes, and practices toward unhoused people like Katrina are as toxic and destructive as racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination. Yet, they are often difficult to challenge under current law, which does not recognize housing status as a category that is protected from discrimination. And these beliefs and practices are spreading as local governments learn from one another.

How California Criminalizes Homelessness

Since the early 1980s, the United States’ affordable housing programs have been gutted while the cost of market-rate housing has skyrocketed. California, the nation’s epicenter of houselessness, illustrates the devastation that is wrought when lawmakers pursue policies that segregate, banish, cite, and imprison unhoused community members instead of adequately addressing a chronic shortfall of affordable housing.

Not surprisingly, persecuting those most impacted by our affordable housing shortage has not solved California’s houselessness crisis. California is home to about 12 percent of the nation’s population but over half of all houseless people who are living in places not fit for human habitation, such as parks, cars, and abandoned buildings (51 percent), and a little over a quarter of all people who are unhoused (that is, all houseless people, who are those either living in places not fit for human habitation or in shelters and transitional housing). The risk of housing displacement falls disproportionately on Black people, who, as a result of the nation’s history of institutional and structural racism in employment, housing, education, and access to other opportunities, make up about 6.5 percent of California’s population but about 31 percent of its unhoused population.

Since the early 1980s, the United States' affordable housing programs have been gutted while the cost of market-rate housing has skyrocketed.

Since the early 1980s, the United States' affordable housing programs have been gutted while the cost of market-rate housing has skyrocketed.


Policy measures have not stemmed the state’s rising tide of housing displacement. According to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the number of unhoused Californians has increased by almost 82 percent since 2015 while the general population has increased by less than 1 percent. Eligible low-income people wait on lists for years, or even decades, to obtain subsidized affordable housing vouchers. Meanwhile, the average fair-market rent on a two-bedroom apartment now tops $2,000 a month (and is much higher in urban cores like Los Angeles and the Bay Area). California has the highest poverty level of all the states in the nation when taking the cost of living into account—primarily because its housing costs are so high.

In large part, the state and its local jurisdictions have responded to the affordable housing crisis by persecuting unhoused Californians. Tactics include restricting their ability to exist in certain places (for example, at parks or near schools); bulldozing their living accommodations; confiscating and destroying their belongings; surveilling and harassing them; and citing and jailing them for living, standing, or resting in public places (that is, for being unhoused); and for engaging in survival strategies like collecting recyclables or panhandling. They banish unhoused people to places far from lifesaving resources like health care, water, and food, subject them to forced treatment, and corral them in mass shelters by threat of citation and jail time.

How Criminalization Impedes Solutions to Homelessness

The consequences of criminalization are grave. Unhoused people experience an increased risk of mortality and high rates of criminal legal involvement, mostly for innocent conduct such as sitting, resting, sleeping, or having personal property in public. They are exposed to higher levels of violent and non-violent victimization than the general population.

But the effects of this harassment extend far beyond the direct harm inflicted on houseless people, horrifying as it is. First, treating the survivors of this broken system as if they are the problem is bad public policy. Criminalization, on its face, is designed to deter houselessness. However, people are unhoused because they do not have access to housing they can afford—not because they are making a poor life choice. Criminalizing houselessness misdiagnoses the problem and, in doing so, diverts public resources away from real solutions and toward a policy response that is set up to fail.

A second source of harm stems from the negative stereotypes that accompany criminalization. To bolster the false narrative that punishment is an appropriate policy response to houselessness, public officials and policymakers often portray unhoused people as dangerous or broken. Researchers, policy experts, and the media contribute to this discourse by scrutinizing, analyzing, and speculating about houseless people—as if the answer to the housing crisis could be in their group characteristics. In turn, laws that criminalize houselessness institutionalize these baseless stereotypes and give them a great deal of legitimacy.

These negative beliefs have a powerful influence on policymaking because they depict unhoused people as undeserving. They result in housing policies that are under-resourced. Take California’s “Housing First” policy, codified as California Welfare & Institutions Code § 8255. This law requires all housing programs to adopt the Housing First model—but without providing the funds for the housing needed to get people off the streets. Or consider the decades-long failure of state legislators to make investments in subsidized affordable housing significant enough to end, or even decrease, houselessness.

The hate-filled noise that dominates public debate also drowns out an empirically based diagnosis of the housing crisis. When the microscope is trained on houseless people, the public hears little about the real culprits, including the policymakers who have failed to replenish our affordable housing stock and interest groups, such as real estate and apartment associations, that reap tremendous financial benefits from the current unequal system. 

Unhoused people are the most important stakeholders in this issue. They are experts on California’s policy response to houselessness because they live it. They have faced eviction when their full-time jobs no longer covered the rent and have waited years, and sometimes decades, on lists for subsidized affordable housing. They face state violence because of their housing status—a status they have little power to change. Yet, they are often relegated to the margins of the public debate, talked about rather than engaged with, their perspectives discredited by propaganda that dehumanizes them.

People without homes can be literally disenfranchised. Melissa Ivory, an unhoused woman who lives in the Mojave Desert, said that law enforcement officers had ordered her to move out of Lancaster City or face citation for living in public. As she was no longer a resident, she could not vote in city elections. “We are like a piece of wind that carries a voice,” she told me, “but it is not heard at all.”

Unfortunately, California is by no means an outlier when it comes to criminalizing houselessness. The National Homelessness Law Center found that laws punishing the life-sustaining conduct of houseless people increased from 2006 to 2019 in every category they tracked, including sleeping, sitting, or lying down, and living in vehicles within a public space. The criminalization of houselessness appears to be a widespread American phenomenon.

Better Solutions Than Criminalization

Legal advocates have shared that they are fighting an uphill battle in tackling the escalating deluge of criminalization one community at a time. To stem this human rights crisis, states should intervene to ban discrimination based on housing status, as they have done with race, sex, age, and disability.

In California, advocates are pushing legislators to add “housing status” to the list of categories that are protected from discrimination in California’s government code. If successful, this campaign will provide a powerful legal tool that unhoused people and their legal advocates can use to challenge policies that persecute people based on their housing status.

Naming laws that criminalize houselessness as discriminatory could also help to upend the narrative that blames unhoused people for the housing crisis. Discrimination is widely believed to be wrong. A discourse that frames the criminalization of houselessness through the lens of discrimination draws attention to structural conditions of oppression. And it connects the housing justice movement to other social movements that fight for equality and dignity.

Human rights movements can help heal the wounds that have divided our communities by focusing on the interests that housed and unhoused people share. Living in a rich society that tolerates such high levels of deprivation is not healthy for anyone. Nor is living in a world that normalizes state violence against our most economically distressed neighbors. Large swaths of our community members are one paycheck away from losing their homes. Others face the prospect of retiring into houselessness. We would all benefit from a world in which everyone has the opportunity to live in a safe, permanent home they can afford—a world in which our human right to housing is respected.

A movement that leads with an inclusive vision of housing justice can dismantle the manufactured fault lines that divide neighbors, relegate houseless people to subaltern status, and deflect responsibility from policymakers who have failed to replenish our affordable housing supply. It can generate the solidarity and collective power that will be required to overcome the entrenched interests that perpetuate our unequal system. Such a movement could succeed. 

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Eve Garrow

Homelessness Policy Analyst & Advocate, American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California

Eve Garrow is a policy analyst and advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. Her work includes research, policy analysis, public education, and advocacy to promote policy changes that will secure the human right to housing, end discrimination against people who are unhoused, and increase the human dignity of all people.