Dealing with the Problem of Homelessness

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Chapter 6
Dealing with the Problem of Homelessness


What should the role of the government be in combating homelessness? Some people believe it is the duty of the government to take care of all citizens in times of need. Others point out that government help has often been misdirected or inadequate; in some instances, it has even added to the problem. Some people assert that people in trouble should solve their problems themselves. Federal programs for the homeless reflect a consensus that limited government help is important and necessary, but that homeless people also need to help themselves.

Since 1860 the federal government has been actively involved with the housing industry, specifically the low-income housing industry. In 1860 the government conducted the first partial census of housingby counting slave dwellings. Twenty years later the U.S. census focused on the living quarters of the rest of the population, conducting a full housing census. Since then the federal government has played an increasingly larger role in combating housing problems in the United States:

  • 1937The U.S. Housing Act of 1937 established the Public Housing Administration (which was later merged into the Federal Housing Administration [FHA] and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD]) to create low-rent housing programs across the country through the establishment of local public housing agencies.
  • 1949The Housing Act of 1949 set the goals of "a decent home and a suitable environment" for every family and authorized an 810,000-unit public housing program over the next six years. Title I of the act created the Urban Renewal program; and Title V created the basic rural housing program under the FHA, which put the federal government directly into the mortgage business.
  • 1965Congress established HUD. Its goal was to create a new rent supplement program for low-income households in private housing.
  • The Housing and Community Development Act of 1974 created a new leased-housing program that included a certificate (voucher) program, expanding housing choices for low-income tenants. The voucher program soon became known as Section 8, after the section of the act that established it.


Widespread public outcry over the plight of the homeless in the early 1980s prompted Congress to pass the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987. Congress renamed the act the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act in 2000 to honor Representative Bruce Vento's service to the homeless. The range and reach of the act has broadened over the years. Most of the money authorized by the act went, initially, toward the funding of homeless shelters. The program also funded a Supportive Housing program, a Shelter Plus Care program, and the Single Room Occupancy program besides the Emergency Shelter Grant program. Amendments to the act later enabled funding and other services to support permanent housing and other programs to help the homeless. HUD administers most McKinney-Vento funds.

In 2007 programs administered under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act fell into three distinct categories. A cluster of activities known as the Continuum of Care programs provided competitive grants intended to help communities and organizations provide comprehensive services to the homeless. A noncompetitive formula grant program, the Emergency Shelter Grants Program, provided funds for emergency shelters to states, large cities, urban counties, and U.S. territories. The Title V program freed properties for use to house the homeless.

Continuum of Care

In Homeless Assistance Programs (July 18, 2006,, HUD notes that the concept behind Continuum of Care programs is as follows: "A continuum of care system is designed to address the critical problem of homelessness through a coordinated community-based process of identifying needs and building a system to address those needs. The approach is predicated on the understanding that homelessness is not caused merely by a lack of shelter, but involves a variety of underlying, unmet needsphysical, economic, and social."

Nonprofit groups and local government entities applying for funds under these programs are expected to survey and assess local needs and to write a comprehensive plan for combating homelessness and meeting needs. Grant recipients are required to assess their clients' progress and make changes in the program in response to ongoing evaluation. Three major programs and some additional demonstration and rural efforts have developed over the years.


The aim of the Supportive Housing Program (SHP) is to provide housing and services that will enable homeless clients to achieve economic independence and control over their lives. The SHP provides up to $400,000 in matching funds for construction of new buildings for housing homeless people; it also provides funding for the acquisition or refurbishing of existing buildings. The program underwrites 75% of the operating cost, including administration, and up to 80% of the cost of support programs. These programs must help clients achieve independence by providing skills training, child care, education, transportation assistance, counseling, and job referrals. Elements of the program include transitional housing for twenty-four months, permanent housing for the disabled, supportive services without housing, havens for the hard-to-reach and the mentally ill, and other innovative programs to solve problems of homelessness.


The Shelter Plus Care Program helps agencies that specifically target the hardest-to-serve homeless: those with mental and physical disabilities living on the street or in shelters, including drug addicts and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) sufferers. The program provides for rental assistance funded by HUD and other sources. Housing in this program can be in the form of group homes or individual units with supportive services. Grant funds must be matched with local dollars. Subsidies for projects are available for ten years; assistance to sponsors and tenants is available for five years. A range of supportive services for tenants must be funded through other sources. Rental assistance includes four types of contracts:

  1. Tenant-Based Rental AssistanceDirect contract with a low-income tenant
  2. Project-Based Rental AssistanceBuilding owner contracts
  3. Sponsor-Based Rental AssistanceContracts with nonprofit organizations
  4. Single-Room Occupancy-Based Rental AssistanceSingle-room occupancy contracts provided by public housing authorities (PHAs)


Single-room occupancy housing is housing in a dormitory-style building where each person has his or her own private room but shares kitchens, bathrooms, and lounges. Single-room occupancy housing is generally the cheapest type of housing available. Funding is intended to encourage the establishment and operation of such housing. Subsidy payments fund a project for a period of ten years in the form of rental assistance in amounts equal to the rent, including utilities, minus the portion of rent payable by the tenants.


Other programs folded under the Continuum of Care designation by HUD include demonstration programs for safe havens for the homeless and innovative homeless programs as well as rural homeless housing programs.

Emergency Shelter Grants

The Emergency Shelter Grants program provides homeless persons with basic shelter and essential supportive services. It can assist with the operational costs of the shelter facility, and for the administration of the grant. ESG also provides short-term homeless prevention assistance to persons at imminent risk of losing their own housing due to eviction, foreclosure, or utility shutoffs.

HUD, Emergency Shelter Grants (ESG) Program (February 16, 2007,

The Emergency Shelter Grant program is HUD's formula grant program administered as a part of its community planning and development grant program. Recipients of funding are states, large cities, urban counties, and U.S. territories that have filed consolidated community development plans with HUD. The program is called a formula program because the amounts allocated are based in part on population and poverty levels within the planning entities that participate. Grant funds flow from governmental entities to organizations that actually operate shelters and provide services to homeless people or people at risk of becoming homeless. Money may be used to help individuals avoid homelessness by providing them with emergency funds. All grantees except for state governments must match grant funds dollar for dollar.

