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How Homelessness Became A Crime


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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


Episode Transcript


  • This week on Making Contact.
  • There was a quality of life. Giuliani’s children nor himself will never have to go through that.

  • 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.

  • And the state that they’re making is putting too much focus on the non-violent crimes, trying to make homelessness seem like it is a crime. It is not a crime. It’s a condition.

  • 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? I’m Andrew Stelzer, and this is Making Contact, a program connecting people, vital ideas, and important information.

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, nearly 37,000 people sleep in New York City shelters each night. Their research concludes that the primary cause of homelessness, particularly among families, is a 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 us about how those without homes are criminalized and how they’re organizing to change the city’s ways.

  • This is 34th Street [INAUDIBLE].
  • It’s around 11:15 PM, when New York City police officers begin to tape off certain areas of Pennsylvania Station. Since the fall of 2009, throughout the night, yellow caution tape remains draped along the edges of the station’s cavernous waiting areas. Amidst the steady flow of commuters and tourists are homeless people, who, for decades, have used the station’s waiting areas as a warm place to rest during the winter months.

  • [CHANTING] Homelessness is not a crime. Let us rest, and we’ll be fine. Homelessness is not a crime.

  • Homeless people and their advocates claim that the taped off lobbies are just the latest in a series of strategies designed to make homeless people disappear from where they they are normally seen. But as a consequence, quality of life, or zero tolerance policies, first established in the early ’90s, created a class of individuals largely excluded from the city’s public spaces.

  • You don’t even notice that the homeless is out here. It’s getting worser now. It’s getting worser every year.

  • But this is a mechanism to keep the homeless away, out of sight, out of mind, and make New York the mecca of the world for tourists.

  • The New York State penal code classifies a series of nonviolent public behaviors, like loitering, panhandling, public drunkenness, and graffiti writing as disorderly conduct, a violation punishable by law. Even though the disorderly conduct statute is not specifically designed to criminalize people without shelter or housing, norms about appropriate public behaviors have created a class of crimes most likely to be committed by homeless people.

Once a person is arrested, even if it’s for a violation, his or her name will not clear on a criminal background check, a standard practice for potential employers and private landlords. Federal law also gives housing authorities the power to deny access to people based on criminal activity.

  • Hey-hey, ho-ho. Disorderly conduct’s got to go.
  • In 2010, Picture the Homeless, a grassroots organization founded and led by homeless people based in New York City, launched a campaign calling on state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to address the NYPD’s use of the disorderly conduct statute. But the pattern of law enforcement predates Cuomo, who has now been elected governor of New York state, by more than a decade.

  • There’s a kind of a history and geography to the relationship between gentrification, homelessness, and policing on the streets.

  • Neil Smith is a professor of geography and urbanism at the Center for Graduate Studies at the City University of New York.

  • You have to go back to the 1990s, when Giuliani, under his police strategy number five, which drew on the broken windows theory, was very much about clearing homeless people off the streets. And it was very much about how the city looked, so in a sense, there was a postmodernity to it that it was the symptoms, it was the aesthetics of the street that were important. But that began a very brutal crackdown against homeless people in New York.

  • After being elected in 1994, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani drew on the broken windows theory to support his new strategy for quality of life policing. The broken windows phrasing comes from a 1982 article in The Atlantic Monthly. The idea is that broken windows and other signs of neighborhood neglect were considered to be visual cues to potential criminals that the community tolerated illicit behavior.

Giuliani updated the concept. “Crime is not a force of nature,” he wrote in a 1997 USA Today editorial, which then continued, “Graffiti, blaring car radios, street prostitution, drag racing, and drunk driving, low level drug dealing, public drinking and urination, squeegee window cleaners, and other aggressive beggars are, in effect, society’s broken windows. They create an atmosphere conducive to more serious crime.”

Giuliani is often credited as the mayor who cleaned up New York City, but–

  • Giuliani was the worst mayor for us police, because he gave police really full reign.
  • Carlton Berkley, a former detective with the NYPD, just published a book, What to Do When Stopped by the Police.

  • He took over from Dinkins. Dinkins tried to bring back community policing. Giuliani came in. He said, that’s [BLEEP]. I want real cops. We’re going to go out here and fight real crime, and we’re going to be aggressive, no matter what the circumstances is.

