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.


  1. Criminalizing the poor… is criminal. And a blatant violation of God’s word in the Holy Bible.
    Our city leadership is a disgrace and brings shame on Colorado Springs. The Liberals in Denver are also guilty of criminalizing and persecuting the poor.

  2. Housing-first is absolutely the right approach to our homelessness crisis. We need to put A LOT more money into providing safe places for every homeless person to live. I’m happy to pay more in taxes to bring those services on-line as quickly as possible.

    However, homeless advocates should recognize that the broader public has a legitimate expectation for clean and safe parks, libraries, and other public spaces for themselves and for their children. It’s not reasonable to oppose all limits of camping and loitering until the homelessness problem is “solved.” There needs to be a balance.

  3. It makes no sense to spend that kind of money only to have it perpetuate the problem! That money can be used to build more facilities, or programs that may actually address and mitigate issues resulting in homelessness.

  4. The real problem here is NOT the homeless, they are a symptom of a sying society. One that can’t even BOTHER to take care of it’s own citizens. one that sees PEOPLE as a problem to be dealt with rather than as a potential resource to be encouraged. Since Reagan, when we suddenly started seeing everyone as nothing but a combination of their flaws rather than their promise, this country has been on a downward spiral. Reagan did NOT make things better here at all, unless you’re in the 1%.

    Not to mention that it seems like pretty much EVERY time a right wing policy is tried, it costs about 10 times MORE than NOT doing it. Flint Michigan is a perfect example. Good old right wing penny pinching is now going to cost the state hundreds of millions in repair, legal fees and medical care for those the governor has ruined for life. And this happens ALL the time with these great right wing ideas. next time the right proposes something, be smart enough to say NO! This whole criminalizing of the homeless is just ONE MORE way in which this is shown to be true.

    Fact is, there is MORE than enough housing, it’s just that the “needs” of those who own it are far more important, apparently, than anyone else’s. But when you kick up prices like we have in this country and state for the last 3 decades, you start having some bad effects on REAL people.

    Not to mention that a large number of our homeless are vets that the government decided were great when they were at war, and now are completely expendable, apparently. This is totally shameful.

    We need to start seeing value in humans, rather than just cost. It’s a fundamental attitude shift, and one that takes a repudiation of right wing policies and attitudes. It’s time we grow up and do what needs to be done for the PEOPLE of this country, not just the 1%. And the ONLY way to do that is to tell the right wing where to get off, and show them the door. They are DESTROYING the very fabric of this country with things like this, and we are (or WERE) a better country than that.

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