Clinic Hosts Panel on Criminalization of Homelessness

Homelessness has become a fixture of modern urban life: normalized, expected, and uncritically examined. In 2015, students at The Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic started researching this often overlooked phenomenon and, in November 2016, published a report titled: “Forced into Breaking the Law”: The Criminalization of Homelessness in Connecticut.

On November 17, Allie Frankel ’17, Hillary Vedvig ’17, and Scout Katovich ’17 – the three primary authors of the report – hosted a panel discussion with Nathan Fox, Warburton Director of Outreach Ministries at Center Church in Hartford; Mark Colville, founder of the Amistad Catholic Worker; and Melinda Knebel, an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) at Center Church in Hartford.

The event began with a video about Franklin, who faced criminalization based on his homelessness in Florida.

“I live in the woods down here by Lowe’s,” he said. “I’m lucky if I make ten dollars a day.”

Franklin tries to apply for jobs, but he is rejected by every single one. When he attempts to make money by begging on the highway, he is given a $64.50 citation for doing so. If he cannot pay the fee, he will most likely end up in jail.

“A lot of time people don’t have any place to go, so they end up violating the law,” Katovich explained. “Some of the citations are for holing up a sign asking for money to feed yourself or urinating in public.”

According to the panelists, the citations incurred by homeless people as a result of petty crimes committed to ensure their survival can start a dangerous cycle of criminalization. Katovich gave an example to illustrate this point. If a man is living in homelessness and gets a 99 dollar fine for loitering while waiting for the homeless shelter to open, he can either pay or plead not guilty. Since he probably doesn’t have the money to pay, he pleads not guilty. If the man pleads not guilty, he receives a mandatory court date in the mail; however, he has no permanent address. The man most likely will not show up to court for this reason, and a failure to appear is a crime. He will now have a warrant out for his arrest, and the next time the man is issued a citation, the officer will see he has an open warrant and will put him in jail.

Allie Frankel emphasized that this type of criminalization violates state, federal, and international law. “Laws criminalizing necessary, life-sustaining functions, like sleeping on a park bench or standing in a public square, constitute cruel and unusable punishment,” she argued.

In addition, laws against begging and loitering restrict homeless persons’ freedom of speech and movement. Vedvig emphasized that these laws effectively make homelessness a crime.

“We define the criminalization of homelessness as laws that restrict behaviors in which people experiencing homelessness must engage to survive, as well as the practices used to enforce these laws,” she declared.

As of now, about 3.5 million Americans—and 4,038 in Connecticut—are currently experiencing homelessness and are subject to these laws. The panel recommended that cities and judges stop enforcing the criminalization of homelessness and instead redirect resources to address homelessness and poverty.

“It costs almost three times as much to jail someone for a night than to put them in a shelter,” Katovich concluded. “There are many reasons why cities shouldn’t be doing this on a normative, legal, and practical level.”