Requirements of four U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) McKinney-Vento programs
Program requirementEmergency shelter grantsSupportive housing programShelter plus careSingle-room occupancy
Type of grantsFormula grantCompetitive grantCompetitive grantCompetitive grant
Source: Stanley Czerwinsky, "Table 3. Requirements of Four HUD McKinney-Vento Programs," in Homelessness: Improving Program Coordination and Client Access to Programs, U.S. General Accounting Office, March 2002, (accessed January 11, 2007)
Eligible applicantsStates
Metropolitan cities
Urban counties
Local governments
Other governmental agencies
Private nonprofit organizations
Community mental health centers that are public nonprofit organizations
Local governments
Public housing authorities
Public housing authorities
Private nonprofit organizations
Eligible program servicesEmergency shelter
Essential social services
Transitional housing
Permanent housing for people with disabilities
Supportive services only
Safe havens
Innovative supportive housing
Tenant based rental assistance
Sponsor based rental assistance
Project based rental assistance
Single-room occupancy based rental assistance
Single-room occupancy housing
Eligible activitiesRenovation/conversion
Major rehabilitation
Supportive service
Operating costs
Homelessness prevention activities
New construction
Operating and administrative costs
Supportive services only
Rental assistanceRental assistance
Eligible populationHomeless individuals and families
People at risk of becoming homeless
Homeless individuals and families for transitional housing and supportive services
Disabled homeless individuals for permanent housing
Hard-to-reach mentally ill homeless individuals for safe havens
Disabled homeless individuals and their familiesHomeless individuals
Initial term of assistance1 yearUp to 3 years5 or 10 years10 years
Matching fundsStates: no match for first $100,000 and dollar-for-dollar match for rest of funds.
Local governments: dollar-for-dollar match for all funds.
Dollar-for-dollar match for acquisition, rehabilitation, and new construction grants. Operating costs must be shared by 25 percent in the first 2 years and 50 percent in the third year. A 25-percent match for supportive service grants
No match for grants used for leasing or administrative costs.
Dollar-for-dollar match of the federal shelter grant to pay for supportive servicesNo match required

Title V

HUD maintains information about and publishes listings of federal properties categorized as unutilized, underutilized, in excess, or in surplus. States, local governments, and nonprofit organizations can apply to use such properties to house the homeless. Title V does not provide funding; it provides properties to agencies for housing use. Groups may apply for funding under the Continuum of Care program to modify, refurbish, or adapt such structures for residential uses.

Consolidations, New Initiatives, and Reorganizations

HUD's programs, particularly those under Continuum of Care, have overlapping objectives yet operate under separate rules and requirements. (See Table 6.1.) The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO; now the Government Accountability Office) studied the McKinney programs in 1999 and concluded in Homelessness: Coordination and Evaluation of Programs Are Essential (February 1999, that the number of programs and the differences between them create barriers to their efficient use. According to Stanley J. Czerwinski, in Homelessness: Improving Program Coordination and Client Access to Programs (March 6, 2002,, even though "HUD has taken actions that have improved the coordination of homeless assistance programs within communities and have helped reduce some of the administrative burdens that separate programs cause," consolidating the McKinney-Vento programs could harm homeless people if a system was not first devised to hold mainstream programs accountable for serving the homeless.

HUD's program administrators evidently reached much the same conclusions as the GAO. In its fiscal year (FY) 2004 budget request to Congress and again in its FY 2005 budget summary, HUD proposed consolidating its three major programs under Continuum of Care, along with the demonstration and rural assistance programs, into a single Homeless Assistance Grants program. The GAO believed that this consolidation would facilitate comprehensive delivery of services while reducing administrative expenses, both at HUD and on the part of grant recipients. In Annual Performance Plan, Fiscal Year 2007 (August 2006,, HUD proposes "consolidating HUD homeless programs into a single, more streamlined program." In FY 2007 HUD's proposed budget for programs to help the homeless was a record $1.5 billion, a $209 million increase over FY 2006.

In 2004 HUD proposed that Congress fund a new program called the Samaritan Initiative. The new program targeted an estimated 150,000 individuals HUD considers chronically homeless. The FY 2007 HUD budget proposed setting aside up to $200 million for programs to help end chronic homelessness.

The National Coalition for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth reports in "HEARTH Act Introduced: Amends HUD Definition of Homeless, Improves Support for All Homeless Populations" (February 6, 2007) that in February 2007 the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act was introduced in the House of Representatives to reauthorize the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Programs. This act would more closely align the HUD definition of homelessness with the definition of other government agencies, expand resources for supportive services, including shelters, emphasize the prevention of homelessness, and provide for greater decision-making power and flexibility at the local level.

Education for Homeless Children and Youth

In response to reports that over 50% of homeless children were not attending school regularly, Congress enacted the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act's Education for Homeless Children and Youth program in 1987. The program ensures that homeless children and youth have equal access to the same free, appropriate education, including preschool education, provided to other children. Education for Homeless Children and Youth also provides funding for state and local school districts to implement the law. States are required to report estimated numbers of homeless children and the problems encountered in serving them.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act was scheduled to be considered for reauthorization in 2007 as part of the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. The last reauthorization of the act in 2001 included the following new guidelines.

  • Homeless children cannot be segregated.
  • Transportation has to be provided to and from schools of origin if requested (a school of origin is the school the student attended when permanently housed, or the school in which the student was last enrolled).
  • In case of a placement dispute, immediate enrollment is required pending the outcome.
  • Local education agencies must put the "best interest of the child" first in determining the feasibility of keeping children in their school of origin.
  • Local education agencies must designate a local liaison for homeless children and youth.
  • States have to subgrant 50% to 75% of their allotments under Education for Homeless Children and Youth competitively to local education agencies.

At the time the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act was passed, only an estimated 57% of homeless children were enrolled in school. By 2000 the percentage had increased to 88%. In the 200304 school season more homeless children were enrolled in elementary school than in middle school or high school. (See Table 4.2 in Chapter 4.) Even though the data appear inconclusive because elementary school children may be more likely to be homeless, thus accounting for their greater numbers, the data seem to suggest that older homeless children may be less likely to be enrolled in school than elementary school-age children.

However, in implementing the legislation, school districts found that barriers arose in areas such as residency, guardian requirements, incomplete or missing documentation (including immunization records and birth certificates), and transportation. Consequently, some school districts established separate schools for homeless children. As of 2002 there were an estimated forty separate schools for the homeless nationwide, according to Kristen Kreisher in "Educating Homeless Children" (Children's Voice, September-October 2002), and even though separate schools were outlawed with the 2001 reauthorization of the act, those schools that already existed were allowed to remain.

Transportation became an issue for school districts providing education to homeless students. Nicole Brode reports in "New York's School Choice Leaves More Homeless Children with Hour-Plus Commutes" (Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, February 10, 2003) that Homes for the Homeless found that over a third of the 226 students in one New York shelter in 2003 faced commutes of over an hour because their parents had opted to keep their children in the same schools they had attended before they became homeless, a right guaranteed by the new law. The Maricopa County School Foundation reports in "Pappas Kids" (2007, that in 2007 the Thomas J. Pappas schools for the homeless in Phoenix and Tempe, Arizona, reported that sixteen buses traveled one thousand miles each day to transport children to and from school.


The national effort to provide housing for those in need is far more massive than would be indicated by the expenditure of about $1.5 billion on assistance to the homeless. HUD's expenditures on public and Native American housing were projected to be $20.2 billion in FY 2007. (See Table 6.2.) If these funds are added to projected expenditures on homeless programs, total spending on subsidized housing in FY 2007 would be $22.8 billion. Of this total, 6.6% is allocated directly to helping the homeless and 93.4% to various forms of housing assistance for the poor, which has the effect of helping people to avoid homelessness. To help people stay housed, the government has housing programs that help low-income people.

Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) budget authority for homeless and public housing programs, 200507
[Dollars in millions]
Discretionary programs2005 Enacted2006 Enacted2007 Estimate
Note: Totals may differ from President's budget due to rounding.
Source: Adapted from "Appendix B. Budget Authority by Program," in Fiscal Year 2007 Budget Summary, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, February 2006, (accessed October 24, 2006)
Public and Indian housing
Housing certificate fund 2,710(2,050)(2,000)
Tenant-based rental assistance10,60015,80815,920
Public housing capital fund2,579 2,439 2,178
Revitalization of severely distressed public housing projects  $143   $99  ($99)
Public housing operating fund 2,438 3,564 3,564
Native American housing block grants   622   624   626
Homeless assistance grants 1,241 1,327 1,536
    Faith-based prisoner re-entry initiative         [25]
    Transfer to working capital fund    [2]    [1]    [2]
    Technical assistance and management information systems   [11]   [12]   [10]
    Shelter plus care (renewals)  [214]  [255]  [285]
    Samaritan homeless program        [200]
    Rescission   (11)      
    Total, homeless[1,230][1,327][1,536]

In 2002 over 5.1 million families, or 4.6% of U.S. households, lived in subsidized housing. (See Table 6.3.) Of those in subsidized housing, 2.6 million households had income below the officially defined poverty level; these poor households represented 2.3% of all households and just over half of all subsidized households (51%).

The U.S. Bureau of the Census provides estimates of families living in poverty and of poverty-stricken households (a sector that includes family as well as nonfamily groups and singles). Bernadette D. Proctor and Joseph Dalaker report in Poverty in the United States: 2002 (September 2003, that 7.2 million families, or 9.6% of all families, lived in poverty in 2002. According to Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the Untied States: 2005Current Population Reports (August 2006, by Carmen DeNavas-Walt, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Cheryl Hill Lee, the number of families living in poverty increased to 7.7 million families, or 9.9% of all families, in 2005. According to the Census Bureau in Statistical Abstract of the United States: 20042005 (2004,, in 2002 more than 5.1 million households lived in subsidized housing. In the 19902002 period, those in subsidized housing peaked in 2002. Total households living in subsidized housing increased by 15.3% during that time.

Most government housing programs are targeted to poor or low-income households. For this reason subsidized housing is means-tested, meaning that the income of those receiving help must be below a certain threshold. The qualifying income levelmuch like the definition of povertychanges over time. Beneficiaries of housing assistance never receive cash outright. The benefits are therefore labeled "means-tested noncash benefits."

HUD has operated many different kinds of housing programs, but these can be classified under three headings: public housing owned by the government, tenant-based programs that provide people vouchers to subsidize rent, and project-based programs that underwrite the costs of private owners who, in turn, pledge to house low-income people.

Public housing and voucher programs account for roughly equal proportions of subsidized units. Project-based programs, also known as private subsidized projects, account for the most units, but these private subsidies take many forms, some quite complicated. A look at the major programs follows.

Public Housing

HUD's FY 2006 budget appropriations for public housing were $6.1 million, significantly lower than the Public Housing Program budget in FY 2002 but almost $1 billion higher than in the previous year. (See Table 5.5 in Chapter 5.) David G. Wood notes in Public Housing: Information on the Roles of HUD, Public Housing Agencies, Capital Markets, and Service Organizations (February 15, 2006, that HUD anticipated funding 1.2 million public housing units in FY 2006, unchanged from the previous year. However, the number of public housing units has been decreasing over a number of years, in part because of an initiative to remove, modernize, and refurbish many poorly constructed and dilapidated public housing units. Over three thousand public housing authorities manage the 1.2 million units. In FY 2006, $2.4 billion was allocated to the Capital Fund to finance major repairs and modernization of units, and $3.6 billion was allocated for operating costs. An additional $99 million was appropriated for the HOPE VI grant program to help housing agencies replace and revitalize the most severely distressed public housing and implement community service and supportive service improvements in those projects.

Households receiving means-tested noncash benefits, selected years 19802002
[In thousands (82,368 represents 82,368,000), except percent. Households as of March of following year.]
Type of benefit received19801990199520002002
Below poverty levelAbove poverty level
TotalNumberPercent of total
*Households receiving money from Aid to Families with Dependent Children Program (beginning 2000, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program), Supplemental Security Income program or other public assistance programs.
Note: Data covers civilian noninstitutional population, including persons in the armed forces living off post or with their families on post. A means-tested benefit program requires that the household's income and/or assets fall below specified guidelines in order to qualify for benefits. There are general trends toward underestimation of noncash beneficiaries. Households are classified according to poverty status of family or nonfamily householder.
Source: "No. 529. Households Receiving Means-Tested Noncash Benefits, 1980 to 2002," in The 2007 Statistical Abstract: The National Data Book, U.S. Census Bureau, (accessed January 11, 2007)
    Total households82,36894,31299,627106,418111,27813,50510097,773
Receiving at least one noncash benefit14,26616,09821,14820,13122,4787,8065814,672
Not receiving cash public assistance7,8608,81913,33514,46516,8905,0033711,887
Receiving cash public assistance*6,4077,2797,8135,6675,5882,803212,785
    Total households receiving
Food stamps6,7697,1638,3885,5636,2453,834282,411
School lunch5,5326,2528,6077,1857,9303,092234,838
Public housing2,7774,3394,8464,6895,1252,593192,532

HUD provides a data server on public housing residents called the Resident Characteristics Report ( As of January 31, 2007:

  • The average annual income was $12,030. Only 9% of the public housing population earned more than per $25,000 year.
  • Among residents, 33% had wage income, 22% had Temporary Assistance for Needy Families income, 55% had Social Security income, and 19% had other income (the same person could have income from more than one source). Three percent had no income from any source.
  • The average rental payment per unit was $278 per month.
  • More than a third (37%) of families were headed by a single woman with children, 18% were headed by elderly, not disabled people, and 12% were headed by a senior citizen with a disability. A number of other, overlapping, categories were shown as well, but notably missing was a category for male-headed families with children.
  • Over half (51%) of heads of households were white, 46% were black, and 2% were Asian. Over one in five heads of household (22%) were of Hispanic origin.
  • Nearly half (47%) of households consisted of just one person, 20% of two, 15% of three, 10% of four, 5% of five, 2% of six, and 1% of seven people. No households had more than seven people.
  • The 968,678 units reporting data had 2,109,428 household members, with an average household size of 2.2 people.
  • Of units occupied, 7% had no bedroom, 34% had one, 30% had two, 23% had three, 5% had four, and 1% had five or more bedrooms.
  • Many residents had lived much of their lives in public housing. Thirteen percent of the population had been in public housing for more than twenty years, 17% for ten to twenty years, 20% for five to ten years, 22% for two to five years, 12% for a year or two, and 17% had moved during the past year.

Management of public housing is handled by housing agencies (sometimes called authorities) established by local governments to administer HUD housing programs. The Housing Act of 1937 required that PHAs submit annual plans to HUD but also declared it to be the policy of the United States "to vest in public housing agencies that perform well, the maximum amount of responsibility and flexibility in program administration, with appropriate accountability to public housing residents, localities, and the general public."

