Washington’s War on the Visibly Poor: A Survey of Criminalizing Ordinances & Their Enforcement

Source: Justin Olson, Scott MacDonald, Sara Rankin, Seattle University School of Law Research Paper No. 15-19, Published by the SU Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, May 6, 2015

From the abstract:
Throughout the country, cities increasingly enact laws that punish behaviors necessary for survival. For those without shelter, there is no alternative but to conduct these behaviors in public. Camping outdoors, sleeping, going to the bathroom, receiving food, sitting or lying down on sidewalks — these laws target homeless people either in practice or outright. But until now, no one knew how widespread these laws are throughout Washington State, or how they are being enforced. This brief answers these questions.

HRAP researchers surveyed the municipal codes of seventy-two cities across Washington to identify ordinances that essentially criminalize homelessness in each jurisdiction. From this survey, researchers created a chart tracking every ordinance they could find. Seven of the cities were selected as case studies for closer examination of the enforcement and citations of these ordinances. The findings reveal that homeless criminalization exists regardless of where you live. From densely populated urban cities to scattered rural townships, city councils are increasingly passing these laws, often drafting them in a way that raises serious legal and policy concerns about how Washington treats its most vulnerable residents.

This brief shines a spotlight on the problems with these laws: how they are written, how they impact the homeless community, and how easily cities can fall into the trap of vilifying already vulnerable populations in the name of safety and public health. This report shows that the problem of criminalizing homelessness, so often buried in municipal codes, is both widespread and systemic.