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How Homelessness Became A Crime


A Homeless Woman in San Francisco. Credit: Franco Folini via Flickr

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani made so-called ‘quality of life’ policing a worldwide trend. And while it may have temporarily decreased crime, there are harsh consequences for the thousands of innocent people caught up in the frenzy of arrests.

On this edition, the criminalization of homelessness. If it’s illegal to be on a city’s sidewalks, parks and plazas, where else can people go?

How ‘Quality of Life’ turned Homeless New Yorkers into Criminals

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, nearly 37,000 homeless people sleep in New York City shelters each night.  Their research concludes that the primary cause of homelessness, particularly among families, is lack of affordable housing.  Rents have always been high in New York; but since 1994, so called ‘Quality of Life’ policing, and business friendly development strategies have delivered a one-two punch that means poor New Yorkers have even fewer options for housing, and often find themselves specifically targeted by the law.  Journalist Sam Lewis volunteered with the homeless led group ‘Picture the Homeless’ over the past two years, recording the voices of New Yorkers without a place to live.  Lewis produced this story for Making Contact, about how those without homes are criminalized, and how they’re organizing to change the city’s ways.

San Francisco Bans Sitting or Lying on Sidewalks

San Francisco’s reputation as a home for wayward creatives took a bit hit in November 2010, when voters approved a law which would ban sitting or lying on the sidewalks.  As Making Contact’s Andrew Stelzer reports, the law is not only challenging the identity of the city, but is being criticized as a cruel and ineffective way of dealing with the large homeless population.


Extended interview with Paul Boden

Full Length Interview with Paul Boden, organizer with the Western Regional Advocacy Project, about San Francisco’s Sit-Lie ordinance, & other policies across the country that criminalize the homeless and the poor.

S’bu Zikode of the Shack Dwellers movement in South Africa speaks to U.S. based housing activists:


Neil Smith, Center for Graduate Studies at the City University of New York Geography and Urbanism professor; Carlton Berkeley, Former NYPD Detective and author of ‘What to do if Stopped by the Police’; Genghis Kallid Muhammad, Gene Rice, Elise Lowe, Picture the Homeless members; Protestors opposing New York’s disorderly conduct law; Melvin Williams, Coalition for the Homeless volunteer; Rob Robinson, National Campaign to Restore housing Rights organizer; Barbara Daughtery, homeless New Yorker; Mark Schuylen, former urban planner; Samuel Warber, street musician; Andy Blue, ‘Sidewalks are for People” campaign organizer; George Gascon, San Francisco Police Chief; John Avalos, San Francisco Supervisor; Jen Vandergriff, San Francisco resident; Jason Lean, homeless San Franciscan; Paul Boden, Western Regional Advocacy Project organizer

For More Information

Bryant Park Corporation
New York, NY

Central Park Conservancy
New York, NY

Civil Sidewalks Campaign
New York, NY

Coalition for the Homeless
New York, NY

National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty
Washington, DC

Picture the Homeless
Bronx, NY

Sidewalks are for People
San Francisco, CA

Times Square Alliance
New York, NY

Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP)
San Francisco, CA

Articles and Books:

Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities.

NY Police Commissioner responds to WABC-TV quotas investigation

Donate to Making Contact

Author: Kwan

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  1. I live in Ft Worth TX and have just learned on the local news that the city of Dallas is setting up No Homeless, No Panhandling zones for the duration of the upcoming Super Bowl here in our area. I suppose they intend to use sit / lie ordinances and panhandling as methods to jail as many homeless as possible to keep them off the streets while the tourists spend their SUPER BOWL MONEY on worthwhile things, that of course create tax revenue. All is right with the universe I guess, Have a great Day Yall – Steve the formerly homeless cowboy

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  2. I caught the last 5 minutes of this show and managed to write down the contact info.

    EVERYTHING I heard was a mirror of what goes on in Santa Barbara, California. The “Quality of life” laws, the attitude of the public, government and law enforcement, the way people are warehoused in shelters and programs, the selective enforcement, etc.

    This city is VERY good at troweling on a thick layer of political correctness, faux compassion, crocodile tears, and general handwringing; this way the public and the media never quite catch on to what is really going on behind the scenes.

    SB has decades of experience in sweeping homeless people off the streets and out of sight, while looking compassionate and caring all at the same time. This is a tourist trap, and tourism is the #1 priority here, that and keeping the local yuppies and spoiled drunk, rich college kids happy. The alcohol industry is rapidly overtaking all else, with wine bars and the wine culture rapidly overtaking other businesses.

    It’s OK to be a rich drunk here, but if you are poor or homeless, then you are a “transient” and a “wino” and you need to be swept up and swiftly inserted into a reeducation facility, run by a six-figure earning poverty pimp who is being paid to keep you off the streets and out of sight of decent citizens and tourists.

    Ugly stuff.

    I am one of the founding mothers of Homes On Wheels, an alternative housing organization. I lived on the streets in a motorhome for about 10 years. My story is not unusual, what makes it unique to me is that it is mine.

    The other founding mother is a dear friend whom I’ve been close to for approximately 33 years. We still get together and marvel at our survival, and at how little anything has really changed here. All that HAS changed is that vested interests have gotten much better at cracking down on and harassing people because they are poor and helpless… and not getting caught at it.

    Keep speaking up. This show was truly one of the best ones I’ve heard in a very long time. There was no pandering to the usual sacred cows. Actual homeless people, not tokens or cherrypicked “representatives of the homeless community” were interviewed and allowed to speak. The show was extremely well done, and all the major points were hit and spotlighted.

    Believe me, I am a cynic of the first order. I trust no one. I look for the “angle” in everything, and sadly I usually find it. This was well done, and I am very impressed. We all are.

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