PHAs thus operate under plans approved by HUD and under HUD supervision, but they are expected to operate with some independence accountable to their residents, local (or state) governments, and the public. Not all PHAs have "performed well," and HUD has been accused of lax supervision. PHAs and public housing generally reflect the distressed economic conditions of the population living in government-owned housing. Many PHAs have been charged with neglecting maintenance, with tolerating unsafe living conditions for tenants, and with fraudulent or careless financial practices.

Troubled housing refers to low-income projects that are badly deteriorated, are located in unsafe neighborhoods, or are in danger of being lost to market-rate housing conversion or foreclosure. In an effort to improve its accountability for the conditions of low-income housing, HUD began to implement a new Public Housing Assessment System (PHAS) in January 2000. The PHAS is used to measure the performance of PHAs. Four primary components of the assessment system are designed to ensure, through physical inspection, that PHAs meet the minimum standard of being decent, safe, sanitary, and in good repair; to oversee the finances of public housing authorities; to evaluate the effectiveness of the management of PHAs; and to receive feedback from PHA residents on housing conditions.

In Public Housing: New Assessment System Holds Potential for Evaluating Performance (March 2002,, the GAO examines the implementation of the PHAS and its progress. The GAO finds that HUD had also formed the Public and Indian Housing Information Center, a database that collected additional information not addressed by the PHAS, such as compliance and funding. In 2002, of the existing 3,167 authorities investigated, 532 PHAs were "troubled" overall or in one area (16.8%), 827 were high performers (26.1%), and 1,808 were standard performers (57.1%). However, in that year HUD was only looking at one of its four criteriathe effectiveness of managementwhen determining if a PHA was troubled. The other three criteria were not being considered at that time but plans called for them to be incorporated into future evaluations.

The GAO confirms in "Major Management Challenges at the Department of Housing and Urban Development" (February 23, 2005, that HUD continued to have major problems. According to the GAO, HUD had made some progress in addressing management problems. However, because "some of HUD's corrective actions are still in the early stages of implementation and additional steps are needed to resolve ongoing problems," its rental housing assistance programs remain "high risk." Wood states that in many cases HUD's enforcement actions against "troubled" PHAssuch as technical assistance and training or sanctions such as withholding of fundingresulted in some improvements.


As a result of the 1992 recommendations of the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing, Congress authorized $300 million for an urban revitalization demonstration program in the FY 1993 Appropriations Act. James Bovard reports in "HUD's Biggest Farce?" (Free Market, November 2000) that the program came to be named HOPE VI. (The acronym stands for Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere.) Up to that point HUD had put in place four previous HOPE initiatives; no HOPE V was ever launched.

In HOPE VI Program Authority and Funding History (August 2003,, HUD indicates that the aim of HOPE VI was to eliminate or upgrade the eighty-six thousand deteriorated units identified by the 1992 commission. Between FY 1993 and FY 2002 HUD reported revitalization grants totaling $5 billion and expended $335.6 million on demolitions. Since 2002 funding for HOPE VI has dramatically declined, from $574 million in FY 2002 to just $99 million in FY 2006. (See Table 5.5 in Chapter 5.) Funding was down in part because the Bush administration proposed the elimination of the program altogether.

The 1992 findings of the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing and the launch of an initiative such as HOPE VI (aimed at demolishing public housing) illustrates the sometimes troubled history of public housing. HOPE VI itself has been severely criticized by advocacy groups. The report False HOPE: A Critical Assessment of the HOPE VI Public Housing Redevelopment Program (June 2002,, which was prepared by the National Housing Law Project, the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, Sherwood Research Associates, and Everywhere and Now Public Housing Residents Organizing Nationally Together, finds that HOPE VI:

  1. Appeared headed toward eliminating twice the number of units found to have been "severely distressed" by the commission
  2. Eliminated rather than increased units available to the lowest income population
  3. Made it difficult for residents to participate in program decisions
  4. Failed to improve the "living environment" of those in HOPE VI sites
  5. Failed to provide data on project outcomes

According to Will Fischer, in "Public Housing Squeezed between Higher Utility Costs and Stagnant Funding: Low-Income Families Will Bear Brunt of Shortfalls" (October 11, 2006,, data on the number of public housing units available to house low-income people support the general charge that the number of units has declined from 1,273,500 in 1999 to 1,162,808 in 2005, a drop of 110,692 units. If people who inhabit units slated for demolition are not able to find accommodation under HUD Section 8 voucher programs, they are at greater risk of becoming homeless. The low-income housing crisis is made even more serious by regulations that allow PHAs to rent to people with incomes as high as 80% of the local median income. (An income of $47,700 is 80% of the national median income for a family of four.) Fischer indicates that renting to higher-income families increases the ability of these housing authorities to meet operating costs (and estimates that the FY 2007 Operating Fund is $1 billion short of what is needed to fully fund PHAs' operating budgets) but makes it much more difficult for lower-income families to find affordable and adequate housing.


Voucher programs pay a portion of the rent for qualifying families. Only low-income families are eligible, specifically those with incomes lower than half of an area's median income. Under some circumstances families with up to 80% of the local median income may also qualify; such cases may involve, for instance, families displaced by public housing demolition. The family pays 30% of its income in rent, with the remaining cost of their rent covered by the voucher. Vouchers are issued by the Public Housing Agency, which executes assistance contracts with the landlord, who must also qualify.

Two major voucher programs are available: tenant-based and project-based. In tenant-based programs, the voucher "follows" the tenant when the tenant moves to another qualifying unit. In project-based programs, the voucher is "attached" to a subsidized housing project. Families are directed to participating projects after they qualify. Tenants cannot automatically transfer their voucher in a project-based dwelling to anotherbut they may qualify for tenant-based vouchers after they move.

Besides these two basic programs, HUD also has five other voucher programs. Conversion vouchers are used to help tenants relocate when public housing is demolished. Family unification vouchers are used to help families stay together. Vouchers for people with disabilities and welfare-to-work vouchers assist the elderly or nonelderly disabled and families transitioning from welfare to work.

The homeownership voucher program, begun in 2002, provides vouchers to participants in the tenant-voucher programs who meet income and eligibility requirements to help them buy their first homes (under the law anyone who has not owned a home in the last three years is considered to be buying his or her first home). Participants must be employed and have an income of at least minimum wage. HUD reports in Annual Performance Plan, Fiscal Year 2007 that the program assisted two thousand low-income families from 2002 through 2005; beginning in 2007 the program planned to assist two thousand families each year in buying their first homes.

In all these programs the housing supplied is privately owned and operated and rents paid are at or below fair market rent (FMR). HUD determines the FMR in every locality of the nation by an annual survey of new rental contracts signed in the past fifteen months. The FMR is set as the fortieth percentile of rents paid, meaning that 40% paid a lower rent and 60% paid a higher rent. HUD has chosen the fortieth percentile to increase housing choices while keeping budgets at reasonable levels. Table 6.4 presents FMRs used by HUD in a sample of cities around the country in 200607. Rents in certain cities are calculated at the fiftieth percentile under new HUD rules that went into effect in 2001 for thirty-nine markets, which resulted in a raise in the FMR in these localities.

Of the cities shown in Table 6.4, the highest FMR for a two-bedroom unit for 200607 was in San Francisco, California ($1,551 per month). The lowest FMR was in Bismarck, North Dakota ($536 per month).

