Pervasive penality: How the criminalization of poverty perpetuates homelessness

Herring, C., Yarbrough, D., & Alatorre, L. M.

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Herring, C., Yarbrough, D., & Alatorre, L. M. (2019). Pervasive penality: How the criminalization of poverty perpetuates homelessness. Social Problems, 67(1), 131–149.

community-based research , criminal justice , homelessness , poverty governance

A growing literature examines the extent to which the criminal justice system perpetuates poverty and inequality. This research examines how anti-homeless laws produce various forms of police interactions that fall short of arrest, yet have wide-ranging impacts on the urban poor. Our analysis draws on a citywide survey of currently and recently homeless people, along with 43 in-depth interviews, to examine and reveal the mechanisms through which consistent punitive interactions, including move-along orders, citations, and destruction of property, systematically limit homeless people’s access to services, housing, and jobs, while damaging their health, safety, and well-being. Our findings also suggest that anti-homeless laws and enforcement fail to reduce urban disorder, but create instead a spatial churn in which homeless people circulate between neighborhoods and police jurisdictions rather than leaving public space. We argue that these laws and their enforcement, which affected the majority of study participants, constitute a larger process of pervasive penality—consistent punitive interactions with state officials that rarely result in arrest, but that do material and psychological harm. This process not only reproduces homelessness, but also deepens racial, gender, and health inequalities among the urban poor.

Main finding
The criminalization and policing of homelessness leads to harmful effects that perpetuate poverty and homelessness. Local anti-homeless ordinances do not reduce, or even obfuscate homelessness, but instead play an instrumental role in contributing to homelessness. Similarly, “quality of life” policing , as seen in move-along orders, citations, and confiscation of property actively produces disorder. These police methods exacerbate the vulnerability of homeless people, increase violence and crime, lead to accumulated debts, and create barriers to accessing services, housing, and jobs. The study indicated that these harmful effects are unevenly distributed along lines of race, gender, and disability, perpetuating social inequality. Caller complaints were found to be the largest drivers of police contact with the homeless population.

Description of method used in the article
A survey was conducted in collaboration with the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness (COH). Thirty heavily trained volunteers of the COH surveyed 351 people who have experienced homelessness, 33% of which were housed at the time but had experienced homelessness at some point. The purposive sample included each neighborhood in San Francisco's central city with a particular focus on public and semi-public spaces often frequented by homeless people: parks, encampments, soup kitchens, and drop-in centers. Survey questions asked respondents whether they had been forced to move by city officials in the past year and how many forced displacements they had experienced. In-depth interviews were then conducted with 43 additional homeless participants by five peer researchers, all of whom were homeless or had been recently, who were tasked with recruiting homeless people who had interacted with the police. All 43 participants received a $20 Safeway gift card. Finally, data and policy memos from the city, police, and courts were examined, and various members of law enforcement, legal advocates, and a public defender were interviewed.

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