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Anti-Homeless Ordinances in American Cities


Abstract and Figures

Abstract: This study aims to better understand the prevalence of anti-homeless ordinances in U.S. cities and the varying policy contexts surrounding these ordinances. Nine sample cities were selected for analysis, which began with a scan of each city’s municipal code to see if anti-homeless ordinances were present. This was followed by interviews with one local homeless advocate and one member of local government in each city (n=14). Eight out of nine sample cities had at least one anti-homeless ordinance in their municipal code. Interviews suggested that people experiencing homelessness in cities with anti-homeless ordinances tend to be perceived as alcohol or substance users, freeloaders, and criminals. This negative social construction of people experiencing homelessness is a significant contributing factor to the occurrence of anti-homeless ordinances in U.S. cities.
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Anti-Homeless Ordinances in
American Cities
Caitlin Carey, University of Massachusetts Boston
Urban Affairs Association 47th Conference
Minneapolis, MN
April 22, 2017
Image retrieved from
What Are Anti-Homeless Ordinances?
General anti-vagrancy laws
Laws that target behaviors typically associated with
Sleeping in public
Building temporary shelters
Laws that prevent people from providing food or services
to the homeless
Literature Review
Prior research:
Mostly from the 1990s and early 2000s
Largely from the fields of Law and Geography
Focus on single-n case studies
Focus on constitutional challenges to anti-homeless laws
Legal precedent – the homeless are not a protected class
(Hansel, 2011)
Major themes:
Focus on the battle for space in cities
Sanitation and extermination (Amster, 2003)
Research Questions
How prevalent are anti-homeless ordinances in U.S.
Why do anti-homeless ordinances exist in some U.S.
Does the occurrence of anti-homeless ordinances vary
Geographic location?
City size?
Homeless population size?
Per capita rate of homelessness?
How strictly are anti-homeless ordinances enforced?
Methodology: Sample Selection
Nine sample cities, aiming for variation across:
Geographic location
Population size
Homeless population size
Per capita rate of homelessness
Two interviews per city (convenience/snowball sampling)
One homeless advocate
One local government official
Methodology: Data Collection and Analysis
Count of different types of anti-homeless
ordinances in each city
1. Scan of municipal
One homeless advocate
One local government official
2. Two contrasting
interviews per city
Draw out themes from interviews3. Qualitative analysis
Why do anti-homeless ordinances exist in
some cities?
4. Process-tracing
Sample Cities
Image retrieved from
Sample Cities
City Size
2015 Homeless
Population Size
(ranked from
largest to smallest)
2015 Per Capita
Rate of
Count of Different
Types of Ant i-
City A
Large West 1 0.647% 5
City B
Large South 20.242% 4
City C
Large South 31.029% 5
City D
West 6 0.328% 1
City E
Midwest 9 0.002% 3
City F
South 80.015% 3
City G
41.106% 0
City H
Small West 5 0.589% 2
City I
70.185% 1
Common Types of Anti-homeless
Ordinances in Sample Cities
City Panhandling
in Public
on Public
Feeding the
City A
City B
City C
City D
City E
City F
City G
City H
City I
7 5 3 3 2
Qualitative Results:
City A (5 different types of anti-homeless ordinances)
Homeless advocate described the general attitude towards
homelessness in the city as “the worst in the nation”
City B (4 different types of anti-homeless ordinances)
Local government official explained, “There is not the great
political will to solve the problem. As long as people don’t
see it, they’re ok with it, but seeing it makes them
City E (3 different types of anti-homeless ordinances)
Homeless advocate explained, “These ordinances are
created to stop panhandlers from crossing the street into the
affluent communities.”
Qualitative Results (continued):
City F (3 different types of anti-homeless ordinances)
According to the local government official, the city recently
implemented an anti-panhandling ordinance. As they were
writing the ordinance, they prepared their defense in case it
was challenged in court – because neighboring cities have
similar laws that have been found unconstitutional in court
(according to the local government)
City G (0 anti-homeless ordinances)
Highest rate of homelessness in the sample
Actually increasing services for the homeless (according to
both the advocate and the local government)
City I (1 anti-homeless ordinance)
Local government official said that some residents in more
affluent neighborhoods feel like they’ve spent a million dollars
on their homes and pay high property taxes, so they shouldn’t
have to see homeless people in their neighborhoods and
“fear for their families.”
Interview Themes
Associating alcohol or substance use with homelessness
Homelessness as an “eyesore”
Destination city for the homeless
Tourist destination – homelessness as a tourist deterrent
Social Construction of the Homeless
Positive Negative
The elderly
The rich
Big unions
Cultural elites
Moral majority
Drug addicts
Flag burners
Figure copied from Schneider & Ingram (1993)
8 out of 9 sample cities have anti-homeless ordinances
Constituent complaints often lead to anti-homeless
Anti-homeless ordinances are best explained by the
negative social construction of homeless populations
BUT…there is an underlying story of hope!
