Los Angeles voided more than 2 million citations and arrest warrants for minor infractions related to homelessness last month. City Attorney Mike Feuer said the step would “help address root causes of poverty and homelessness” and allow city officials to focus on more important public safety issues.
Many cities ban panhandling, defecating in public, camping, or lying down on public property. People living on the streets tend to accrue citations and fines ranging from tens to hundreds of dollars, depending on the city. Failure to pay means late fees. No permanent address means nowhere to receive a notice to appear in court. Missing a court date can mean an arrest warrant and a night or more in jail. Criminal records make it tough to land a job or housing. The cycle of fees and fines pushes people deeper into homelessness and poverty.
Some activists propose removing the laws against camping and panhandling altogether. The American Civil Liberties Union is working to eliminate anti-panhandling laws, state by state. But in places like Austin, Texas, which repealed its public camping ban earlier this year, business owners say the homeless population on the streets is causing disorder and driving away customers.
In 2016, the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty initiated a campaign called Housing Not Handcuffs to promote housing and services for the homeless instead of penalties. It said the money a city spends enforcing penalties, making arrests, and housing people in jail far exceeds the revenue it would get from the payment of fines.
San Francisco, another California city with a massive homelessness problem, eliminated its justice system fines last year. It encouraged its court system to reduce the amount owed for existing violations and allow people to pay off tickets with community service. By November 2018, the city was bringing in more revenue than before because people were willing to pay off the more manageable fines.
“The number of people getting on payment plans went up 400 percent,” Anne Stuhldreher, director of the San Francisco Financial Justice Project, told Chicago’s WBEZ-FM. Washington state took a similar step last year.
Los Angeles still issues citations to homeless people, but Feuer told KCRW-FM that courts can dismiss the charges or assign community service instead of fines. The Homeless Court Program also works to dismiss fines for people who sign up for housing or services. “People do need to be accountable for their actions, and that includes people who are homeless,” Feuer said.
In Falls Church, Va., a program called Homestretch provides people with housing, education, and support for two years, removing barriers to their independence. Christopher Fay, the program’s executive director, said many clients, especially single moms, struggle with accumulated debt. If a single mother went to jail for unpaid fines, she could lose her job, miss rent payments, and see late fees and increased credit card interest skyrocket. On a tight budget, this could mean losing her apartment and becoming homeless with her children once she gets out of jail.
“I believe some crimes demand incarceration, because of the severity or violence involved,” said Fay. “But most crimes associated with poverty—misdemeanors, drunkenness, quality of life violations—are like shouts for help by people who feel lost and unable to cope.”