Law & Disorder: The irony and failure of anti-vagrancy laws

A drawing of three tents and a giant hand coming from the ground and pulling on the string of one of the tents.
(Iris Leung | Daily Trojan)

Living on the streets can be a dangerous and dehumanizing experience. People are not unhoused because they want to be but rather because they don’t have a choice. And yet, the predominant approach to solving the ever-growing national crisis of homelessness is to criminalize it. 

Los Angeles’ new anti-camping ordinance went into effect on Sept. 3, altering the city’s current anti-camping law to prohibit “sitting, sleeping, lying, storing personal property, or otherwise obstructing the public right-of-way.” This law makes it illegal for the unhoused population to exist in most parts of the city and essentially persecutes people who are simply trying to survive. 

The issue of homelessness in the United States is a pervasive and complicated topic that has taken on multiple forms throughout history. From the refugees displaced during warfare to thousands of families tossed to the streets during the Great Depression to the low-income populations removed by urban renewal in the mid-19th century, homelessness is a chronic and systemic problem that cannot be solved by pushing people to a city’s corners. 

Backers of the ordinance argue that it would help the city regain public spaces while helping the unhoused population. However, the ordinance only states where people cannot be — it doesn’t state anything about where unhoused people can go. 

While there are shelters set in place, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority only has shelter beds for about 39% of the homeless population. People facing homelessness have to decide between the risk of staying on the streets and getting arrested or leaving their self-made refuge, carrying everything they own to a shelter and abandoning their only safety net — often to just be turned away due to a limited supply of beds. If it’s an overnight-only shelter, those lucky enough to obtain a space have to repeat this strenuous process and try their luck again the next night for a basic human necessity.  

On a constitutional level, the Supreme Court has consistently ruled, from Bell v. City of Boise (2015) to Martin v. City of Boise (2018), that criminalizing homelessness is unconstitutional and that people experiencing homelessness cannot be criminally punished for not having other alternatives than to live and sleep outside on public property. 

Anti-vagrancy laws have been used as a solution to homelessness in the past, and they have all failed. More than half the $100 million city budget set on alleviating homelessness goes to the police department to enforce these futile and inefficacious laws, yet L.A. continues to have the second-largest homeless population in the nation. These failed tactics should push us to explore different solutions, but this ordinance proves otherwise. 

Multiple factors have led to L.A.’s current homelessness crisis, including tough-on-crime laws, racist zoning, state cuts to mental health services and wage disparities, all of which impact Black and Latinx communities the most. Furthermore, the unhoused population are often the victims of transinstitutionalization, which means they are moved from the streets to the mental health system to the criminal system and then right back to the streets where they further struggle to survive. This is not an issue we can ignore any longer. The ordinance displaces unhoused people into regions of the city where they cannot be seen, hiding the issue rather than solving it. 

People who are unhoused have a much higher rate of police interaction and are much more likely to become victims of police violence. About the one in three times that a Los Angeles Police Department officer uses force, it is against someone who is experiencing homelessness. There is an evident connection between unsheltered homelessness, police violence and systemic racism, making the need to dismantle anti-homelessness laws ever more pressing. 

One clear example of this was in the case of Wayne Jones, a Black man experiencing homelessness, diagnosed with schizophrenia and living in West Virginia. An officer found Jones jaywalking and asked him for identification, which Jones did not possess, and if he had a weapon.  Jones admitted that he had a small fixed-blade knife on him. Four other officers arrived on scene, tased him multiple times and despite Jones being secured and incapacitated, opened fire, shooting him 22 times. These ordinances further empower the police to harass and punish citizens for minor misconduct,  to harm the innocent and do absolutely nothing to help solve homelessness.

An alternative to passing these ordinances can be seen in the Measure H sales tax. Passed in 2017, it is one example of a successful strategy in helping people leave the streets. Since then, the number of people housed through the homeless services system has doubled. Additionally, there were larger outreach and funding programs for permanent housing units and assistance for clearing criminal records of those unhoused. The project was projected at $355 million a year, but in order to provide an optimal homeless services system, an additional $500 million would be needed. 

The criminalization of homelessness is not the solution, and if anything, it worsens the crisis. Adding a criminal record to someone who is unhoused only further hurts their chances for access to employment, housing and education and disrupts entire communities. The passing of these ordinances and similar methods must stay in the past. They’ve failed more than once and our communities cannot carry on like this any longer. 

Helen Nguyen is a junior writing about law and social issues. Her column, “Law & Disorder,” runs every other Monday.