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
Federal, state, and city governments spend substantial funds on programs intended to aid homeless people, and such programs attract widespread public support. In recent years, however, state and local governments have increasingly enacted policies, such as bans on panhandling and sleeping in public, that are counterproductive to alleviating homelessness. Yet these policies also garner substantial support from the public. Given that programs aiding the homeless are so popular, why are these counterproductive policies also popular? We argue that disgust plays a key role in the resolution of this puzzle. While disgust does not decrease support for aid policies or even generate negative affect towards homeless people, it motivates the desire for physical distance, leading to support for policies that exclude homeless people from public life. We test this argument using survey data, including a national sample with an embedded experiment. Consistent with these expectations, our findings indicate that those respondents who are dispositionally sensitive to disgust are more likely to support exclusionary policies, such as banning panhandling, but no less likely to support policies intended to aid homeless people. Furthermore, media depictions of the homeless that include disease cues activate disgust, increasing its impact on support for banning panhandling. These results help explain the popularity of exclusionary homelessness policies and challenge common perspectives on the role of group attitudes in public life.
Full-text available
Over the past decade there has been a proliferation of work on homelessness by geographers. Much of this has been framed by the desire to connect discussions of homelessness to wider debates around gentrification, urban restructuring and the politics of public space. Though such work has been helpful in shifting discussions of homelessness into the mainstream geographical literature, too much of it remains narrowly framed within a US metric of knowledge and too closely focused upon the recent punitive turn in urban social policy. Here we advance instead a framework that recognizes the growing multiplicy of homeless geographies in recent years under policies that are better understood as multifaceted and ambivalent rather than only punitive.
This article sheds conceptual and empirical light on the ways in which urban physical space and homelessness intersect by considering three focal questions: (a) What are the key spatial concepts necessary for understanding the relationship between urban space and homeless survival strategies and routines, (b) what are the central strategies used within communities to control the homeless spatially or ecologically, and (c) how do the homeless respond to these constraints and impositions? These questions are explored conceptually and empirically with data on spatial contestations drawn from the local newspapers of a southwestern city between 1992 and 1997. The findings illuminate the sociospatial dynamics of homelessness and underscore how a thoroughgoing understanding of the everyday routines and adaptive strategies of the homeless requires consideration of how different types of urban space affect the homeless and of the ways in which the homeless negotiate and respond to the spatial constraints with which they are confronted.
The abstract for this document is available on CSA Illumina.To view the Abstract, click the Abstract button above the document title.
Homelessness is a perennial problem in the United States and has been analyzed using many theoretical frameworks. The issue has also been a contentious one for courts and continues to be the subject of numerous suits today. Many jurisdictions in the United States have enacted laws that prevent homeless people from legally existing within those jurisdictions; these laws effectively criminalize being homeless. These statutes have spawned lawsuits alleging violations of homeless people's rights. This Comment examines homelessness and its interaction with the law through the lens of citizenship. It argues that the legal paradigm in the United States denies homeless people full citizenship and membership in communities. Court decisions that rule on rights-based challenges to these laws reinforce the exclusion of the homeless from the public, even when they ostensibly rule for homeless plaintiffs, by restricting homeless people's ability to take advantage of these decisions and denying homeless people the same menu of rights that exist for people with residences.
As cities choose entrepreneurial strategies to lure the mobile corporate service sector and its professional workforce, they also present more forbidding faces to the working class and poor. Scholars and activists have pointed to the passage of public conduct laws as evidence of how modern cities signal to the poor that their downtown cores are reserved for the privileged classes. Yet, even as scholars and advocates attest to the growing “meanness” of American cities, their reports have also routinely showcased cities that develop alternatives to criminalization. This chapter presents data from a historical case study of homeless politics in Philadelphia to shed light on the complex local dynamics undergirding or challenging the modern urban phenomena of “anti-homeless” legislation. Though a pro-development paradigm has slowly transformed Philadelphia since the early 1990s, the local business community has been consistently unsuccessful in its attempts to have new public conduct legislation passed or to have existing laws stringently enforced. Urban regime theory helps explain how a network of local homeless service provider and advocacy organizations has been able to use collaborative strategies to effectively shape the politics and policies of street regulation in the city.
There is a link between changes in the contemporary political economy and the criminalization of homelessness. Anti-homeless legislation can be understood as an attempt to annihilate the spaces in which homeless people must live, and perform everyday functions. This annihilation is a response to the economic uncertainty produced by the current political economy. The process of criminalizing homelessness 1) destroys the very right of homeless people to be; and 2) reinforces particularly brutal notions of citizenship within the public sphere. Such laws are made possible when urban government and surrounding communities and elites seek to promote the urban landscape at the expense of urban public space. This usurpation of public space will have profound impact not only on homeless people but also on how the housed interact with each other.