01/10/2013 09:03 am ET Updated Mar 12, 2013

Criminalizing Poverty

From the early 1800's to the early 1900's, people throughout the United States who could not afford a home were confined to "poorhouses" or "workhouses," for the "crime" of being poor, and were required to remain there, performing hard labor under harsh conditions until they died or were discharged. Most of us look back on those days in disbelief, but today, communities all over the country are passing ordinances that come very close to making it a crime to be poor. Under these new laws, people who cannot afford housing are considered criminals because they engage in activities such as sitting, lying, sleeping, eating or relieving themselves in public spaces.

Twenty years ago, a federal court in Miami ruled that the city could not arrest homeless individuals for engaging in life sustaining activities in public, when they had no other place to do these things.

The court's decision led the community to build a homeless shelter, but the recent economic downturn and foreclosure crisis have resulted in so many people losing their income and housing, that there is now no room at any established homeless shelters in Miami. So once again, both in Miami and throughout the country, there are efforts to pass local ordinances that would make the innocent everyday actions of individuals experiencing homelessness criminal. These proposals sound awfully similar to considering people criminals because they are too poor to afford a home.

Once upon a time, in the 1960's, homelessness was rare in the United States and was limited mostly to those individuals suffering from drug or alcohol addiction. And even among those with such addictions, few were actually homeless - jobs were plentiful and paid enough to keep body and soul together, and there were many inexpensive places to live such as single room occupancy (SRO) "hotels." Today, SRO's have been demolished or repurposed, and the fastest growing demographic among those experiencing homelessness are families who have lost jobs or homes.

The face of homelessness has changed dramatically over the past few years. Many today become homeless when they suddenly fall behind in their rent or mortgage payments due to a medical or economic emergency, and find themselves unable to catch up because wages today are often not sufficient to meet basic needs. Government figures show that since the 1950's, residential rents have more than doubled even after taking inflation into account. During the same time period, minimum wage has actually decreased after adjusting for inflation!

Passing criminal ordinances does not solve this problem; it only makes the situation of persons experiencing homelessness worse by giving them a criminal record that prevents them from obtaining the employment or housing that would allow them to overcome their current circumstance(s). If we want to do away with homelessness, we need to work on the long-term trends that have led us to the present situation. We need to work toward housing that is affordable to even the poorest among us, to jobs that pay enough to support families, and toward a health care system that does not cause financial crisis.