Project-based Section 8 housing has declined dramatically because funding for new construction stopped in 1983 with some minor exceptions (including construction/rehabilitation aimed at supporting homeless programs). Support of housing in such units continues, but the housing stock is going out of use through demolitions and conversions. Thus, in 2005 the vast majority of Section 8 housing vouchers were tenant-based. Although tenant-voucher residents have a fractionally higher average household income than public housing residents, they also have a larger family size. Therefore, two-thirds of voucher users (66%) and a little more than half (56%) of public housing residents have an extremely low income for their family size. (See Table 6.5.) The shift of the subsidized population from public housing toward voucher housing represents not an improvement so much as a change in policy, whereby the provision of housing in the future appears to be headed for privatization. Barbara Sard contends in "Housing Vouchers Should Be a Major Component of Future Housing Policy for the Lowest Income Families" (Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research, 2001) that tenant-based voucher programs give low-income people choices in housing and avoid problems of concentrating all poor people in housing projects.

Fair market rental rates for selected metropolitan areas, 2007
Area definitionFair market rental rate
0 bedroom1 bedroom2 bedroom3 bedroom4 bedroom
Source: Adapted from "SCHEDULE B: FY 2007 Final Fair Market Rents for Existing Housing," U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2006, (accessed October 23, 2006)
Bismarck, ND$412$431$536$776$798
San Juan-Guaynabo, PR$419$455$506$570$792
Gulfport-Biloxi, MS$517$548$640$834$857
Lexington-Fayette, KY$437$525$647$870$897
Memphis, TN-MS-AR$548$596$662$882$910
Cincinnati-Middletown, OH-KY-IN$436$516$668$894$929
Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord, NC-SC$588$637$707$891$1,036
Kansas City, MO-KS$518$622$714$966$1,016
Salt Lake City, UT$545$592$714$1,005$1,170
Albuquerque, NM$502$591$746$1,086$1,303
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA$647$700$779$948$1,035
Dallas, TX HMFA.$591$658$798$1,059$1,283
Orlando, FL$655$712$814$1,019$1,200
Seattle-Bellevue, WA$623$710$854$1,207$1,474
Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI$600$707$858$1,123$1,262
Las Vegas-Paradise, NV$643$754$891$1,237$1,503
Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD$676$773$923$1,105$1,314
Ann Arbor, MI$685$768$934$1,175$1,210
Chicago-Naperville-Joliet, IL$727$832$935$1,143$1,291
Flagstaff, AZ$699$831$939$1,208$1,523
Baltimore-Towson, MD$694$784$941$1,208$1,492
Anchorage, AK$660$751$942$1,356$1,652
New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA$755$836$978$1,256$1,298
Portland, ME$638$757$981$1,236$1,324
New York-Monmouth-Ocean, NY-NJ$988$1,069$1,189$1,462$1,645
Los Angeles-Long Beach, CA$843$1,016$1,269$1,704$2,051
Honolulu, HI$888$1,058$1,279$1,865$2,196
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD$995$1,134$1,286$1,659$2,171
Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH$1,097$1,164$1,366$1,634$1,795
San Francisco, CA$1,008$1,239$1,551$2,071$2,188

Other Housing Assistance Programs

HUD maintains programs to help fund housing for specific groups, including people living with AIDS, elderly people, Native Americans and Native Hawaiians, and people with disabilities. The Prisoner Reentry Initiative, created in 2005, helps former prisoners find housing and job training and other services.

Selected characteristics of subsidized housing populations, 2005
Public housingTenant vouchers
Source: Adapted from Resident Characteristics Report, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, March 2005
    Average income$10,725$11,080
Percent with income of:
Above $25,00076
Percent below 30% of median income5666
Average monthly payment$243$253
American Indian/Alaska Native11
Average household size2.22.6
Percent with 4 or more people1825
Percent with 2 bedrooms3037
Funding for selected rural housing programs, selected fiscal years 19872007
[Dollars in millions]
Rural housing programTotal dollars spent, fiscal year 1987Total dollars spent, fiscal year 1997Total dollars requested, fiscal year 2007Type of assistance
Source: Adapted from Bruce E. Foote, "Table 1a. Funding for Selected Rural Housing Programs, FY1980-FY2007," and "Table 1b. Funding for Selected Rural Housing Programs, FY1980-FY2007," in USDA Rural Housing Programs: An Overview, Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, May 11, 2006, (accessed October 24, 2006)
Single-family housing direct loans (sec. 502)1,144.2706.41,237.5Loans subsidized as low as 1% interest
Single-family housing guaranteed loans (sec. 502)NA2,000.03,564.2No money down, no monthly mortgage insurance loans
Single-family home repair grants and loans (sec. 504)18.448.566.2Grants for elderly and loans subsidized as low as 1% interest
Single-family housing mutual self-help grants (sec. 523)7.626.237.6Grants to nonprofit and public entities to provide technical assistance
Multifamily direct rural rental housing loans (sec. 515)554.9152.50Loans to developers subsidized as low as 1% interest
Multifamily housing guaranteed loans (sec. 538)NA51.8198.0Guaranteed loans for developing moderate-income apartments
Multifamily housing farm labor grants and loans (secs. 516/514)17.823.455.5Grants and loans subsidized at 1% interest
Multifamily housing preservation grants (sec. 533) to nonprofit organizations, local governments, and Native American tribes, usually leveraged with outside funding
Multifamily housing rental assistance (sec. 521)275.3520.2486.3Rental assistance to about one-half the residents in RHS rental and farm labor units

In Annual Performance Plan, Fiscal Year 2007, HUD notes that the FY 2007 budget requested $40 million for the Self-Help Homeownership Opportunity Program, which would help approximately fifteen hundred families in that year. Other HUD programs aim to increase privately owned low-income housing stock. The FHA provides mortgage insurance for multifamily projects, and the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, which is available to developers who provide a portion of their projects at low rents, added an estimated 117,000 low-income units in 1994, down to only 70,000 units in 2005, according to the Danter Company, in "Statistical Overview of the LIHTC Program, 1987 to 2005" (July 11, 2006, Funding under HUD's Community Development Block Grant program also has money for low-income housing.

HUD maintains demographic and income data only on participants in the major programs. For that reason information on the characteristics of participants in many other HUD subsidy programs aimed at low-income people is unavailable. The programs cited earlier do not include mortgage insurance and other FHA programs aimed to assist the more affluent general population to own a home.


A variety of rural housing programs are administered by the Rural Housing Service (RHS), a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Table 6.6 lists program data for 1987, 1997, and 2007.) These programs make federal money available for housing in rural areas, which are considered places with populations of fifty thousand people or less. Eligibility for rural housing programs is similar to that of subsidized urban programs. The requirements vary from region to region, and applicants must meet minimum and maximum income guidelines. The subsidies come in the form of grants or low-interest loans to repair substandard housing, subsidized mortgages for low-income home ownership, and grants to cover down payment and purchasing costs of low-income homes.

Table 6.6 shows the various programs that were available under RHS funding in millions of dollars. In 2007, $5.6 billion was appropriated for rural housing programs; of that, over $4.8 billion subsidized single-family home loans (sections 502 and 504) and $486 million provided rental assistance to families (section 521).