  • Giuliani’s notoriety for restoring order to New York landed him multi-million dollar consulting gigs in Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro, and quality of life policing tactics promoted by Giuliani have spread throughout the country. A 2006 study published by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found that the number of ordinances against the publicly poor in US cities has been rising since 2006. Neil Smith says the broken windows theory and law enforcement strategies that followed it overlooked decades of public policies that failed to address a trend of increasing homelessness.

  • What we saw in the 1980s was the real signs of the failures, ultimately, of liberal urban policy, as it had been since the 1930s, if you want to go back that far, but really, in the post-Second World War period. It was failing, because, of course, people couldn’t afford housing. People were being thrown out of jobs. What does the liberal housing policy do when so many people are unemployed and don’t have a home?

  • And that’s what I see, and now it’s become an epidemic. And they’re not just people who are drunks, who have just given up. These are people who have been displaced, put out of their homes for one reason or another.

  • Genghis Khalid Muhammad is a member of Picture the Homeless.

  • There was no such thing as you seeing homeless people in Penn Station or Grand Central or Port Authority or any of these places. That never existed in my growing up in New York. And it’s not just a thing just in the state of New York or the city of New York, but it’s across the whole country.


  • By the 1980s, homeless encampments, graffiti-sprawled subway cars, vacant buildings, and prostitution became a normal part of the urban landscape.
  • What that then meant locally was that while it was in the beginning in the 1980s, a lot of support, a lot of liberal support for homeless people. That support very much fell away, and there was a new kind of revanchism, a real revenge against homeless people that kicked in.

  • Again, Neil Smith.

  • And it wasn’t so much a revenge from the right wing. It was a revenge from liberals, in fact. And it was very much about making people feel secure. The real insecurity was coming from the extraordinary rise in the cost of housing. People were feeling insecure about housing. People were feeling insecure about jobs. When they hit the middle class, when the structural unemployment that was happening in the ’80s and into the ’90s, people were feeling insecure.

What various political administrations locally, nationally, and even globally were able to do was to transplant that insecurity from very real daily issues of housing and jobs, access to medical care, child care– they were able to transplant that to displace it on to issues of migration, class issues around working class demands for fair wages, and ultimately, of course, onto homeless people.

  • I’ve witnessed the impact of the so-called quality of life offenses being put into play by the previous Mayor Giuliani.
  • Jean Rice, a leader of Picture the Homeless’s Disorderly Conduct campaign, lived on the streets for nearly a decade, collecting cans to make a living.

  • And at the same time that homeless has reached record proportions in our city, thereupon, it follows that homeless people are forced into a constant interaction with the NYPD, whose job is to police the streets of New York to make it safe for our citizens.

  • Private property owners and business elites supported quality of life policing, because it removed homeless people from major commercial centers, public parks, and transportation hubs.

  • You know, I didn’t know what disorderly conduct was about, and I got arrested a couple of months ago.

  • Elise Lowe is also a member of Picture the Homeless.

  • And a cop stopped me, because I had picked up a bottle to put it in the garbage. They said it was consumption of alcohol, and they arrested me. I spent a night in jail. That was my first time ever being locked up.

  • Since disorderly conduct is a violation and not a crime, the potential sentence maxes out at 15 days in jail. But if an individual does not show up to their court date, neglects to pay the fine, or can’t perform community service, an outstanding warrant is issued for their arrest.

  • I’ve been taken off the train, just because I had a package, a bag next to me, when the train wasn’t even crowded, saying that you’re taking up more than one space, and it’s maybe 2 o’clock in the morning.

  • Barbara Doherty has been homeless for over two years.

  • I’m not laying down. I’m sitting up. You know? But if you’re not like me, homeless, having a bag, they don’t bother you. A few times I was taken in, because they said, oh, you have a warrant. No, I don’t have no warrant. I never had no warrant. What? What? Take me in. And I wind up having to go through the system and see the judge, and I’ll be released. And there was no real warrant, but they put you through that, because they want the quota.

