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Discretion in the Criminal Justice System

      Discretion is arguably the most important tool in a criminal justice professional’s arsenal. Without it, we would be robots. Even the ...

The Criminalization of Homelessness


    It is estimated that there were approximately 671,888 homeless people in America on any given night in 2009. (PBS, 2009, Facts and Figures: The Homeless) This number was projected to increase by over 1.5 million over the housing crisis that started in 2008. (PBS, 2009) The number of people that this category includes is very hard to pinpoint, as some sources do not count people in shelters, cars, or tents. Taking these out of the equation leaves an estimation of just over 500,000 people living unsheltered on any given night. (Benedict, 2018, Statistics Show that America’s Homeless Problem Is Getting Worse) Homeless as defined by PBS means, “lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate night-time residence,” meaning that the person being considered must not have a residence to sleep in that is not permanent. (PBS, 2009) This can be anyone from a person sleeping on friends’ couches while he looks for an apartment, or an aging alcoholic that sleeps in a cardboard box. 

    The consequences of chronic homelessness are extremely substantial. Homeless people tend to be the victims of crime at a much higher rate than the non-homeless, even being victimized by hate crimes more commonly as well. (Smith, 2019, Unhoused people are more frequently victims of hate crimes) There is also a very large correlation between the mentally ill and being victimized. In a study published in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect, 84% of the youth sample size had experienced some form of victimization. (Bender, Ferguson, Thompson, & Langenderfer, 2014, Child Abuse and Neglect Vol.38(10), 1628-1635) This is an overwhelmingly large number that shows the dangers that homelessness can cause. The victimization of the homeless can not be solved without groups of people working together on a solution. Throughout the history of the United States, there has been laws and regulations made in an attempt to thwart homelessness, but the problem still affects an extremely large amount of our youth, veterans, mentally ill, and people that are forced into homelessness due to no fault of their own.

    Homelessness has been an issue in civilization since the beginning of civilization. It has also been a social problem since this time as well. There has been recorded public outcry about this issue since ancient Greece was still ruling the Mediterranean. The Cynic philosopher, Diogenes of Sinope was a homeless man after he was exiled from his native city for allegedly defacing currency. (Mark, 2014, Diogenes of Sinope) This may have been why his beliefs were shaped the way they were, and a lot of his teachings focused on giving up personal possessions and living off of the charity of others. (Mark, 2014) He slept in a large, abandoned wine cask and is said to have at one point owned a cup but gave it away once he saw a boy drinking from his own hands, realizing that one not even need a cup to sustain themselves. (Mark, 2014) The man did not draw empathy from the rich, who at one time threw bones at him and called him a dog, to which he promptly agreed by urinating on them. (Mark, 2014) He did, however, garner sympathy from the people that frequented the market where he lived. At one point, children in the marketplace broke his wine cask and the locals responded by beating the children and replacing the cask for Diogenes. (Mark, 2014)

    This freedom of full autonomy can be enticing, especially when homelessness first became a widespread problem in America. The 1870’s and the railway system brought about the beginning of widespread homelessness with “tramps” using the system to travel from one town to another. (NASEM, 2018, Permanent Supportive Housing: Evaluating the Evidence for Improving Health Outcomes Among People Experiencing Chronic Homelessness) The “Great Army of Tramps,” that a twenty-one-year-old immigrant named Jason Riis was apart of and documented, was full of young, white, able-bodied men that brought the freedom of Diogenes to the railroad. This group of men craved the autonomy of not having to work for anyone consistently and constantly travelling. The men embraced hard work and did little to follow rules and regulations, initiating a counter-culture movement that veered away from societal norms and values. (NASEM, 2018) While these “tramps” of the 1870s were associated with laziness and low self-control, the term “hobo” coined in the 1880s helped the movement gain understanding in the general public’s eyes. (NASEM, 2018)

    This glorification and often romanticizing of the hobo culture rose all the way until the 1920s, when Chicago sociologist Nels Anderson popularized the term “hobohemia” to describe the freedom felt when not anchored to a town. (NASEM, 2018) Eventually, seasonal labor would start being taken by immigrant farm workers and companies started valuing longevity over temporary, hard work. (NASEM, 2018) This brought about an era of homelessness more often associated with homelessness today. Most of the homeless following WWII were most often found in Single Room Occupancy hotels or Skid Rows, which made the study of homelessness in America difficult for the time. (NASEM, 2018)

    During the 1980s, the HIV pandemic as well as the recession that took place caused homelessness to skyrocket and become more of the homelessness that we experience today. (NASEM, 2018) The demographic changed as well during this time and the new face of homelessness was younger men, typically under forty, and mostly encumbered with substance abuse and mental illness. (NASEM, 2018) This new wave of homeless were considered “literal” homeless as they had no apartments, hotels, or SROs to escape the street to. (NASEM, 2018)

    Laws and agreements passed to curb homelessness have been taking place in America since homelessness fist became widespread, but in 1977, the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act was passed as the first act to address homelessness directly. (NASEM, 2018) This act defined homelessness as well as provide federal aid to shelters for supporting homeless peoples. The McKinney Act also oversaw the creation of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness or USICH and the Health Care for Homeless or HCH. (NASEM, 2018) Without this act, homelessness in the United States may not have ever received any sort of assistance.