Much of the rural low-income housing where renters, migrant workers, and a high population of minorities live is substandard. There are four major areas affected by housing inadequacies: the Mississippi Delta, Native American trust lands, the colonias (poor neighborhoods) bordering Mexico, and Appalachia.

Unfortunately, like HUD, the RHS has been plagued by accusations of mismanagement. In 2003 William B. Shear finds in Rural Housing Services: Opportunities to Improve Management (June 19, 2003, that the RHS could be improved by reducing costs and by centralizing administration. In May 2004 the GAO reports in Rural Housing Service: Agency Has Overestimated Its Rental Assistance Budget Needs over the Life of the Program ( that the RHS has consistently overestimated its budget needs. In 2006 the GAO states in "Rural Housing Service: Overview of Program Issues" (March 10, 2005, that "several issues prevent the agency from making the best use of resources," including: the policy of "grandfathering" communities, which inhibits an accurate determination of metropolitan versus rural areas; the consistent overestimation of the RHS's rental assistance budget needs and insufficient monitoring of the use of the agency's funds; and inaccurate data collection methods.


Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH) is a federally funded program administered by the federal Center for Mental Health Services through grants to state mental health agencies. These state agencies provide PATH-funded services to homeless people with mental illness primarily through local or regional mental health service providers. PATH funds can be used for outreach, screening, diagnostic treatment, habilitation, rehabilitation, community mental health services, case management, supportive and supervisory services in residential settings, and other housing-related services.


HUD's programs are not able to provide assistance to everyone who qualifies and wants help, and those who are in the programs do not necessarily get all of the assistance they need. Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity on April 23, 2002, Telissa Dowling ( of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs Resident Advisory Board said that in 2002 about 1.5 million families took advantage of the Section 8 vouchers (also called Housing Choice vouchers). However, the rents permitted under the voucher program have not kept pace with actual rents in many markets. In his testimony before the same subcommittee, Roy Ziegler of the National Leased Housing Association reported that many Section 8 vouchers go unused because there are not enough rental units available to which the vouchers can be applied.

Funding is also a problem. The Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) reports in The State of the Nation's Housing, 2005 (2005, that for the first time the federal government did not fund all housing vouchers in use in 2005. As shown in Table 6.7, the amount of subsidized housing and Section 8 housing vouchers declined across all categories between 2003 and 2005. As a result of the decline in funding for Section 8 housing vouchers coupled with the rising costs of housing, waiting lists to get this housing assistance are long and sometimes closed altogether to new applicants.

Subsidized units available under public housing and voucher programs, 1998, 2003, and 2005
Source: Created by Melissa Doak for Information Plus from "Basic Counts," in A Picture of Subsidized Households in 1998, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, August 28, 1998, (accessed January 27, 2007), and Resident Characteristics Report, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, March 2005
Public housing1,300,4931,241,4661,220,937
Section 8 tenant vouchers1,391,5262,077,3361,803,013
Section 8 project-based vouchers/certificates1,001,939817,2749,833

Low-income people hoping for housing assistance from the federal government face formidable obstacles. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), in Waiting in Vain: An Update on America's Housing Crisis (1999), in 1998 a family spent an average of thirty-three months on a waiting list for HUD-assisted housing operated by the largest public housing authorities. The U.S. Conference of Mayors reports in the Hunger and Homelessness Survey: A Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness in America's Cities, a 23-City Survey (December 2006, that requests for government housing assistance were up in 86% of the surveyed cities in 2006. Section 8 waiting lists were long and often closed in surveyed cities. In January 2006, for example, 5,543 were on the Housing Choice Voucher waiting list in Boston; after the city reopened its waiting list for two weeks, 10,645 families were on the list. Seattle estimated it would take about seven or eight years to get through all the families on its Section 8 waiting list. New York City was not processing applications for Section 8 housing in January 2007 because of the shortfall in federal funding. Seventeen of twenty-three mayors surveyed believed high housing costs were a primary cause of homelessness in their cities.


According to Tom Wetzel, in "What Is Gentrification?" (2004), the process of renewal and rebuilding that accompanies an influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas is called gentrification. It typically displaces earlierand usually poorerresidents, and often destroys ethnic communities. Even though gentrification has positive aspectsreduced crime, new investment in the community, and increased economic activitythese benefits are generally enjoyed by the newcomers while the existing residents are marginalized. When a neighborhood is gentrified, the visible homeless come to be seen as a blight on the quality of life of the new residents. The homeless can drive away tourists and frustrate the proprietors of area businesses, leading to efforts to remove the homeless from the community. The widening gap between the haves and the have-nots in American society is evident in the plight of homeless people. As more and more privately owned, federally subsidized apartment buildings and former "skid rows" were gentrified during the economic boom of the 1990s, more of the poorest people were forced into homelessness.

Recent years have seen an increase in the enactment of laws and ordinances intended to regulate the activities of homeless people. Moreover, in some areas homeless children even found themselves placed outside the regular public school system and segregated in special schools for the homeless. Advocates for the homeless contend that such practices deny the homeless their most basic human, legal, and political rights.

Some local ordinances prevent the homeless from sleeping on the streets or in parks, although there may not be enough shelter beds to accommodate every homeless person every night. The homeless may be turned out of shelters to fend for themselves during the day, yet local ordinances prevent them from loitering in public places or resting in bus stations, libraries, or public buildings. Begging or picking up cans for recycling may help the homeless to support themselves, yet often there are restrictions against panhandling (begging) or limits on the number of cans they can redeem. To see the homeless bathe or use the toilet in public makes people uncomfortable; consequently, laws are passed to prohibit such activities.

Are the homeless targeted by these laws and consequently denied their civil rights? Do such ordinances criminalize homelessness by singling out the minority (the unhoused) but not the majority (the housed)? For example, drinking alcoholic beverages in public is illegal, but the police may selectively enforce the law against street people while ignoring other drinkers, such as tourists. Ordinances disallowing life-sustaining activities performed by homeless individuals may be said to exclude the homeless from equal protection under the law.

Most measures regulating the behavior of the homeless are enacted at the community level. Sometimes the most restrictive of these laws have been challenged in federal court on the grounds that they violate the rights of the homeless people they seek to regulate. For example, a federal court may be asked to determine whether begging or panhandling is considered protected conduct under the First Amendment (freedom of speech).

Criminalizing Homelessness

Homeless people live in and move about public spaces, and many Americans believe society has a right to control or regulate what homeless people can do in these shared spaces. A city or town may introduce local ordinances or policies designed to restrict homeless people's activities, remove their belongings, or destroy their nontraditional living places. In many cities municipal use of criminal sanctions to protect public spaces has come into conflict with efforts by civil rights and homeless advocates to prevent the criminalization of the necessary activities of the homeless population.

There have been other approaches. Several cities have proposed or created community courts specifically to handle "public nuisance" crimes. Other cities have implemented plans to privatize public property as a way of restricting the access of homeless people to certain areas.