  • The criminalization of homelessness was also aided by trend of privatizing public space. Strapped for cash during the fiscal crisis of the late 1970s, the New York City government handed over the management of several parks and open spaces to corporate and private sponsors. Organizations like the Central Park Conservancy, the Bryant Park Alliance, and the 42nd Street Partnership have helped to fill the gap in the Parks Department operating budget. Urban spaces that are created for public use are now developed with commercial enterprises that generate revenue to be used for maintenance, but as a result, law enforcement agents patrolling those spaces have a different agenda.

  • We saw a guy that’s coming in, a regular guy that’s coming in with his briefcase or his computer. You know what I’m saying? Those are two different bags, but you’re not going to say that to him.

  • Melvin Williams volunteers with the Coalition for the Homeless. Throughout the ’90s, he was homeless himself and was harassed in many of the parks and public spaces that were managed by the public private partnerships.

  • There were places like Sony. You know, that big corporate place. Oh, well, they couldn’t tell you that you couldn’t stay in there, but they would say, oh, you have a time limit. You’ve been here too long. And I’d say, well, what about that man? He was in here when I got here, and you’re putting me out, and he’s still there.

  • And Sony was allowed to build a building that was a certain amount, that was a certain height with tax incentives. So as a part of that deal, you’re supposed to create so much public space.

  • Rob Robinson, formerly homeless himself, is now an organizer for the campaign to restore national housing rights. He says that when a private organization manages a public space, they can impose their own rules and regulations.

  • When Sony wants to have a party in that space, all of a sudden, they’re forcing homeless people out, because the cameras might come in, and they don’t want the cameras to see homeless people sleeping in here.

  • Another example is Manhattan’s Bryant Park. In 1988, the Bryant Park Corporation, a not-for-profit project management company directed by neighboring property owners, took ownership and closed the park down. After a four-year renovation, the park reopened with a budget six times larger than under prior city management.

  • Bryant Park was the last place on earth you ever wanted to be near. It was derelict. It was this abandoned corner.

  • Mark Schuylen, a former urban planner specializing in the management of public private partnerships, says the costly transformation made the park a much better place for tourists and business owners.

  • Now instead of drug dealers, we have ice skaters. Now instead of people who are prostituting themselves, we have fashion shows. Now instead of people who are hanging out and homeless, we now have people eating ice cream cones and reading novels.

  • But Bryant Park’s conversion to an attractive public space didn’t include plans or resources for those who were swept away or incarcerated. Former NYPD detective, Carlton Berkley, says that quality of life policing strategies are part of a much broader agenda to increase property values.

  • When they gentrify an area, the poor people has to go. Initially, they’re not leaving. So how do you get them to leave? You use the police. Start harassing them.

  • Berkeley says pressure on police officers to make arrests and issue summonses to fill quota demands has increased under the Bloomberg administration. According to WABC TV, out of almost 400,000 people charged with misdemeanor infractions, like disorderly conduct and loitering, that went to court in 2008, just over half were dismissed outright. Again, Neil Smith.

  • And Bloomberg has, in many ways, benefited from the violence that Giuliani explicitly perpetrated. The attacks on homeless people in the 1990s became integrated into a much larger, much more scurrilous attempt at securitizing the city.

  • Berkeley recalls a recent conflict between residents and the police.

  • We grew up blocks away from Marcus Garvey Park. They put up a million dollar condominium. Soon as the people moved in there– and this was a tradition. Every Saturday for 50 years, you had the drummers beating their drums in the park.


  • We could sing to it, because we know the beat.


  • Now since these people came, one of them called the police department, and what they said was, I paid $1.5 million to live here, not to hear black people beating bongos, making noise from 9 o’clock to 7 o’clock in the evening. And what the police did is they take that one phone call, and the police come out, and they act on it. So I’m going to now give you a summons for being disorderly.
  • That was geared to the gentrification of the city, but it wasn’t as hard-wired under Giuliani as it is under Bloomberg. So what Bloomberg has done is a very explicit pro-business gentrification policy. Leading that has been the rezoning of– I think now the numbers are up over 100 neighborhoods in the city.

The whole point was to lubricate the reinsertion of those places into a highly profitable real estate market. That’s what the rezoning has been about. And in the process, the result has been to keep rents artificially high, push rents higher, and drag the bottom of the market up, therefore making it more and more difficult for people at the bottom of the market to get housing. Increases in homelessness– hence the 120,000 figure.

