Criminalizing homelessness comes at staggering cost
Eric Schwartz knows the cost of anti-homeless laws.
Every time he’s ticketed for illegal camping in Boulder, he spends three days in jail. Tickets are $250 each, which he can’t pay, so he does the jail time instead. It’s happened at least 10 times, he bets.
Known to his friends as Rabbit, Schwartz said he doesn’t even bother going to court anymore.
“I figure the best way to show my contempt of court is by not showing up,” he said. And then what? The police come after him? “After a couple of months, yeah,” he said.
Laws against camping, lying down and begging in public places can quickly get expensive for those who live outside, and the criminal justice system awaits those who cannot pay.
But what about taxpayers? What does it cost to enforce laws that target the homeless?
A lot, according to a new study released by the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law Tuesday. The report, “Too High a Price: What Criminalizing Homelessness Costs Colorado,” found that six cities spent a combined $5.1 million on enforcement from 2010-2014. Denver spent more than $750,000 in 2014 alone.
To complete the study, the college’s Homeless Advocacy Policy Project added up the policing, court and jail time costs associated with laws that target homeless populations, like curfews and camping bans. A total of 351 such laws exist across the state’s 76 largest cities. Denver spends an average of $645 on each citation it issues.
Terese Howard of Denver’s Homeless Out Loud, which helped advise the study, says the report emphasizes the social costs of these ordinances, too. “It’s going to enlighten a lot of people,” she said. “Folks who didn’t really understand the situation are going to realize that this kind of mass criminalization is happening,” she said.
Having a criminal record makes it harder for individuals without homes to access education, employment and, rather cruelly, housing. Jail time also often means missed appointments for public benefits like Social Security and Medicaid.
“Criminalizing homelessness anchors un-housed individuals in perpetual poverty,” the study says.
In total, Denver spends the most on enforcement, but Boulder is particularly strict about its camping ban. The supposedly homeless-friendly city issued more than 1,500 camping citations in the study’s four-year period. Incarceration is more expensive in Boulder, too. A night in jail there averages about $110, which is more than twice what it costs in Denver.
According to Howard, criminalizing homelessness jeopardizes the safety of those who live outside. Fearing the police, they often move to more secluded areas where they feel less safe. Women are particularly vulnerable. And even during colder months, many homeless people forego blankets to get around camping bans. Going cold makes them sick. Sickness leads to emergency room visits. The cycle is vicious, and costly.
Besides, Howard said, the laws are ineffective. Homelessness is a problem nationwide, and a lack of affordable housing makes it particularly acute in cities like Boulder and Denver.
“There aren’t enough homes. People have to go somewhere,” Howard said. “The idea that people will just disappear if you make things worse is simply not true. People may move around, but it doesn’t end homelessness.”
To combat homelessness, “Too High A Price” recommends diverting money away from law enforcement and putting it towards programs like Home First and Rapid Re-Housing instead. Home First helps the chronically homeless find stable living arrangements, and Rapid Re-Housing efforts provide transitional assistance for families living in shelters.
Lastly, the report stresses the importance of legislation like Right to Rest Acts, which keep people who sleep and rest in public spaces from entering the criminal justice system.
Colorado’s Right to Rest Act will be heard by the Local Government Committee at the state Capitol on February 24.
The full report is available online here.
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