While there are no specific laws outlawing homelessness per se, many cities have ordinances that essentially make it illegal to be homeless. As just one example, good Samaritans from Texas to Florida have been ticketed or arrested for just giving food to the homeless.
To help you better understand the laws, here are some local laws and ordinances that cover homelessness:
Is Sleeping in Public or in Your Car Illegal?
The majority of jurisdictions enforce so-called "catch-all" crimes against the homeless. Local ordinances against loitering, vagrancy, and disturbing the peace have all been used to harass and arrest homeless people.
Most often, these provisions are enforced against people sleeping in public parks or in their car. Generally, parks close at sunset, so sleeping in them after dark can be a crime. Living out of your car could expose you to criminal prosecution, but courts have struck down some bans on living in vehicles.
Is Panhandling a Crime?
Whether begging is illegal depends on where you live. Currently courts in different areas are split on the constitutionality of panhandling prohibitions:
- The Ninth Circuit (covering the West and West Coast) said day laborers have the right to solicit work;
- The Sixth Circuit (covering Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee) said begging is protected by the First Amendment;
- The Seventh Circuit (covering Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin) said that a ban on an oral request for money right now is OK; and
- The Fourth Circuit (covering North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia) said that "panhandling and solicitation of charitable contributions are protected speech."
Unfortunately, whether you can be arrested for begging change can come down to wherever you are unfortunate enough to be homeless.
What About Crimes Against the Homeless?
As the homeless population has risen, there are some legal protections for homeless people. California recently extended hate crime protections to the homeless and a county in Florida created a mobile "homeless court" to bring the court system to homeless defendants who have difficulty traveling to court.
If you are or have been homeless, or know someone who is or has been, and are having difficulty dealing with law enforcement or the legal system, you may have the right to a court-appointed attorney, or you can contact an experienced criminal lawyer in your area.
- Browse Criminal Defense Lawyers by Location (FindLaw Directory)
- Judge Orders Homeless Man to Get a Job (FindLaw Blotter)
- Is It Legal to Catch a Shark to Feed the Homeless? (FindLaw's Legally Weird)
- Cities Can't Seize and Destroy Homeless Population's Possessions (FindLaw's Ninth Circuit)