Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger

The Effects of Criminalizing Hungry and Poor People

Hot_meal_program_bmoreBy Sarah Godfrey

Earlier this month, a Washington Post piece on the rise in family homelessness profiled Helen Newsome, a young mother with a toddler and a newborn baby who had been turned away from several D.C.-area shelters.

The article focused on a bureaucratic tangle that has the city turning away families in need, but also explored the myriad issues that homeless families face in finding suitable sheltering. Newsome said she frequently spent the night in a subway station with her children when she had no other option. Eventually she is helped by Janice Coe, a social worker who finds out about Newsome's troubles from a member of her prayer group who happens to use the subway station where the family sleeps. 

Other families referenced in the piece said they have slept with their children on church steps or on the discount bus line from D.C. to New York, which, at just $14 for a round-trip ticket, offers a cheap, safe, warm place to sleep for several hours.

The article ends on a hopeful note, at least where Newsome’s family is concerned. With the help of Coe, she is able to apply for SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly food stamps) and find temporary shelter in a motel while waiting for subsidized housing. But what would've happened if Newsome has been given a ticket at that subway station instead of a helping hand?


Increasingly, cities and counties around the country are arresting and/or ticketing homeless people for innocuous behavior. In Orange County, police have started passing out tickets for everything from smoking cigarettes to leaning against trees. A recent op-ed from a group of homeless people living in Colorado, and receiving services at the Sister Mary Alice Murphy Center for Hope, recounted the story of a young homeless woman in a park who was given a ticket for "camping" simply because she set her backpack on the ground. In Seattle, the city recently ended its free-ride zone program—troubling news for anyone needing to get to an important appointment, but lacking bus fare. Although budget woes were blamed for that particular decision, an opinion piece in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer called it "one more slap at the homeless; one more poke at the poor." Cracking down on the daily habits of people who don't have a place to live isn't just wrong, it's counterproductive.

It's more difficult for people to connect with the services they need to lift themselves out of poverty and off of the street if ordinances and regulations force them to stay in constant motion, remain out of sight, or saddle them with fines and jail time. In a November 2011 report, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found this sort of criminalization not only dehumanizes homeless people, but creates barriers to services. The report cites a 2010 survey of residents of Los Angeles’ skid row: As the result of receiving citations, 31 percent lost social services, 26.8 percent lost housing, and 6.9 percent lost employment. 

Homeless populations already face an entire constellation of logistical hurdles that stand between them and accessing services—such as housing and SNAP. A thousand things that must be negotiated every day in order to get to a meal and find a safe place to sleep, let alone figure out how get to a benefits office or meet with a service provider. Giving someone a ticket for sitting in a park creates a huge barrier between poor people and the social safety net programs they desperately need.  

Sarah Godfrey is Bread for the World's associate online editor.

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Photo caption: Criminalizing homeless people for sleeping in train station or resting in parks makes it more difficult for them to access social services and food programs, such as this seven-day-a-week hot meal service at Our Daily Bread Employment Center in Baltimore, shown here. (Jim Stipe).

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