The Criminalisation of Homelessness

Published: 10.12.2018


As homelessness increases across Europe, so too do efforts by Governments to penalise and criminalise those experiencing it. Focus Ireland Policy Officer Alison Connolly takes the recent example of the criminalisation of rough sleeping in Hungary to shine a light on this increasing trend.

The criminalisation  of homelessess can take various forms and includes laws which make it illegal to sleep or sit in public places, prohibitions on begging, restrictions on removing items from waste or recycling bins, laws related to public activities and hygiene. Oftentimes these laws are prohibiting behaviour which is perfectly acceptable in a person’s home.

The most recent example of this trend is the decision by the Government of Hungary to introduce a constitutional ban on ‘habitual residence in a public place’. This amounts to the criminalisation of people sleeping rough; police are empowered to remove rough sleepers from the street and to dismantle temporary shelters.

The Effects in Hungary

Those working to support people experiencing homelessness in Hungary say that there are insufficient shelter spaces in cities like Budapest. But providers have been told not to turn away anyone who arrives at their doors, regardless of capacity. This is resulting in overcrowded emergency accommodation and a concern that many more individuals are simply moving into surrounding countryside, out of reach of social care and health services.

In an open letter to the Government of Hungary the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Leilani Farha, stated that:

…people who are homeless will be stigmatized as criminals merely for undertaking self-help solutions necessary for their own survival… they will be punished for simply attempting to maintain their own lives. They will suffer severe consequences, including being trapped in the justice system and isolated from any possibility of exiting their situation of homelessness. Committing an offence may result – in particular if repeated or the fine is not paid – in incarceration or a criminal conviction and may have long-term implications, preventing future employment and the ability to rent accommodation.

Provisions which penalise or criminalise homelessness are often based on a flawed assumption that homelessness is a choice. They fail to take into account the myriad structural and economic realities which intersect to rob people of their right to housing. Criminalisation is often used as a tool to minimise the visibility of people experiencing homelessness.

The criminalisation of homelessness is a growing trend across Europe. Feantsa, the umbrella federation for homeless organisations in Europe, has collated information on this trend. Examples include advertisements on buses encouraging travellers to report individuals experiencing homelessness whose ‘odour’ is causing a public disturbance or the increasing prevalence of anti-begging legislation. There is also a link between legislation criminalising homelessness and the increasing prevalence of anti-homeless architecture. Anti-homeless or hostile architecture includes alterations to public spaces to discourage their use.

Criminalisation is often used as a tool to minimise the visibility of people experiencing homelessness.

Criminalising Homelessness Is Not the Answer

We must end homelessness, not criminalise it. We cannot do this by penalising and further marginalising those experiencing homelessness. We must work towards ending homelessness by providing adequate housing and accessible supports and introducing human-rights based strategies to prevent people losing their accommodation. We know that there are services and strategies which successfully support individuals who are experiencing entrenched rough-sleeping to move into stable accommodation. Focus Ireland operates the Housing First team in Dublin alongside the Peter McVerry Trust. Housing First services, which provide wrap-around support to individuals in their accommodation and which are predicated on the belief that everyone deserves a place to call home, have demonstrated significant success in tenancy sustainment. Innovative, rights-based solutions contribute to ending homelessness. Criminalisation does not.

We are asking those who believe that housing is a human right to join us in calling for the Hungarian Government to reverse laws criminalising homelessness and to instead tackle the structural causes of homelessness by introducing human-rights based strategies. Read more about our petition here.

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Tags: Petition, Policy, Rough Sleeping, Solutions

Author: Alison Connolly

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