December 14, 2023

House Democratic Caucus Poverty Task Force, Congressional Caucus on Homelessness Hold Meeting on Criminalization of Poverty

WASHINGTON, DC – The House Democratic Caucus Poverty Task Force and Congressional Caucus on Homelessness convened on Wednesday, December 14th for a member-level meeting to discuss ongoing local, state, and federal policies that criminalize homelessness.

The meeting was led by Rep. Barbara Lee, Chair of the Poverty Task Force; Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, Co-Chair of the Congressional Caucus on Homelessness; Rep. Cori Bush, Co-Chair of the Congressional Caucus on Homelessness and Vice Chair on Criminalization of the Poverty Task Force; and Rep. Sylvia Garcia, Vice Chair on Housing and Transportation of the Poverty Task Force and Co-Chair of the Congressional Caucus on Homelessness.

Members heard from guest speakers Dr. Rahul Gupta, Director of the White House Office of the National Drug Control Policy; Eric Tars, Senior Policy Director, National Homelessness Law Center; Barbara DiPietro, PhD, Senior Director of Policy, National Health Care for the Homeless Council; and Paul Boden, Executive Director, Western Regional Advocacy Project.

“In the richest country in the world, poverty is a policy choice—and that includes homelessness,” said Poverty Task Force Chair Rep. Barbara Lee. “The criminalization of those experiencing homelessness is not only unjust and inhumane, but expensive, wasteful, and ultimately makes our communities less safe. I thank our guests for spreading awareness of the issue and its complexities across state, local, and federal law, and my colleagues for their commitment to ending the homelessness crisis through constructive, equitable solutions. I look forward to building on our discussion today in the new year.”

“As founding co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Homelessness, I was proud to join the Poverty Task Force and the Democratic Caucus in a briefing to our fellow members of Congress to discuss the criminalization of unhoused people,” said Congresswoman Bush.  “As lawmakers, we have a responsibility to care for our unhoused communities using a health-based approach, instead of pushing them into our broken criminal legal system.  Together, we must continue to take steps towards providing holistic treatment and trauma-informed care, rather than stigma and carceral-based responses.”

“Being able to afford a safe place to call home is a human right that has been ripped away with casual cruelty for far too many Americans. When we are criminalizing meeting basic needs and giving food or water, we have hit a new low,” said Congresswoman Sylvia R. Garcia. “As a Vice Chair of the Poverty Taskforce and Co-Chair of the Homelessness Caucus, I am committed to governing with compassion, advocating for critical funding, and keeping our nation's most vulnerable people healthy and housed. In this country everyone is deserving of dignity.”

“Criminal penalties are not a solution to homelessness,” said Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici. “Too often these penalties make it more challenging for people to achieve stability. Our resources are better spent on policies that help people experiencing homelessness find and keep stable housing, such as building more supportive housing and expanding housing vouchers. I’m grateful for the time and advocacy of the experts who joined us today, and I will continue to work with my colleagues on solutions to end homelessness.”

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, the criminalization of homelessness refers to measures that prohibit life-sustaining activities such as sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and/or asking for money/resources in public spaces. These ordinances include criminal penalties for violations of these acts. Some criminalization measures include:

  1. Carrying out sweeps: confiscating personal property including tents, bedding, papers, clothing, medications, etc.
  2. Making panhandling illegal.
  3. Making it illegal for groups to share food with homeless persons in public spaces.
  4. Enforcing a “quality of life” ordinance relating to public activity and hygiene.

Originally launched in 2013 through the office of former House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, the 118th Congress House Democratic Caucus Poverty Task Force aims to raise awareness among Members of Congress and the American people about the ongoing poverty crisis, the positive human and economic impacts of effective poverty alleviation programs and the need for a comprehensive national effort to eradicate poverty.