While homelessness itself is not a crime, many city and state laws in America effectively criminalize just about every behavior of people who find themselves living on the streets.
New York City has thousands of people living on the streets, which doesn’t include the over 60,500 people who spend the night in shelters, according to Coalition for the Homeless statistics. For people who find themselves without a roof of any kind, they have few options.
Anyone caught sleeping on sidewalks, can be charged with “obstructing pedestrian traffic,” a violation under the general charge of “disorderly conduct” under the New York state penal code. If arrested, the maximum term of imprisonment is 15 days.
If a homeless people leave their belongings unattended on the streets, the sanitation department can remove them.
This is according to the city administrative code, which allows for the “removal of incumbrances of streets.”
A homeless person who tries to sleep in a park after closing hours, can also be penalized. Aside from an unauthorized presence, city park rules also forbid sitting on a bench “so as to interfere with its use by other persons” and leaving one’s personal belongings unattended. Any park rule violation is considered a misdemeanor, subject to a fine or up to 90 days imprisonment.
Many homeless sleep huddled close to buildings for protection from the elements. Most likely they are trespassing on private property, for which they can also be arrested. Last year, a homeless man who sought shelter in the stairwell of a public housing building in Harlem was charged with trespassing in the second degree, a misdemeanor. A judge set his bail at $2,500, which he wasn’t able to pay, according to reports by The Associated Press. He later died in his overheated jail cell when guards neglected to check on him.
The homeless aren’t left with many options inside subways either. It is against Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) rules to take up more than one seat. Panhandling is also prohibited. Rule breakers can be charged with a fine of $25 or up to 10 days imprisonment.
If you’re homeless you probably can’t afford a subway ticket. Jumping a turnstile is considered “theft of services,” a state misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.
A 2014 report released by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, found that in its survey of 187 American cities, many had passed more laws since its last survey in 2011 that criminalize homeless populations, including 18 percent that passed citywide bans on sleeping in public; 53 percent prohibit lying down or sitting in certain public spaces, such as on sidewalks.
Twenty-four percent had citywide bans on begging, but that number rose to 76 percent when including cities that ban begging in public spaces.
Cities also prohibit people from loitering (65 percent), sleeping in cars (43 percent), or from sharing food with the homeless (9 percent). That means in 17 cities, charity organizations and individuals are not allowed to feed the homeless.
The study found that these laws often led to the homeless getting arrested and incarcerated, which was costly for the local government, and also added to the burdens of the homeless person.
“Criminal convictions—even for minor crimes—can create barriers to obtaining critical public benefits, employment, or housing, thus making homelessness more difficult to escape,” states the report.
At one point in New York state, the act of begging in a public place was against the law. In 1993, a homeless individual filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the New York City police department, citing the law’s violation of First Amendment rights to free speech.
The court ruled in the plaintiff’s favor, which compelled the city to change its laws to forbid “aggressive solicitation.” That means it’s illegal to make someone feel threatened or intimidated to give money, but begging itself is not illegal.