6 Things You Do at Home That are Illegal if You’re Homeless

6 Things You Do at Home That are Illegal if You’re Homeless May 2, 2024

Should homelessness be made illegal? Cities everywhere are cracking down. Here are six bad reasons why towns are jailing unhoused people.

Homeless man on steps with a bottle inside a paper bag
Image by shauking from Pixabay

An April 19 New York Times interview with Supreme Court correspondent Abbie VanSickle says that cities across the US are cracking down on homelessness. Working as I do with an unsheltered population in Washington State, this comes as no shock to me. Our homeless population has surged, prompting a backlash from municipalities. The New York Times sheds light on it.


Homelessness in Grants Pass

In her interview with VanSickle, Katrin Bennhold says that the “Supreme Court…is about to hear arguments in the most significant case on homelessness in decades, about whether cities can make it illegal to be homeless.” She asks VanSickle, “You’ve been reporting on this case that has been making waves, Grants Pass versus Johnson, which the Supreme Court is taking up next week. What’s this case about?” VanSickle replies:

So this case is about a small town in Oregon where three homeless people sued the city after they received tickets for sleeping and camping outside. And this case is the latest case that shows this growing tension, especially in states in the West, between people who are homeless and cities who are trying to figure out what to do about this. These cities have seen a sharp increase in homeless encampments in public spaces, especially with people on sidewalks and in parks. And they’ve raised questions about public drug use and other safety issues in these spaces.

And so the question before the justices is really how far a city can go to police homelessness. Can city officials and police use local laws to ban people from laying down outside and sleeping in a public space? Can a city essentially make it illegal to be homeless?


Criminalizing Behaviors Related to Homelessness

Of course, cities can’t criminalize homelessness. And nobody wants to round up all the unsheltered people and throw them in jail. Localities like Grants Pass don’t want to burden their jail systems with people whose only crime is to have no home. But residents don’t want “those people” in their community, either. So, what’s a town to do?

While they can’t criminalize homelessness per se, municipalities can criminalize behaviors typical of unsheltered individuals. While they can’t bust someone for being homeless, they can ticket or arrest them for doing the things that unsheltered people do. In this way, residents keep “the homeless” out of their own backyards and force them to move along to someplace else.


What Behaviors Are Typical of Homelessness?

When they think of “behaviors typical of homelessness,” many people first think of illicit drug use. While not all people experiencing homelessness use illegal drugs, this is a problem for many. Debates continue over the decriminalization and legalization of street drugs. I won’t address that issue in this article. But here is a list of other activities typical of homelessness—things that are not illegal in and of themselves. If you have a home, you can do these things with no problems, but if you live on the streets, these normal human functions suddenly become illegal:


6 Illegal Activities for People Without Homes

  1. Drinking alcohol and smoking weed (where it’s legal). Have a glass of wine in your home, and it’s just a relaxing night by the fireplace. But try that on the sidewalk, and you’re headed for jail. Forget your feelings about the legitimacy of these activities. Simply recognize that for one group of privileged people, this is legal while for others it is not.
  2. Sexual activities. If you have a home, you can be intimate with anybody you want, without fear of arrest. Even if it’s late at night in a city park, and the only person walking past your tent is a police officer, you’re going to be under arrest for public indecency. If it’s in the bushes, you’ll be charged with public nudity on top of that. And you’ll probably have to register as a sex offender, making it virtually impossible to find housing in the future.
  3. Toileting activities. You might say, “They can just use public bathrooms.” The problem is that an increasing number of establishments offer these for customers only. Plus, park restrooms close after sunset. So, where’s an unsheltered person supposed to relieve themselves, besides an alleyway or behind the bushes? If you have a home, you can pee to your heart’s content. But if you’re homeless, it might just be illegal to take a leak.
  4. Sleeping. Take a nap in your own bed if you have one. But if you don’t have one, that’s a ticketable offense. In Grants Pass, for example, as long as you don’t look homeless, you can spread a picnic blanket on the beach or in a park and doze all you want. But if you’re unsheltered, even a catnap can be illegal. In addition to ticketing people without homes sleeping in public locations, cities also fence off access to overpasses where people might find shelter beneath bridges. They replace old-fashioned park benches with ones that have armrests in the middle, to discourage sleeping on them. And they install spikes or place sharp rocks on the ground, in popular sleeping spots.
  5. Fire. Cook all you want at home—in your microwave, on your stovetop, or in your grill or smoker. But light a small campfire in the park or fire up your single-burner alcohol stove in an alleyway and you’ll be charged with reckless burning. Even when it’s cold outside, you can’t huddle over your propane camp stove for warmth.
  6. Having an argument. Unless you’re really disturbing the peace, you can have an argument inside your house or apartment without police intervening. But those who live in public have their whole lives on display. This means everyone sees their worst moments, whereas yours are kept private, as long as you have a home. People find it uncomfortable to watch others have arguments. Concerned citizens may worry about safety and call 911. Third parties call police for arguments they can see and hear—not those they don’t know about because they happen behind closed doors.

You can probably think of other activities that you can do freely in your home, but which are illegal if you are homeless. Cities can’t make homelessness itself illegal. But they can target ordinary human behaviors that are acceptable for housed people, and make them illegal for unsheltered individuals.

The result is an entire segment of the population that is forced to choose between incarceration and transience. That’s not a choice anyone should have to make.

I invite you to read my next article, “6 Reasons Homeless Shelters Won’t Solve the Problem,” where I discuss the deepening issue, and offer some solutions.


 For related reading, check out my other articles:


About Gregory T. Smith
I live in the beautiful Fraser Valley of British Columbia and work in northern Washington State as a behavioral health specialist with people experiencing homelessness and those who are overly involved in the criminal justice system. Before that, I spent over a quarter-century as lead pastor of several Virginia churches. My newspaper column, “Spirit and Truth” ran in Virginia newspapers for fifteen years. I am one of fourteen contributing authors of the Patheos/Quoir Publishing book “Sitting in the Shade of another Tree: What We Learn by Listening to Other Faiths.” I hold a degree in Religious Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University, and also studied at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. My wife Christina and I have seven children between us, and we are still collecting grandchildren. You can read more about the author here.
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