States That Criminalize Homelessness End Up Paying The Price

Homeless men waiting in line for a day shelter to open in Denver CREDIT: AP PHOTO/BRENNAN LINSLEY

Cities and states have limited resources. When they’re faced with a growing homeless problem, those resources can either go toward finding housing for the homeless or to policing and criminalizing the daily habits of the homeless.

In Colorado, according to a new study, the choice has largely been to criminalize homelessness. And it’s a choice that’s coming with a big price tag.

There are nearly 10,000 homeless people in Colorado, about 2,800 without shelter, and it increased more than 26 percent between 2014 and 2015. Yet when researchers at the University of Denver looked at the state’s 76 largest cities, they found that altogether, they have 351 anti-homeless ordinances on the books, which comes to an average of six laws per city, although every municipality has at least two. The ordinances range from restrictions on sleeping, sitting, or lying in public to bans on begging or panhandling to anti-trespassing and loitering laws to prohibitions on public urination and bathing.

The most common ban is on public urination and defecation, appearing in 59 cities, although many cities don’t have public restrooms that are available 24/7. The runner up is restrictions on begging, appearing in 55 cities.

These laws aren’t just sitting on the books; they’re being aggressively put into force. And the homeless are feeling the biggest burden. Across all of the cities the report looks at, over half of the citations are handed to homeless people, even though they make up a tiny share of the state’s population. For example, Denver arrested nearly 300 homeless people for panhandling in 2014 and issued more than 2,000 trespass citations to the homeless between 2013 and 2014, half of all trespass citations it handed out overall. Boulder issued 1,767 camping ban citations between 2010 and 2014, or a rate of two per homeless resident. Pueblo issued 756 citations for loitering in the same time period.

And cities are spending a lot of money on all of this enforcement. Just six Colorado cities, the report estimates, have spent more than $5 million enforcing 14 anti-homeless ordinances over the last five years through policing, court, and incarceration costs.

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos

Take the state’s capital, Denver. The city has 11 ordinances on its books, ranking second for the sheer number. And in just one year alone, 2014, Denver spent nearly $750,000 enforcing its ordinances. That figure includes more than $260,000 in policing costs, or an average of $225 per each citation, and more than $203,000 to process the citations through the courts, at an average cost of $174 a citation. About half resulted in jail time, with the average jailed homeless person spending a little more than four and a half days in jail, at a cost of $247 per person or a total of nearly $280,000.

These figures are all on the low end, given that they don’t include other likely costs of failing to address the root causes of homelessness, such as through the medical system. A different report found that Denver spends an average of $35,000 each year on one chronically homeless person.

These same resources could instead be put toward housing the homeless. As the report authors write, “If taxpayer dollars were redirected to address root causes of homelessness, local governments would save hundreds of thousands of dollars on enforcement and could begin to end the ‘revolving door’ of homeless individuals circulating through the criminal justice system.” Housing costs have been rising in the state while it doesn’t provide enough shelter space for everyone without a home. For example, Boulder has 280 beds for 440 homeless residents; Fort Collins has 118 for more than 400 people. Shelters in Denver can only house about 10 percent of its homeless population.

The wait for housing assistance can be even more arduous. The Colorado Division of Housing has a 6,500-long list of families on its waiting list. Half of homeless people surveyed in Denver had been on a waiting list for more than a year.

Across the country, mass homelessness didn’t become the phenomenon it is today until funding for affordable housing was slashed and the deficit between demand and supply of affordable units grew so large. The cities and states that have succeeded in ending homelessness for populations like veterans or the chronically homeless have done so through a housing first approach, which gets the homeless into permanent housing before addressing any other issues. That, it turns out, comes with huge savings, including decreased spending on policing and incarcerating the homeless.

The decision to criminalize homelessness, meanwhile, may soon cost states federal money and could be considered unconstitutional.