Other localities pass ordinances that target homeless people in the hopes of driving them from the community. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), in A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities (January 2006,, of 224 cities surveyed in 2006, 28% prohibited camping in some places and 16% prohibited it citywide; 27% prohibited sitting or lying in some public places; 39% prohibited loitering in some places and 16% prohibited it citywide; 43% prohibited begging in some places, 45% prohibited "aggressive" panhandling, and 21% had citywide prohibitions.

Violating Human Rights

In A Dream Denied, the NCH states that, as successful lawsuits have shown, "many of the practices and policies that punish the public performance of life-sustaining activities by homeless persons violate the constitutional rights of homeless persons." The NCH notes that nearly all the communities surveyed lacked sufficient shelter space to accommodate the homeless and suggests that the effort and money spent on bringing the homeless into the courthouse might better be directed toward addressing the nation's lack of affordable housing.

Antihomeless laws existed in some of the cities surveyed by the NCH. Prohibited or restricted behaviors fell under the categories of sanitation, begging, sleeping/camping, sitting/lying, loitering/loafing, and vagrancy.

The NCH names Sarasota, Florida; Lawrence, Kansas; Little Rock, Arkansas; Atlanta, Georgia; and Las Vegas, Nevada, as the five "meanest cities" based on the number of antihomeless laws passed or pending, the enforcement and severity of their laws, the local support for the "meanest" designation, and the "general political climate" with regard to the homeless, among other criteria. Two examples of the practices of these cities follow.

Sarasota tried a third time to criminalize homelessness after two previous antilodging laws were overturned as unconstitutional by Florida courts. The latest law explicitly targeted homeless peopleto be arrested under the law, a person must have "no other place to live."

Even though Las Vegas lacks an adequate number of shelter beds, police regularly sweep homeless encampments and repeat misdemeanor offenders face extended jail time. The city considered making parks private to enable owners to kick out unwanted people. Mayor Oscar Goodman said, "I don't want them here. They're not going to be there. I'm not going to let it happen. They think I'm mean now; wait until the homeless try to go over there."

Rationale for Restrictive Ordinances

Local officials often restrict homeless people's use of public space to protect public health and safetyeither of the general public, the homeless themselves, or both. Dangers to the public have included tripping over people and objects on sidewalks, intimidation of passersby caused by aggressive begging, and the spreading of diseases. Many people believe the presence of the homeless is unsightly and their removal improves the appearance of public spaces. Other laws are based on the need to prevent crime. New York's campaign is based on the broken windows theory of the criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling (Atlantic Monthly, March 1982). They argue that allowing indications of disorder, such as a broken window or street people, to remain unaddressed shows a loss of public order and control, as well as apathy in a neighborhood, which breeds more serious criminal activity. Therefore, keeping a city neat and orderly should help to prevent crime.

All these are legitimate concerns to some degree. The problem, critics say, is that rather than trying to eliminate or reduce homelessness by helping the homeless find housing and jobs, most local laws try to change the behavior of the homeless by punishing them. They target the homeless with legal action, ignoring the fact that many would gladly stop living in the streets and panhandling if they had any feasible alternatives. Even though these laws may be effective in the sense that the shanties are gone and homeless people are not allowed to bed down in subway tunnels or doorways, the fact remains that homelessness has not been eradicated. Homeless people have simply been forced to move to a different part of town, have hidden themselves, or have been imprisoned, and all because they are doing something that they would gladly stop if they could. Furthermore, many of these laws have been challenged in court as violating the legal rights of the homeless people they target.

An Argument against Criminalization as Public Policy

In "Downward Spiral: Homelessness and Its Criminalization" (Yale Law and Policy Review, 1996), Maria Foscarinis, the founder of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, states that criminalization of the homeless is poor public policy for several reasons:

  • It may be constitutionally unsound, especially in cities that are unable to offer adequate resources to their homeless residents.
  • It leads to legal challenges, which may take years to resolve, regardless of outcome.
  • Legal battles are costly and will deplete already scarce municipal resources that could be used on solutions to homelessness.
  • Criminalization responses do not reflect public sentiment, but the will of a vocal, politically influential minority.
  • Criminalization fosters divisiveness, pitting "us" (the housed) against "them" (the homeless).
  • Like emergency relief, criminalization addresses the visible symptom of homelessnessthe presence of homeless people in the public spaceand neglects the true causes of homelessness.
  • There is the fact that, in the long term, criminalization does not and cannot work. Like all humans, homeless people must eat, sleep, and occupy space. If they are prohibited from occupying one area, they must go somewhere else.

As an alternative to criminalization, Foscarinis suggests the following:

  • Police advocacy programs, in which sweeps are replaced by outreach unitsofficers assigned to go out, with service providers, to homeless people to refer them to necessary services. Unless criminal activity is involved, the police remain in the background to provide security, and the presence of service providers prevents police from being too heavy-handed or harassing.
  • Standing committees composed of homeless people, advocates, a police captain, and a representative of the city government to respond to complaints about the camping of homeless residents. The committee outreach team attempts to make alternative arrangements for the homeless. The police act only if criminal activity is involved, or if homeless people refuse alternative arrangements.
  • Day-labor centersbuildings where homeless people can meet with employers to get jobs.
  • One-stop access centers, which offer medical services, mental health services, social services, and job training at one location.

The NCH agrees with these suggestions. In A Dream Denied, it argues that criminalization does nothing to address the problem and that local government, police officials, and business groups should work with advocates and providers for the homeless to come up with solutions that prevent and end homelessness. For example, more resources should be made available for affordable housing projects and homeless shelters and other services. The NCH states that business groups can put resources toward solutions to end homelessness rather than toward lobbying for criminalization methods. The NCH contends that "as criminalization measures move people away from services, make it more difficult for people to move out of homelessness, and cost more due to incarceration and law enforcement costs than more constructive approaches, cities would be wise to seek constructive alternatives to criminalization. When cities work with homeless persons and advocates toward solutions to homelessness, instead of punishing those who are homeless or poor, everyone can benefit."

Alternative Strategies

Alternatives to criminalizing homeless behavior can be implemented with help from community leadership and homeless advocates, who have intimate knowledge from close contact with homelessness. In A Dream Denied, the NCH details the innovative programs that some cities have put in place to better deal with the problem of homelessness.

A key element of most successful programs is the partnering of governmental and police organizations with advocacy organizations. For example, in Broward County, Florida, the Taskforce for Ending Homelessness partnered with the Fort Lauderdale police department to create an outreach team that includes not only police officers but also a civilian advocate who was formerly homeless. After five years of operation the team had had over twenty-three thousand contacts with homeless individuals and had prevented an estimated twenty-four hundred arrests each year. In Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati, Ohio, teams of trained workers visit homeless encampments at nontraditional hours to assist homeless people. Key to the success of the program is that they do not put many restrictions on the assistance they offer. In Washington, D.C., the downtown business community created a community day center for homeless people to provide services when shelters are closed. The center serves up to 260 people per day, providing them with laundry services and showers, as well as a morning meal.


The U.S. Constitution and its amendments, especially the Bill of Rights, guarantee certain freedoms and rights to all U.S. citizens, including the homeless. As more and more cities move to deal with homelessness by aggressively enforcing public place restrictions, the restrictions are increasingly being challenged in court as unconstitutional. Sometimes a city ordinance has been declared unconstitutional; at other times the courts have found that there were special circumstances that allowed the ordinance to stand.

