‘Over-Enforcement’ During Pandemic Drives More Homeless into Jail

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With evictions looming across America due to COVID-19-spurred joblessness, the growing crisis of homelessness is putting more pressure on the criminal justice system.

A report released Friday by Vera Institute found that homelessness is currently between 7.5 and 11.3 times more prevalent among the jail population and, “due to local policies, people who are homeless are 11 times more likely to be arrested nationwide than those who are housed.”

On any given night in the United States, more than 550,000 people experience homelessness, according to Vera.

Jails and enclosed shelters undoubtedly increase the risk of contracting COVID-19, yet many municipalities enforce laws that make it nearly impossible for the homeless to seek less dangerous living situations, while neglecting to offer significant help in jobs, affordable housing, or medical treatment, according to the Vera issue brief, titled “No Access to Justice: Breaking the Cycle of Homelessness and Jail.”

The “over-enforcement” that the report details includes surprise sweeps of homeless camps that destroy important personal documents; move-along orders; and criminalizing of “unavoidable aspects” of homelessness through laws prohibiting loitering, vagrancy, and sitting or sleeping in public spaces.

For example, a camping ban passed in Denver in 2012 made it illegal for people “to use any form of cover or protection from the elements other than clothing,” leading to people receiving tickets for using their backpacks as a pillow, sitting on cardboard, or using a blanket for warmth.

The Vera report said the higher risk that the homeless face of contracting COVID-19 is due to “their increased probability of having chronic health conditions, higher average age, and exposure to unsanitary and unprotected living conditions.”

The Vera report said, “Despite the dangers posed by the pandemic, law enforcement individuals continue to forcefully evict people experiencing homelessness from public spaces.”

The homeless are being arrested and incarcerated for violating stay-at-h0me orders, social distancing rules, and self-quarantine orders “even without reasonable alternatives for sheltering and isolation.”

In Orlando, for example, a homeless man was arrested for walking down the street with his bicycle after curfew. Instead of offering any assistance in finding shelter, the man was arrested and booked into the county jail.

Once arrested, the homeless face “new obstacles at every justice system decision point,” including difficulties in appearing for court dates, low-level citations turning into warrants and arrests, likelihood of pretrial incarceration, and burdensome conditions of probation and parole.

“The lack of a stable mailing address to receive notification of court dates, exclusion from pretrial diversion programs due to lack of housing or employment, and inability to realistically abide by certain standard conditions of probation are just a few of the disadvantages faced,” said Madeline Bailey, program associate in Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections.

The Vera report recommends these strategies for breaking the cycle of homelessness including:

      • Eliminating harmful city ordinances that target elements of homelessness;

      • Halting the issuance of warrants for quality of life offenses;

      • Forgiving legal fines and fees for people experiencing homelessness;

      • Reforming probation and parole procedures to support people without stable housing; and

      • Addressing housing and employment restrictions for justice-involved people.

“Without thoughtful policy and practice change, systems in the United States will continue to bar people experiencing homelessness from interacting with the justice system as other members of the community do.”

The full brief can be found on the website for the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, which supported this research.

Nancy Bilyeau is deputy editor of The Crime Report.

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