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I’ve Been Unhoused. It Could Happen to You. Let’s Stop Criminalizing It.

The push to criminalize the unhoused should be treated as a threat to us all.

For a period in 2005, I was one of the more than 740,000 people who were experiencing homelessness at that time in the U.S.

On an eastern section of Sunset Boulevard where tourists never venture, there’s the Hollywood Sunset Free Clinic — less chic than it sounds. Still, they had services ranging from medical care to showers, and for those seeking the latter, they’d give away those little test packets of shampoo and conditioner that used to come in magazines and in the mail. Herbal Essences was a favorite.

After a quick rinse and a change of clothes, I could walk out of the clinic being treated like a real person until some indication of my situation betrayed me: the stuff piled in my car, grabbing leftovers from an understanding restaurant worker, mingling with other unhoused people.

Then the game was up, and I was transformed like cut-rate Disney magic into an invisible person and a visible threat, or prey. As a young woman, I was more perceived as the latter (though to a lesser degree than my nonwhite and noncis counterparts), and I learned to keep my head down, both to avoid sexual harassment but also to avoid the inevitable chastisement and life advice from people who weren’t unhoused, and who saw themselves as superior citizens because of it.

In our society, the burden and blame of being unhoused sit squarely on one’s own shoulders – one is told that one’s situation is a result of some moral deficiency. In truth, the reasons why people become unhoused are myriad, shaped by our existence in the waning capitalist empire known as the United States. There isn’t one reason that can be considered “outside” a system which upholds the ills of capitalism, racism, ableism, misogyny, colonialism, ageism and the downright lottery of what situation you were born into.

Some of the people I met had been unhoused for years, interrupted intermittently with housing that didn’t last for mostly systemic reasons. Some, like me, were first-timers and weren’t unhoused for long. Many were well-educated, including a couple of current and former teachers. Most, like me, had jobs. In fact, a 2021 study from the University of Chicago estimated that “53% of people living in homeless shelters and 40% of unsheltered people were employed, either full or part-time.” Most, like me, had a cell phone. Some, like me, also had a car. I admittedly had it better than most. Many died, some survived, no one thrived.

If we accept that unhoused folks are not the sole architects of their situation and are also people as diverse as the housed population — because all of us were at one point housed — this creates two problems within the false framework of individual failure. First, it humanizes us. Second, it means that the problem is systemic, so anyone could be in that situation, even you.

Even if you have housing right now, you are still likely only one or two emergencies away from being unhoused. In the richest country in the world, where 16 million homes sit vacant while on any given day currently some 650,000 Americans are unhoused (record numbers), and housing is unaffordable to half of all renters in the country, we are all on very shaky ground. This is a horrifying prospect, but one that should move us to establish a solidarity of the shaken, rather than cocoon in fear. It requires a connection not just of personal stories and struggles, but of systemic ones.

For instance, at first blush, one might not think that the recent proposed legislation in Georgia to criminalize cash bail funds has anything to do with unhoused people. SB 63 expands the list of charges that require cash bail and also makes it illegal for individuals, organizations and charities to bail out more than three people a year. To be sure, the legislation comes at a time when dozens of people with Defend Atlanta Forest and Stop Cop City find themselves caught in the gnashing teeth of fascistic litigation, not least of all activist bail funds. But like many legislative hammers, this one has a wide strike radius. Georgia is one of many states that already criminalizes homelessness, and in so doing throws people behind bars who then can’t afford to get out. Considering the fact that homeless shelters that pay bail would also be affected by SB 63, it’s clear that if this bill is signed by Gov. Brian Kemp, the unhoused population in Georgia could soon be the languishing-in-prison population. Sadly, they’d have a lot of company.

Back in 2019, a nonprofit pushing for an end to the cash bail system in the U.S., Equal Justice Under Law, estimated that “there are more than 450,000 people in jail today simply because they can’t pay their bail.” At the same time, prison populations are on the rise, and a report by Prison Policy Initiative found that this wasn’t due to an increase in crime, but rather an increase in harsh sentences and legislation that criminalizes more things. Formerly incarcerated people are almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public once they get out because of the difficulty they face accessing housing, jobs, food stamps, and other basic necessities as a person with a criminal record. With the criminalization of homelessness, the revolving door turns and they end up in jail again.

In short, this tangled web of legislative violence highlights the cruelty of a system that makes people destitute and then repeatedly punishes them for it, along with those who would help them. Being unhoused is not a choice; criminalizing it is. And it is a choice that legislatures across the country have made, often using the same template.

