Here's How Cities Are Subtly Hiding Their Homeless Populations

Homelessness is a major issue in most cities, and it's not likely to go away anytime soon. As of 2016, an estimated 549,928 people in the United States experienced homelessness on an average night; over one-fifth of that number was comprised of children. It isn't limited to one geographic area, either. Cities with high homelessness rates include New York, Los Angeles, and Washington DC – though you might not know it if you're fortunate enough to rent or own a place there. The methods of how cities hide homelessness are as creative as they are morally questionable.

What are some of the ways cities erase homeless people? Local governments might install spikes on the ground outside of buildings, or design garbage cans so that they can't be rummaged through. Some places go even further by banning charity organizations from feeding the homeless and arresting people for sleeping outside. Homeless individuals often adapt to these new circumstances, though many end up pushed to the very outskirts of society.

Are these policies humane? Take some time to consider how towns control homeless populations, and come to your own conclusions.

  • By Installing Spikes Where Homeless People Sleep

    In 2014, several private buildings in London and Montreal installed spikes in the ground in an attempt to stop homeless people from sleeping there. This met with public outrage. Protestors poured concrete over spikes that cropped up outside of a Tesco supermarket. Over 130,000 people signed a petition in favor of their removal, and the mayors of both cities spoke out against them. The spikes were eventually removed from Montreal and London due to their unpopularity.

  • By Prohibiting Public Hygiene Activities
    Photo: albertstraub / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    By Prohibiting Public Hygiene Activities

    One of the many problems with homelessness is finding a place to bathe and wash your clothes. While many homeless people are able to get this done in shelters, others might have to get creative. Individuals might try to bathe in public restrooms, public water fountains, or in naturally occurring bodies of water like lakes. Unfortunately, this behavior is illegal in many places, and often leads to ejection from the facilities, or to arrests.

  • By Criminalizing Panhandling
    Photo: SLR Jester / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    By Criminalizing Panhandling

    If you go into the New York City subway, you'll see signs everywhere telling you not to give money or other aid to the homeless. New York City is far from the only city with restrictions on panhandling. In Orlando, FL, you can't solicit money from a "captive audience," which can even include people sitting outdoors. In Atlanta, GA, the practice is completely banned.

    Not only can homeless people asking for money be fined or arrested, but in some places the people who give might be targeted, too. In January of 2017, a bill was proposed in Providence, RI, that would fine motorists for stopping their cars to give money to someone outside.

  • By Banning Feeding Organizations
    Photo: bbcworldservice / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    By Banning Feeding Organizations

    Religious groups and charity organizations often provide food to the homeless. While this may seem like a harmless act of kindness, many cities are cracking down on these organizations. In 2014, laws restricting feeding the homeless appeared in at least 33 U.S. cities. The penalties for doing so can range from heavy fines to jail time.

    This has resulted in a decrease in activity from these organizations – and in turn, fewer opportunities for homeless individuals to get something to eat.

  • By Destroying Homeless People's Belongings
    Photo: Mabacam / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    By Destroying Homeless People's Belongings

    The California transit bureau conducts massive raids, during which officials round up and destroy homeless people's belongings by tossing them into a garbage compactor. This can include everything from tents and garbage bags to cell phones and personal documents. In one particularly harrowing incident, a tent was crushed while someone's cat was still inside.

    Besides the loss of personal property, these types of raids can dramatically impede any progress a homeless person might make toward getting off the streets. You can't exactly get a job if you don't have a phone or documents proving your identity. Several lawsuits are in progress to attempt to stop this practice.

  • By Establishing Rules Against Sleeping In Public
    Photo: wonderferret / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    By Establishing Rules Against Sleeping In Public

    If you've ever seen a security guard walking around a public library, eyes out for anyone who looks like they might be nodding off, you've seen this particular technique in action. Sleeping in a public building, on public transportation, and outside are activities that are banned in many cities.

    Theoretically, homeless people could stay in shelters. But shelters are often full to capacity, or are so rife with gang violence that staying on the street is preferable.