Homelessness as a Public Health Law Issue: Selected Resources

On any given night, hundreds of thousands of people are homeless in the United States.1 These people might be chronically homeless, have temporarily lost their shelter, be fleeing domestic violence, or facing any number of other issues.2 Homelessness is closely connected to declines in physical and mental health; homeless persons experience high rates of health problems such as HIV infection, alcohol and drug abuse, mental illness, tuberculosis, and other conditions.3 Health problems among homeless persons result from various factors, such as barriers to care, lack of access to adequate food and protection, and limited resources and social services.4 As each of these factors have legal underpinnings, legal and policy interventions have often been used to attempt to address homelessness, although not always from a public health perspective.

The following resources describe homelessness as a public health concern, discuss the criminalization of homelessness in some jurisdictions, and give examples of legal and policy approaches to addressing homelessness.5

These resources provide background information about homelessness as a public health issue.

Some cities have criminalized homelessness itself, as well as activities often related to homelessness, such as sleeping in public, begging in public, and camping in public.6

The following resources examine the criminalization of homelessness around the country.

In recent years, advocacy organizations and government bodies have increasingly worked to decriminalize homelessness and to promote programs that provide multidisciplinary services, affordable housing, affordable healthcare, and other resources that can support homeless populations.7 The following resources give examples and recommendations from national and state level organizations and federal agencies of current efforts to both decriminalize homelessness and actively support homeless individuals.

This document was developed by Hillary Li, JD candidate at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill School of Law and extern with the Public Health Law Program (PHLP) within CDC’s National Center for State, Tribal, Local, and Territorial Public Health Infrastructure and Workforce. The author thanks Matthew Penn, JD, MLIS, Dawn Pepin, JD, MPH, and Aila Hoss, JD, for their editorial assistance.

For further technical assistance with this inventory, please contact phlawprogram@cdc.gov. PHLP provides technical assistance and public health law resources to advance the use of law as a public health tool. PHLP cannot provide legal advice on any issue and cannot represent any individual or entity in any matter. PHLP recommends seeking the advice of an attorney or other qualified professional with questions regarding the application of law to a specific circumstance. The findings and conclusions in this summary are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of CDC.

  1. Green Doors,General Homelessness Facts(last visited Oct. 18, 2016). Homelessness statistics are often assessed on a “per night” basis because they assess where people sleep at night—on the streets, in shelters, etc. See, e.g.,City of Portland, Homelessness Toolkit (last visited Nov. 14, 2016).
  2. Id.
  3. Am. Public Health Ass’n, Homelessness as a Public Health Problem (last visited Oct. 18, 2016).
  4. Id.
  5. During October 1–17, 2016, PHLP used WestlawNext, a subscription-only legal research database, to conduct searches for legal publications and used Google to identify additional resources.
  6. Nat’l Law Ctr. on Homelessness & Poverty, No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in US Cities(last visited Oct. 18, 2016).
  7. See, e.g., Nat’l Alliance to End Homelessness, Housing First (last visited Oct. 18, 2016).

Published March 2, 2017. 

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