The coalition group Housing Not Handcuffs tracks state-level homelessness criminalization, and notes that many of the bills — including Kentucky’s House Bill 5 — come from the “Cicero template.” The Cicero Institute is a right-wing think tank founded in 2016 by Palantir co-founder Joe Lonsdale, who made his billions by selling surveillance technology to the Department of Defense, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and multiple big city police departments such as the NYPD. The Cicero Institute turned a successful Texas ban on “camping” into a template for legislatures across the country including Utah, Georgia, Tennessee and Arizona. Still, the push to criminalize homelessness started way before Lonsdale threw his weight behind it.

Between 2006 and 2019, the National Homelessness Law Center tracked criminalization laws “in 187 cities and found that city-wide bans on camping have increased by 92%, on sitting or lying by 78%, on loitering by 103%, on panhandling by 103%, and on living in vehicles by 213%. Meanwhile, a 1,300% growth of homeless encampments have been reported in all 50 states.” Keep in mind too that this tracking was done pre-pandemic. It’s also worth noting that even if there isn’t a law against it, it doesn’t mean you can’t be harassed or even ultimately arrested for it.

I was unhoused more than a decade before a 2017 Los Angeles law banned “dwelling” in cars, but cops were already very comfortable with harassing (or at times sexually harassing) people trying to shelter in their cars. Indeed, it’s difficult to really count the places that criminalize homelessness because the practice is so unofficially common. For instance, in Washington, D.C. in 2021, I reported on a violent sweep of an unhoused encampment in the shadow of under-construction luxury condos. Not only is homelessness officially not criminalized in D.C., it’s officially illegal to discriminate against unhoused people. I’m not sure what bulldozing someone asleep in their tent amounts to but I’d wager it goes a bit beyond discrimination. One might even call it cruel and unusual punishment.

On January 12, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Grants Pass v. Johnson, thereby moving toward a ruling on whether “criminalizing homelessness (outlawing unavoidable activities unhoused people engage in to survive) is constitutional.” Legal experts believe the court will consider criminalization with regards to the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. An ironic side-note is that the Eighth Amendment supposedly also protects against “excessive bail.” The problem with this particular Eighth Amendment argument is that being unhoused is in and of itself cruel, and it should be unusual. A bigger problem, however, is that it presupposes homelessness as a crime, because the Eighth Amendment is meant to protect criminal defendants from cruel and unusual punishment. So, by arguing this case on Eighth Amendment grounds, the unhoused are already considered criminal defendants, in which case imprisonment is neither cruel nor unusual.

Kentucky’s House Bill 5, aka the Safer Kentucky Act, broadens and deepens the state’s 2006 Statute 503.055 (aka “Stand Your Ground” law) and aims it squarely at the unhoused. It includes new legislation that would make it illegal to be unhoused in areas that aren’t designated as “campsites,” levying $250 fines for violations. This shouldn’t need to be said, but being unhoused is not a camping trip. Euphemistic language like this only allows lawmakers to trivialize the extreme violence meted out on people who have nowhere to go, and no support once they get there. But the real horror of House Bill 5 is the part where it OKs violent force against an unhoused person if they commit “unlawful camping” on a defendant’s property. The legislation states it is also OK to use deadly force if the defendant “believes that the person … is committing or about to commit a burglary, robbery, or other felony involving the use of force.” That’s a lot of vague beliefs and maybes weighing on a trigger finger.

What this nefarious web of legislative brutality boils down to is the need to not only recognize our tenuous relationship to housing, but also our tenuous relationship to legality. We exist at the whims of a system which can and does criminalize everything (either officially or in practice) — from civic engagement, to mutual aid to destitution, to feeding and housing the destitute, to free speech and press. The building of this “solidarity of the shaken” through mutualistic grassroots organizing is therefore not a poetic offering but a necessary act to protect ourselves, each other and our larger communities from the crescendoing violence of the state.

Author’s note on terminology: I personally use the term “unhoused,” and only use “homelessness” when quoting or referencing reports/legislation that use the term. “Unhoused” emphasizes that those who live on the streets or in their cars do not necessarily lack connection to place. People without housing can still feel at home in a city or area, but they do not have shelter — they are unhoused. It’s a semantic argument, but using the term “unhoused” highlights the manufactured housing crisis rather than implying that being unhoused is related to the purposeful wanderings of an individual.

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