Easing the Burden of Nuisance Law Arrests on Those Experiencing Homelessness

Community Courts Can Help Prevent and Clear Criminal Backgrounds that Close Doors to Housing Opportunities

How we can open up the doors of housing opportunities to individuals experiencing homelessness?

Arresting individuals experiencing homelessness for activities such as panhandling for money or sleeping outside in places such as doorways or on park benches is no solution to end homelessness.

A recent NPR article, “To Combat Homelessness, Spokane Is Starting to Put Relationships Before Punishments” reports on Spokane’s recent Project Homeless Connect event.  This event is part of a larger city-wide effort to connect individuals experiencing homelessness to services. Similar events took place at the end of January, in conjunction with NJCounts 2020.  Twenty-five Project Homeless Connect events took place in fourteen of New Jersey’s counties.

Project Homeless Connect provides, in some cases, the first opportunity to connect individuals to services and housing.  A judge providing over community court was one of the services offered at Spokane’s Project Homeless Connect event. 

One solution to open doors of housing opportunity is to make it illegal for landlords to screen out individuals which criminal backgrounds from housing. You can read more about that here.

Another solution is for judges to work with individuals experiencing homelessness who have been issued citations for public nuisance law violations. At Spokane’s Project Homeless Connect event, a judge met with individuals experiencing homelessness with warrants out for their arrest.

Some individuals faced warrants because of their failure to show up for scheduled court dates stemming from misdemeanor charges.  If an individual is experiencing homelessness and moving from place to place, it is easy to imagine how they would not receive notification of a court date.

Spokane Municipal Court Judge Matthew Antush says, “The courts are finding that a hardline approach on enforcement doesn’t really do anything to stop the spread of homelessness. It costs the city $134 a day to jail someone.”

Antush spoke from both a practical economic and compassionate perspective. “It is an incredible expense on the community to have these warrants ultimately served,” Antush says. “I think people have to start, frankly, caring about folks, their problems, and try to help them with it.”

This community court meets weekly at the City’s public library. The community court helps people with misdemeanor charges lessen their punishment through volunteer hours instead of monetary fines.

The community court “quashes warrants”, and offers a complimentary meal and a safe, warm place to warm up from the cold. A judge can quash a warrant if the individual convinces them that they had a valid reason to violate the court order.

At times, for people experiencing homelessness, that interaction with local law enforcement officials results from minor violations such as breaking a local vagrancy ordinance or law. These ordinances often cause more harm than good. Click here for more information.

Individuals experiencing homelessness who try to rent their own apartments often face the barrier of a criminal background screening. Landlords can screen perspective tenants for a criminal background one of two ways – ask a potential tenant about criminal background or require a background check which looks for among other things a criminal background.

Arrests for infractions such as violations of vagrancy or camping laws most likely do not indicate that the potential tenant would be a risk to other residents or the rental property.

When a person experiencing homelessness is arrested for an infraction, they may face being placed in jail or have to pay a fine that they have no financial means to afford. Denying people access to housing because their homelessness was criminalized does not address the underlying causes of homelessness, does nothing to solve the homelessness crisis, and violates the civil rights of people experiencing homelessness.

If landlords, both private and public, use criminal background as a reason to not provide housing, these landlords are not providing housing opportunity.