  • 120,000– that’s the number of men, women, and children who slept in the New York City municipal shelter system in 2009. It’s an all time record, and under Mayor Bloomberg’s watch, which began in 2002, this count has increased by 45%. Now families comprise nearly 80% of the shelter population.
  • Bloomberg? What does Bloomberg want? He wants to bring more and more rich people to New York, because he– and he says it. He says, because then they got their taxes.

  • He’s on their campaign now.

  • And this and that. But we’re saying, when you bring all of those rich people here into our neighborhoods, where do we go? And you know he doesn’t have an answer for that.

  • “It’s not a homeless crisis. It’s a housing crisis,” is the campaign being waged by Picture the Homeless. The idea is that a lack of affordable housing produces homelessness, and criminalization fails to address this root cause.

  • We don’t need to be ashamed of homelessness, something that is beyond your control. The blame is put on the people who find themselves in the dilemma of homelessness, and there made to be the guilty party. This is wrong, and it must be stopped now, and attention must be brought to the whole city, state, country, and the world.

  • For Making Contact, I’m Sam Lewis in New York City.

  • We’ll be right back.


  • You’re listening to Making Contact, a Production of the National Radio Project. If you’d like more information or for CD copies of this program, please call 800-529-5736. Because of listeners like you, this show is distributed for free to radio stations in the US, Canada, and South Africa. To find out how to support us, download shows, or get our podcast, go to


  • Could there be anything more San Francisco than a 20-year-old from Ohio playing guitar on the street?
  • I’m working on a musical project called KNOW, and I’ve been here for about 2 and 1/2 months this time. It’s a traveling rock and roll circus. We’re working on it.

  • Samuel Warber is following a decades-long tradition of artists, musicians, and other assorted wanderers, who came to San Francisco to find themselves and to be part of a more accepting society. It’s the last place you might expect a law that bans people from sitting on the sidewalks, even musicians like Warber. But in the November, 2010, election, that’s just what happened.

  • This law is going to most directly affect the most vulnerable people in our community, people who need services while services are being drastically cut in our city.

  • Andy Blue was one of the organizers of the Sidewalks Are for People campaign. They worked to try to defeat a ballot initiative titled Proposition L that banned anyone from sitting or lying on San Francisco sidewalks between 7:00 AM and 11:00 PM. Voters approved the Prop L law 53% to 47%.


  • The No on L campaign held numerous colorful, creative rallies, and their stickers could be seen all over town. But they only raised about $10,000. Supporters of the ban, led by business owners and the Chamber of Commerce, spent around half a million to fund their campaign. San Francisco resident, Jen Vandergriff, is in favor of the sit-lie ban.

  • Because I take my grandchildren out, and they see some drunk laying in the gutter with pee coming out of him and everything, and that’s no way for a child to be raised.

  • What are you going to do about those people? Where are they going to go?

  • Well, there’s more shelters in this town. It’s their choice to live in the street. They need to be– I don’t know. Ship them out of town.

  • But San Francisco doesn’t have enough shelter beds or services for its homeless population. With at least 6,000 homeless in the city, there are only enough emergency beds every night for about one third of the people who need one. And even San Francisco police chief, George Gascon, a big supporter of the sit-lie ban admits the law probably won’t prevent people from sitting and lying on the sidewalk, because there aren’t enough police to enforce it.

  • You know, I have absolutely no interest in doing anything that will impact homelessness in a negative way. This is really about looking for a fair solution to creating a better quality of life for people that are doing business, residents in some neighborhoods are, quite frankly, today are being harassed, and even, in some cases, being physical assaults.

  • But critics of the sit-lie law point out that assault, harassment, even spitting on passersby are all already illegal. They say giving the police more powers is likely to lead to abuse. Sit-lie laws are currently on the books in about 60 other cities across the country, including Seattle and Los Angeles. Some have been struck down in court as unconstitutional. That’s one reason advocates for the poor are planning to challenge the new sit-lie law in hopes it will be overturned.

  • The main argument they have is fear. It’s not based on policy. It’s not based on the laws that don’t exist. It’s really about people’s perception about homeless people and homeless young people in general.

