Dealing with Homelessness: Criminalizing It Is Not the Answer, Says Law School Prof. Sara Rankin

The Homeless Rights Advocacy Project of the Seattle University School of Law has completed the first statewide of laws relating to homelessness. The study finds that cities in Washington have been punishing people for being homeless when it would have been cheaper and more constructive to help them. Professor Sara Rankin, of the Seattle University law school faculty, describes the study and its findings in this report.

Prof. Sara Rankin

Prof. Sara Rankin

Professor Rankin worked with six law students to study ordinances in Washington and produce a series of four reports on homelessness and how it is treated. The first report assesses the enforcement of ordinances throughout the state. The second report deals with the cost of criminalizing homelessness compared with the cost of alternatives such as affordable housing. The third report looks at certain marginalized groups (for example, racial minorities) in the homeless population as compared to the general population. The fourth report looks at analogies between current homelessness laws and historical attempts to restrict access to public spaces (for example, Jim Crow laws and “ugly” laws).

Explaining what the study found, Prof. Rankin mentioned ordinances restricting conduct such as sleeping and receiving food in public places. And maintaining these behaviors as criminal costs more than, for example, providing housing. Supporting data comes from studies in Seattle and Spokane among others. Another problem with the ordinances that criminalize homelessness is that many of them include fines that homeless people are unable to pay. Adding to the problem are “failure to appear” laws that make it a misdemeanor to miss a court date to pay a fine you can’t afford to pay. Prof. Rankin views this as a “dishonesty” in the law.

As to recommendations, Prof. Rankin believes that lawmakers “should seriously reconsider the cost [and] benefit of these laws.” Other than foster an erroneous public perception that the laws do something positive, Prof. Rankin says she has never seen any benefit from the homelessness laws. The laws do not enhance public safety, and Prof. Rankin does not believe that enforcing such laws benefits the bottom line of businesses in proximity to homeless enclaves.

Prof. Rankin points out that some cities are successful in dealing with homelessness by providing services that address the needs of a homeless population. She says that experts at the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance and others have found cities going after the problem with innovative approaches. The paradox with the criminalization approach is that homeless people are unable to rehabilitate themselves—a commonly-expressed desire of public officials—because they develop a criminal record due to the homelessness ordinances.

Sara Rankin is an Associate Professor of Lawyering Skills at Seattle University School of Law. Professor Rankin currently teaches lawyering skills, including applied legal analysis, legal research and writing, general principles of trial and appellate procedure and advocacy, and homeless rights advocacy. She is also the founder and Director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at the Korematsu Center. The Legal Broadcast Network is a featured network of the Sequence Media Group.