A homeless man pushing a shopping cart being asked to leave an alleyway by a blonde female police officer in charge of street cleaning.
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Homelessness & Imprisonment: Let’s Discuss Some Hard Facts

Homelessness is a huge issue in the US. And not all homeless people are criminals. Many are down on their luck, or unable to afford housing. But does that always lead to crime?

When it comes to homeless people, there is often the belief that they are criminals, that they are dangerous. In a society that places so much value on independence and progression, individuals experiencing homelessness are pushed to the side. But is there any truth to the assumption that many of them are criminals?

A homeless man pushing a shopping cart being asked to leave an alleyway by a blonde female police officer in charge of street cleaning.
A homeless man being asked to leave an alley by a police officer in charge of street cleaning. Image Source: SFGate

Access to Affordable Housing for the Homeless

According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Planning, on a single night in 2017, over 550,000 people experienced homelessness in the United States.

People become homeless for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they:

Contrary to what some might say, many homeless people do work. And even more have the skills and education to be who they want to be. They can be:

  • Lawyers
  • Teachers
  • Students
  • Receptionists
  • Entrepreneurs

According to the Washington State Department of Commerce, some reports estimate as much as 40% of people affected by homelessness are workers.

Why Are Working People Homeless?

But if 40% of homeless people actually have jobs, why are they still homeless?

Recent studies show there are no states in which a minimum wage worker working full-time can afford a one-bedroom apartment at fair market rent. This means even if all homeless people did have a job, they would still have difficulty finding a place to live.

Especially considering that roughly 1/3 of all people experiencing homelessness are single individuals, as opposed to members of a family. They are people whose lives were displaced and had no one to help support them.

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Substance and Alcohol Abuse: The Fall to Homelessness

Perhaps the negative view of homeless people stems from the assumptions made about substance abuse. When it comes to this issue among homeless populations, the average sufferers of addiction to drugs and alcohol are at a staggering 32%.

Roughly 20% higher reported abuse of alcohol and illicit drugs by the general population (Washington State Department of Commerce).

While the comparison might be skewed depending on how the second figure was gathered, it is still a very real issue. But, the truth of the situation isn’t substance abusers become homeless.

The reality is, homeless people turn to drugs and alcohol for an escape. With systems set in place to keep homeless people impoverished, there is little else left.

The issue comes with how we treat the concept of homelessness. While a homeless person is no more likely to become a criminal than a housed person, there is one important exception: camping ordinances. A law was broken simply by being homeless.

People who live on the streets can be charged for:

  • Trespassing
  • Violating camping ordinances
  • Loitering on private property

So much to deal with considering all they have done is tried to live. On the surface, this might not seem so bad. It’s just one or two nights, right?

They get a place to rest and a chance to reevaluate things and make a clean start on the other side of the bars.

A homeless man in a winter coat sitting in a cardboard box sipping a cup of coffee.
A homeless man in winter sipping a cup of coffee. Image Source: Huffington Post

Homelessness & Incarceration in America: Cold, Hard Facts

Here are some facts for you to sink your teeth into. According to a 2008 study which researched the 2002 US jail population:

  • 15.3 of the inmates had been homeless at some point within a year before incarceration
  • That rate increased 20% when mental illness became a factor
  • Around 10% of the people in the US who entered federal or state prisons had been homeless recently
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Another Important Fact About Homeless & Incarceration

About 10% of the people who leave state or federal prisons in the US are homeless after their releases for some period of time.

Read Probation & Parole: The Fix for a Costly Justice System?

Is It a Crime to Not Have a Home?

In a perfect world, that’s all it would be. If there is anything the justice system has taught us about reintegration, it’s that the system is set up to do the exact opposite. Trying to recover from a mark on your record is incredibly difficult.

Some of my family members who have gone through the criminal justice system have struggled to get employment even with years of experience under their belts. It is hard to keep or attain a job already for someone experiencing homelessness. Things that are essential for maintaining a position are not easily attained:

  • An alarm
  • Consistent sleep
  • Regular hygiene care
  • Professional dress

Even worse, having a criminal record makes it harder to get the money to afford a place to live. Also, it sets up barriers to being allowed to live there. Many apartment complexes will not allow tenants who possess a criminal record.

It wasn’t until I was older when I realized how close my own family came to not being able to afford a place to live. Fortunately, we had other members of our family to lean on. The truth is, the line between having a house and being homeless is much thinner than it may appear.

This is not meant as a warning, but an opportunity to see yourself in the people who are forced to live on the streets, in their cars or in shelters. Only through the application of empathy can change begin to take place. Because in many ways, it is a crime to be homeless in America.

Video: Homeless Man Under ‘House Arrest’ on Public Sidewalk

The following video is from back in 2014. But I though it was pretty interesting. Check out what GeoBeats News had to say about the homeless man who lives on a public sidewalk under house arrest:

One homeless man in Milan is serving his house arrest on a public sidewalk. The 48-year-old male has numerous criminal convictions under his belt including petty theft, drug dealing and attempted robbery.

As part of the house arrest sentence, the man retreats back to his sleeping bag which sits in front of a deserted storefront. He needs to remain in that same spot from 9 o’clock at night until 7 the next morning.

The homeless man stated “I have always done my stealing at night. That’s why the court gave me this sentence. Since I don’t have a house, there was no other solution left: during the night I can’t move, I have to stay here, stuck on this sidewalk.”

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N. L. Sweeney is an English Creative Writing graduate from Western Washington University. His work has been published by Flash Fiction Magazine, Niteblade, Defenestration Magazine, Jeopardy Magazine and Inroads: Writers in the Community. He currently writes editorials and feature news pieces for Prison Rideshare Network. When Sweeney’s not writing, he busies himself with petting furry animals, learning Chinese and making friends in local tea shops.

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N. L. Sweeney
N. L. Sweeney is an English Creative Writing graduate from Western Washington University. His work has been published by Flash Fiction Magazine, Niteblade, Defenestration Magazine, Jeopardy Magazine and Inroads: Writers in the Community. He currently writes editorials and feature news pieces for Prison Rideshare Network. When Sweeney's not writing, he busies himself with petting furry animals, learning Chinese and making friends in local tea shops.
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