As the number of people experiencing homelessness increases across the country, more cities and states have passed laws making it illegal to live out of tents and cars or sleep in public spaces.
More than 100 jurisdictions have had such bans on the books for years, according to the National Homeless Law Center. In recent months, high-profile measures targeting the homeless have been approved in many western US cities and entire states.
connection: Federal data shows that 582,462 people experienced homelessness on a single night in January 2022. Experts warn that more people will enter homelessness as housing costs rise, as has been the case for decades in cities like New York and much of California.
If overt homelessness and unsheltered numbers continue to rise, it will be easier for city leaders to pass measures that supporters say criminalize basic needs like sleep and shelter, Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homeless Law Center, told USA TODAY.
“The danger is that the worse the housing situation gets, the more people we see on the streets, the more the push for this punitive policy will be,” Tars said.
These states and cities have passed laws making it illegal to live in tents or sleep on public property:
Missouri prohibits sleeping in parks
On January 1, a statewide ban on sleeping on state-owned land went into effect in Missouri, making it a crime to sleep in public spaces like parks or under bridges.
Experts say Missouri’s law is worrisome because it covers the state and adds pressure to municipal bans.
It’s wrong to assume that people experiencing homelessness can simply leave and go to another country, Tares said.
People have an “assumption” that “homeless people are infinitely mobile and will go somewhere else,” Tares said. “But most people, contrary to this perception of vagrancy and transience, are homeless in the community where they once lived.”
Missouri’s law also limits state funding for permanent housing, a model taken from template legislation created by the conservative Cicero Institute, according to Stateline, the Pew Charitable Trusts news service.
“Taking funding away from under-resourced housing is destructive, problematic and perpetuates the issue of homelessness,” said Kathy Connors, executive director of the Gateway180 shelter in St. Louis. She added that people experiencing homelessness displaced from rural areas are forced to seek temporary services only available in cities, which stresses the system.
Tennessee makes it a crime to live in a tent
In July, Tennessee became the first state to make it a crime to live in a tent or sleep on state land.
Statewide bans have been introduced in recent years by lawmakers in five other states, Pew says.
“Such policies exacerbate homelessness,” Tars said, because arrest, incarceration and a criminal record place steep barriers to employment, housing security and access to social services.
Portland, Oregon, prohibits tent living
The Portland, Oregon, city council voted in November to approve a plan to ban tent living and move people living in encampments to six city-protected mass encampment sites for up to 250 people.
The measure includes plans to build 20,000 more affordable housing units and will eventually require everyone living on the streets to move into shelters, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon sent the Portland City Council a letter warning that the new measure could be illegal. Last month, a civil rights group sued the city of Phoenix over a similar ban, which resulted in a federal judge temporarily blocking it.
Oregon’s newly elected governor, Tina Kotek, began her term this week by declaring a state of emergency in parts of the state that have seen a huge increase in unsheltered homelessness, including Portland.
Wausau County, Nevada, is considering bans
In December, Nevada’s Washoe County commissioners voted 3-2 to consider an ordinance banning camping in tents or vehicles and storing personal belongings in public when doing so would cause “substantial harm to any person, or to public space.” Violators may be charged with a misdemeanor or fined $500. Within the county, Reno and Sparks already had similar ordinances.
In 2021, 25 percent of the homeless youth served by the Eddy House shelter in Reno were living on the streets, CEO Trevor McCloso told USA TODAY. He added that people displaced by sweeps in Reno and Sparks typically relocate elsewhere in the city, which which makes the bans ineffective.
Los Angeles bans some homeless tent cities
A City Council-approved ban on tent living in certain areas was expanded in August 2022 to ban tents within 500 feet of schools and day care centers after teachers and parents complained that students couldn’t access nearby sidewalks.
School administrators said the ban was not always enforced by the city and police, according to EdSource, a network that covers education in California.
Recently, the mayors of Los Angeles and Long Beach and Los Angeles County declared states of emergency on the homelessness crisis aimed at accelerating services to reduce and prevent homelessness.