  • John Avalos is a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The board voted down the sit-lie ban in early 2010, but Mayor Gavin Newsom, who supports the ban, put it on the ballot himself.

  • Back in the late ’90s, there were discussions about super predators, why we needed to have stronger gang laws and stronger penalties. And this is all part of it. Now we have a super predator type homeless kids who are on Haight Street. That is not the reality.

  • Jason Lean is one of those street people.

  • We were just sitting, not doing anything, just sitting around, having a good time, and just hanging out and stuff.

  • He says in his few months living on San Francisco’s streets, he’s occasionally harassed by the cops, and he expects that will only increase now. Under the new law, after a warning by police, there’s $100 fine for the first offense. That rises to $500 and 30 days in jail for repeat offenders.

  • Basically, low income, no income, and the elderly. So that’s basically who’s going to be affected. It’s economic profiling. That’s basically what it is.

  • Traveling musician Samuel Warber has seen how the sit-lie ban works in Santa Cruz, California.

  • I mean I’ve been down there where people were sitting around, and then the police would show up, and you’d have to move, or people would start scattering because of the rule.

  • And where would they go?

  • There’s benches, but most of the time people are just like rats. They just go somewhere else.

  • You are listening to Making Contact. I’m Andrew Stelzer. Joining me now is Paul Boden, community organizer with the Western Regional Advocacy Project, abbreviated WRAP. They are based in San Francisco and were one of the groups campaigning against the passage of the sit-lie ordinance, Proposition L. They also monitor and track examples of policies that criminalize homeless and poor people across the country. Thanks for speaking with us, Paul.

  • Yes, good afternoon.

  • So now that San Francisco’s passed a ban on sitting and lying on the sidewalk, assuming it stands up in court, how is this going to change things for the homeless in San Francisco?

  • I think what we’re going to see, regardless of whether it gets watered down in court or not, you just add this on top of the list of loitering, sleeping, blocking the sidewalk, panhandling, being in the park after hours, disobeying the signs, trespassing. You just add another level to the list of laws that are being used across the country to remove the presence of poor people from downtown quarters.

  • What are the effects of these policies on different types of homeless populations? I know there’s an increase in homeless families with the poor economy, with veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s a big increase in homeless veterans, and of course, the mentally ill. How are these quality of life policies affecting these particular and other populations?

  • Well, and it’s funny, because here we are in 2010, talking about an increase in these different segments of the homeless community, when, in fact, we didn’t have all of these homeless shelters prior to 1982. And we’ve done everything but address the root causes of what created that mess. What we have done is we’ve created a whole level of institutions with separate courts and the community justice centers and the quality of life enforcement programs and the business improvement districts.

We’ve created a whole tier of being punitive and penalizing and criminalizing the existence of the people that we want to remove, not address the issue of why so many people are out on our streets, why poverty is rampant, and why mentally ill people have gone from being institutionalized to de-institutionalized to re-institutionalized in our criminal justice system and in our jails. Everything but addressing that.

The way that we address poverty in the United States of America today is we build jails, and we lock people up. We just did outreach to 250 self-identified mentally ill homeless people. And 76% of the people that we talked to had been arrested or cited under quality of life enforcement type programs. And that’s in six cities, and that’s just a random sampling of talking to 255 people. And if you’re talking a social experiment of saying, well, you know what? We don’t want to fund education. We don’t want to fund treatment. We don’t want living wages for our workers. We’d rather ship our jobs overseas or wherever the labor is cheaper.

You know, we don’t want any of that stuff. So we’re just going to focus on policing a comfortable environment for people to shop in. And that’s going to be the priority for our social policy in the United States of America. You can maybe get away with it for a little while. I mean I know that there’s a segment of the society that really wishes homeless people were more like lemmings and that once you lost your housing, you’d march off into the freaking sea. That’s just not going to happen.

  • Paul Boden is an organizer with the Western Regional Advocacy Project. Their website is, and we’ll link to it on our website, Thanks so much for joining us, Paul.

  • Yeah, thank you very much.

  • And that’s it for this edition of Making Contact. For an extended interview with Paul Boden, go to our website, For a CD copy of this program, call the National Radio Project at 800-529-5736, or check out our website at to get our podcast, download past shows, or help make a difference by supporting our work. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.

Author: Radio Project

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