When Falling Asleep, Standing Still and Sitting Down is a Crime

Monmouth County Human Services Researches Municipal Codes Targeting Indivdiuals Experiencing Homelessness

There are some activities so fundamental to human existence that it defies common sense that they might be treated as crimes. Falling asleep, standing still, and sitting down, are all necessary actions for any human being’s survival. While these activities are unquestionably legal when performed indoors, more and more communities across the country are treating these life-sustaining behaviors as criminal acts when performed in public places by people with nowhere else to go”

This quote is from a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty titled “No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities,” which outlined how many municipalities and cities across the country have municipal codes written in such a way as to target individuals experiencing homelessness.

These codes include language that outlaws “sleeping, eating, or sitting in public”, “begging or panhandling”, “food distribution in public places.” Municipalities and cities enforce neutral laws such as “jaywalking, loitering, open containers, etc.” and public health ordinances related to hygiene and public activities, which would include “public urination and public defecation”, and “camping in public”.

This report inspired Monmouth County Human Services to investigate what kinds of codes were on the books for the municipalities in the County. After examining each municipality’s ordinances, we found that 24 municipalities had codes against “sleeping, eating, or sitting in public”, 19 had codes against “begging or panhandling”, one had a code written against “food distribution in public places.” All but two municipalities have codes regarding either “jaywalking, loitering, or open containers”, 27 had codes against public urination and/or public defecation, 20 had codes against “camping in public”, and 6 had codes regarding use of shopping carts.

NJCounts 2019, which is a community wide point-in-time count survey of individuals experiencing homelessness over a single 24 hour period, showed that the highest number of individuals experiencing homelessness in one Monmouth County municipality was 96. Eleven of the indivdiuals counted were unsheltered. That same municipality also had a large number of municipal codes on their books that could be seen as targeting individuals experiencing homelessness.

NJCounts 2019 found a few other municipalities to have a large number of individuals experiencing homelessness that only had a small number of codes that could be seen as targeting indivdiuals experiencing homelessness. Several municipalities had a few ordinances on the books that could be seen as targeting individuals experiencing homelessness and little or no individuals counted in the survey as having originated from those municipalities.

The next step is to determine the number of individuals experiencing homelessness who are actually penalized for breaking these codes in Monmouth County. It is possible that the codes are on the books but are not strictly enforced. Additional information and data from police departments across the county is needed to determine the number of individuals experiencing homelessness that are indeed affected by these municipal codes and ordinances.

Kaitlyn Lenehan is a MSW Intern at Monmouth County Human Services. Kaitlyn is completing her first semester at Rutgers University School of Social Work.