There are many ways in which ordinances affecting the homeless can violate their rights. Many court challenges claim that the law in question is unconstitutionally broad or vague. Others claim that a particular law denies the homeless equal protection under the law or violates their right to due process, as guaranteed by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. There are also cases based on a person's right to travel, and others that claim restrictions on the homeless constitute cruel and unusual punishment, which is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. Many cities have ordinances against panhandling, but charitable organizations freely solicit in public places. As a result, according to those challenging the ordinances, the right to free expression under the First Amendment is unfairly made available to organizations but denied to the homeless.

The appearance of poverty should not deny an individual's right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, as guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. Often, homeless people's property has been confiscated or destroyed (such as camping gear or personal possessions) without warning because they were found on public property. Unfortunately, the state of homelessness is such that even the most personal living activities have to be performed in public. Denying these activities necessary for survival may infringe on an individual's rights under the Eighth Amendment.

The Fourteenth Amendment's right to equal protection under the law may be at issue when the homeless are cited for sleeping in the park, but others lying on the grass sunning themselves or taking a nap during a picnic, for instance, are not.

Testing the Constitutionality of Laws in Court

Some court cases test the law through civil suits, and others challenge the law by appealing convictions in criminal cases. Many advocates for the homeless, or the homeless themselves, challenge laws that they believe infringed on the rights of homeless people. The NCH argues that antipanhandling laws infringe on the First Amendment's right of free speech; that anticamping laws penalize people when no shelter space is available and violate the Eighth Amendment's right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment; that antiloitering laws are often unconstitutionally vague and violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; and that sweeps targeted toward cleaning public areas violate the Fourth Amendment's right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.


The concept of "no bed, no arrest" first arose out of a 1988 class action suit filed by the Miami Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of about six thousand homeless people living in the city of Miami. The city had a practice of sweeping the homeless from the areas where the Orange Bowl Parade and other related activities were held. The complaint alleged that the city had "a custom, practice and policy of arresting, harassing and otherwise interfering with homeless people for engaging in basic activities of daily lifeincluding sleeping and eatingin the public places where they are forced to live. Plaintiffs further claim that the City has arrested thousands of homeless people for such life-sustaining conduct under various City of Miami ordinances and Florida Statutes. In addition, plaintiffs assert that the city routinely seizes and destroys their property and has failed to follow its own inventory procedures regarding the seized personal property of homeless arrestees and homeless persons in general."

In Pottinger v. City of Miami (76 F.3d 1154, 1992), the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida ruled that the city's practices were cruel and unusual, in violation of the Eighth Amendment's ban against punishment based on status. (Only the homeless were being arrested.) Furthermore, the court found the police practices of taking or destroying the property of the homeless to be in violation of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments' rights of freedom from unreasonable seizure and confiscation of property.

The city appealed the district court's judgment. Ultimately, a settlement was reached in which the city of Miami agreed that a homeless person observed committing a "life-sustaining conduct" misdemeanor may be warned to stop, but if there is no available shelter, no warning is to be given. If there is an available shelter, the homeless person is to be told of its availability. If the homeless person accepts assistance, no arrest is to take place.


In the year 2000, homeless street dwellers and shelter residents of the Skid Row area (the plaintiffs) sought a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the Los Angeles Police Department (the defendant), claiming that their rights guaranteed by the First and Fourth Amendments were being violated. The plaintiffs alleged that they were being stopped without cause and their identification demanded on threat of arrest, that they were being ordered to "move along" although they were not in anyone's way, that their belongings were being confiscated, and that they were being ticketed for loitering. In Justin v. City of Los Angeles (No. CV-00-12352 LGB, 2000 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17881 [C.D. Cal. Dec. 5, 2000]), Judge Lourdes Baird denied a TRO that would have prevented the defendant from asking the plaintiffs to "move along." The TRO was granted with reference to the following actions when in the Skid Row area:

  • Detention without reasonable suspicion
  • Demand of identification on threat of arrest
  • Searches without probable cause
  • Removal from sidewalks unless free passage of pedestrians was obstructed
  • Confiscation of personal property that was not abandoned
  • Citation of those who may "annoy or molest" if interference was reasonable and free passage of pedestrians was not impeded


In 1996 advocates for the homeless sought an injunction against a Tucson, Arizona, resolution barring homeless encampments from city-owned property on Eighth Amendment and Equal Protection grounds. The court, in Davidson v. City of Tucson (924 F. Supp. 989), held that the plaintiffs did not have standing to raise a cruel and unusual punishment claim, as they had not been convicted of a crime and no one had been arrested under the ordinance. The Equal Protection claim failed because the court did not consider homeless people a suspect class and the right to travel did not include the right to ignore trespass laws or remain on property without regard to ownership.


In 1995 plaintiffs challenged Amtrak's policy of arresting or ejecting people who appeared to be homeless or loitering in Penn Station in New York City, even though the individuals were not apparently committing crimes. The district court, in Streetwatch v. National R.R. Passenger Corp. (875 F. Supp. 1055), determined that Amtrak's rules of conduct were unacceptably vague and that their enforcement impinged on the plaintiffs' rights to freedom of movement and due process.


One of the notable court cases addressing panhandling involved Jennifer Loper, who moved from her parents' suburban New York home to beg on the streets of New York City. From time to time she and her friend William Kaye were ordered by police to move on, in accordance with the city ordinance, which stated: "A person is guilty of loitering when he: '(1) Loiters, remains or wanders about in a public place for the purpose of begging.'" In 1992 Loper and Kaye sued the city, claiming that their free speech rights had been violated and that the ordinance was unconstitutional. A district court declared the ordinance unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds. On appeal, the police department argued that begging has no expressive element that is protected by the First Amendment. In Loper v. New York City Police Department (999 F.2d 699 [2d Cir. 1993]), the U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, declared the city's ban on begging invalid, noting that the regulations applied to sidewalks, which have historically been acknowledged to be a public forum. The court agreed that the ban deprived beggars of all means to express their message. Even if a panhandler does not speak, "the presence of an unkempt and disheveled person holding out his or her hand or a cup to receive a donation itself conveys a message of need for support and assistance."


In 1998 Alan Mason, a homeless man, sought an injunction, damages, and relief against the city of Tucson and the city police for zoning homeless people. The suit alleged that homeless people were arrested without cause, were charged with misdemeanors, and were then released only if they agreed to stay away from the area where they had been arrested. Mason himself had been restricted from certain downtown areas, such as federal, state, and local courts (including the court in which his case was tried); voter registration facilities; a soup kitchen; places of worship; and many social and transportation agencies.

The plaintiff argued that such restrictions violated his constitutional right to travel, deprived him of liberty without due process in violation of the Fifth Amendment, and implicated the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In July 1998 the district court, in Mason v. Tucson (D. Arizona, 1998), granted a temporary injunction against enforcing the law, saying the zone restrictions were overbroad. The case was subsequently settled out of court.

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Dealing with the Problem of Homelessness

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