CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Friday, May 18, 2018

Ruan et al. on Criminalizing Homelessness

Nantiya RuanElie ZwiebelMichael BishopBridget DuPeyNicole JonesAshley KlineJoshua Mitsonand Darren O’Connor (University of Denver Sturm College of Law, University of Denver Sturm College of Law, University of Denver Sturm College of Law - Homeless Advocacy Policy Project, University of Denver - Sturm College of Law, Students, University of Denver Sturm College of Law - Homeless Advocacy Policy Project, University of Denver Sturm College of Law - Homeless Advocacy Policy Project, University of Denver Sturm College of Law - Homeless Advocacy Policy Project and University of Denver Sturm College of Law - Homeless Advocacy Policy Project) have posted Too High a Price 2: Move on to Where? on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Over two years have passed since the University of Denver Sturm College of Law’s Homeless Advocacy Policy Project released its report, Too High a Price, detailing the tremendous expenditures Colorado cities make in an effort to criminalize homelessness. As Colorado housing costs continue to skyrocket, its homeless epidemic has grown as well. Unfortunately, state actors continue to write, pass, and enforce ordinances that criminalize some of our most basic, life-sustaining activities. Laws such as camping, sitting or lying in public, begging, and loitering disproportionately target behaviors associated with homelessness, leaving one of the state’s most vulnerable populations living in fear.

As a follow-up to Too High a Price, this Report details the increased efforts to criminalize homelessness in the state of Colorado.
Through an examination of three of Colorado’s most prominent cities, Denver, Boulder, and Colorado Springs, this Report highlights the stark rise in enforcement of anti-homeless laws, and the disproportionate and inhumane impact they have on the day-to-day lives of people experiencing homelessness.

In the process of examining Colorado’s ever-increasing criminalization of homelessness, we found that law enforcement frequently issues “move-on” orders to remove visible poverty from its city streets. A move-on order, also referred to as a police “street check,” is a law enforcement technique used to further enforce certain ordinances, including camping bans. In lieu of issuing a citation or making an arrest, officers are directed to instruct homeless individuals, upon contact, to pack up their belongings and “move on” to somewhere else.

At first glance, these move-on orders may seem like a viable alternative to outright issuing citations. However, with the extreme decline in affordable housing and the lack of emergency shelter space to accommodate Colorado’s growing homeless population, these move-on orders leave homeless people with nowhere to go. Instead, they are merely pushed from one place to the next.

To analyze the trends of criminalization of homelessness, we utilized Open Records Requests to obtain data detailing the enforcement of anti-homeless laws in Colorado Springs, Denver, and Boulder. This data revealed that Colorado cities have increased enforcement more than we anticipated. Furthermore, we researched the adverse effects move-on orders have on homeless populations. Based on this research and data, we came to the following conclusions:

• The overall number of anti-homelessness ordinances has increased. Between Denver, Colorado Springs, and Boulder, there are at least thirty-seven ordinances that criminalize behaviors associated with people experiencing homelessness. Since Too High a Price was first released, Colorado Springs has added one new anti-homeless ordinance and Denver Law students found four additional ordinances in Denver.

• Colorado Springs and Boulder have increased the number of citations issued under camping bans. In 2017, Boulder issued 376 citations under its camping ban ordinance. Of those 376 citations, an incredible 81.9% were issued to homeless individuals. Additionally, Colorado Springs increased its enforcement of its two camping bans by a staggering 545% over the span of three years.

• Denver’s use of move-on orders has skyrocketed at an alarming rate. In 2016 alone, Denver law enforcement made contact with over 5,000 people in move-on encounters. Denver police increased its contact with homeless individuals through the use of street checks by 475% in the span of three years.

• The number of emergency shelter beds cannot accommodate Colorado’s homeless population. In all three cities we surveyed, none provide enough beds to meet the needs of its homeless populations. In Colorado Springs, the number of year-round shelter space can only accommodate 38% of El Paso County’s homeless population. Boulder has even fewer resources, with only enough beds for roughly 25% of its homeless population. Denver doesn’t fare better, with the 2017 Point-in-Time count indicating that on a given night, nearly 1,000 homeless people sleep on the streets.

• Move-on orders have overwhelming collateral consequences on homeless populations. The use of move-on orders has grave consequences on people experiencing homeless, including: pushing people to dangerous areas, pushing people farther away from vital resources, and causing adverse health effects. As homeless people are forced into the shadows, extremely harmful consequences usually follow.

Beyond the lack of shelter space and affordable housing, and how criminalization makes homelessness harder to escape, the larger issue is this: why are we so uncomfortable with facing homelessness? Our parks are for everyone. Our streets are for public use. Our free speech rights allow for all citizens to ask for what they may need. We should not view visible poverty as something to be avoided at all costs—especially if that cost results in further degradation and ostracism.

Despite some city officials acknowledging that issuing citations does nothing to solve the homeless crisis, our research reveals that city actors continue to criminalize homelessness. This Report concludes by offering suggested changes for Colorado cities moving forward. First, only through stopping the criminalization efforts will we begin to alleviate the vicious cycle of homelessness in Colorado. Colorado cities should repeal camping bans that merely criminalize the human necessity to sleep and rest, provide new resources to homeless populations such as twenty-four-hour restrooms, and invest in education efforts that promote the dignity of people in poverty. Trying to make homelessness invisible does nothing more than make homelessness inevitable.

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