    The next initiative to take place to directly help the homeless was in 2002 with the creation of the Chronic Homelessness Initiative by USICH which was a plan for local jurisdictions to be better able to help the homeless population by utilizing a ten-year plan. (NASEM, 2018) In 2003 there was another initiative passed which provided low-threshold and permanent supportive housing programs for chronic homeless persons. (NASEM, 2018) The HEARTH Act in 2009 aimed to eradicate homelessness completely by providing people with a 30-day housing plan as well as streamlined the process of applying for aid. The Obama Administration in 2010 released a federal strategic plan that culminated in four key steps, or the prevention and ending of homelessness among veterans in five years, finishing of the job of ending chronic homelessness in seven years, preventing and ending homelessness for families, youth, and children in ten years and setting a path to ending all types of homelessness eventually. (NASEM, 2018) Without the 1977 creation of the USICH, most of these acts never would have came to fruition. 

    Homelessness in Phoenix, Arizona finds its roots in most of the common societal problems as homelessness in any other state. Three main contributing factors of homelessness can be identified as substance abuse, job loss, or factors out of their control, such as mental illness or domestic violence. These are root problems that, if countered effectively, can provide answers and ultimately solutions for the homeless epidemic. 

    According to the Arizona Addiction Recovery Center, factors that lead to the misuse of drugs through adolescent homelessness are a family history of substance abuse, not handling stress efficiently, substance use in early ages and in surrounding environments, and physical or sexual abuse among others. (, 2019, Factors that can contribute to homelessness and substance abuse) Often, substance abuse and homelessness lead to a vicious circle of attempting to numb the discomfort of being homeless with substances that drastically lower productivity. Psychological issues can also pair with substance abuse issues to create a co-concurrent disorder which creates a damaging cycle of dependence. (, 2019) 

    Another main reason for homelessness, especially in the current climate of the world, is job loss. Arizona is a right-to-work state, meaning that you can be fired for anything, at any time. While attending University, I worked in odd jobs around where I live. These were typically warehousing and such, just to make enough to pay the bills to take care of my family and still attend school. The reasons that I would see people fired were ridiculous at best. Talking to one another, wearing the wrong shirt, things of this nature. If there are no repercussions for being fired for the most trivial of reasons, how can we put a stop to homelessness? All someone needs to become homeless is a lapse of one month’s rent and they are evicted.

    Mental illness is also a significant contributor to homelessness. An estimated 20-25% of homeless are severely mentally ill, compared with only 6% of the whole population. (Kim, 2017, Mental Illness and Homelessness: Facts and Figures) Another 45% of the homeless population has been diagnosed with a mental illness at some point before. These numbers are astounding and show a significant difference in homeless populations and the general population. PTSD is a mental illness that affects a wide range of people and is also a very large contributor to homelessness as well as a large side effect to being victimized while homeless as well. Anyone who has a PTSD diagnosis should be given extra treatment and a contingency plan to help them avoid homelessness at all costs.

    If PTSD is a significant factor in the homeless population, then all of the wars that have been fought have been incredible contributors of homelessness in my opinion. If the majority of homeless have a mental illness, then returning combat veterans are ripe for becoming homeless. PTSD has been a significant contributor to homelessness since the Civil War and before that. The 1870’s brought about the means for vagrants to travel and coming off of the Civil War provided the bodies and damaged minds. World War I brought about the marches of homeless people for the benefits they were supposed to have received during the war. The same thing can be said of World War II promises to veterans.

Sources pulled from: (2019, December 12). Factors that can contribute to homelessness and substance abuse. Retrieved from

Bender, K., Ferguson, K., Thompson, S., & Langenderfer, L. (2014). Mental health correlates of victimization classes among homeless youth. Child Abuse and Neglect Vol.38(10), 1628-1635.

Benedict, K. (2018, January 1). Statistics Show that America’s Homeless Problem Is Getting Worse. Retrieved fromTheDataFace

Couloute, L. (2018, August). Nowhere to Go: Homelessness among formerly incarcerated people. Retrieved

Kim, M. (2017, July 31). Mental Illness and Homelessness: Facts and Figures. Retrieved from Harvard

Mark, J. J. (2014, August 2). Diogenes of Sinope. Retrieved from Ancient History Encyclopedia

NASEM. (2018). Permanent Supportive Housing: Evaluating the Evidence for Improving Health Outcomes Among People Experiencing Chronic Homelessness. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US).

PBS. (2009, June 26). Facts and Figures: The Homeless. Retrieved from

Smith, J.-L. (2019, January 23). Unhoused people are more frequently victims of hate crimes, report says. Retrieved from StreetSenseMedia

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