Inside Story America

How does the US treat its homeless?

As one state passes a bill of rights for the homeless, others are making it illegal to sleep or beg in public places.

The US state of Rhode Island is the first in the country to pass a bill of rights for the homeless. The law gives them equal rights to jobs, housing and public space.

“This [the bill of rights for the homeless passed by Rhode Island] is a very important first step …. It is certainly not going to be in itself a solution for homelessness, not going to provide us with the affordable housing and the jobs we need to end homelessness …. But we hope and expect that this will serve as a positive model for communities rather than what many cities are doing right now, which is to pass negative measures … which end up being really costly for communities and don’t actually address the root causes of homelessness.

– Jeremy Rosen from the National Law Centre on Homelessness and Poverty

But as Rhode Island moves to protect the rights of the homeless, more than 50 cities across the country have adopted laws that make it illegal to sleep, sit, beg or share food in public areas.

Supporters of these laws argue that it is a matter of public health and safety. But human rights advocates say such legislation leaves the homeless with nowhere to eat or sleep.

Most US cities do not provide enough affordable housing, shelter space or food to meet the needs of homeless people. And now many have passed or are considering measures that target the homeless and the people who help them.

In Philadelphia, it is illegal to hand out food outdoors unless you have a permit. And it is illegal to keep belongings on public property or sleep outside in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles has been handing out citations for anything from flicking the ash from a cigarette on the sidewalk to drinking in public. Advocacy groups have labeled it the country’s “meanest city”.

“I’ve been working most of the time that I’ve been homeless but often times a person doesn’t make a living wage, they don’t make enough money to pay for their own rent …. You have bosses that are paying people a quarter of what it takes to live here [in Washington DC],” says Eric Sheptock, an advocate for the homeless who is himself homeless.

Cities and towns, like the rest of the country, are facing huge economic problems …. It is unfair to say that cities are mean or are ill intended. I think they are trying to grapple with a very difficult problem in a way that they know best how to do it.

– Neil Bomberg from the National League of Cities

The issue has caught the attention of the White House, which has criticised measures that would criminalise homelessness.

The federal government feels these steps would not solve the problem but simply reduce the visibility of the homeless in cities and towns across the country.

So what should be done to improve the lives of the homeless in the US?

Joining Inside Story Americas, with presenter Anand Naidoo, to discuss this are guests: Jeremy Rosen, the policy director at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty; Jim Ryczek the executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless; and Neil Bomberg, the programme director for Human Development and Public Safety at the National League of Cities.

“The answer to homelessness isn’t the bill of rights. I think the answer is more affordable housing.”

Mike Archambault, a shelter manager



  • Around 636,000 people are homeless every night in the US
  • The US homeless population decreased by about one per cent in 2011
  • Many programmes that reduce homelessness are to be phased out
  • Roughly 40 per cent of US homeless do not have access to shelter
  • Families with children make up 37 per cent of the homeless population in the US
  • Between 2009 and 2010 alone, more than a million children experienced homelessness
  • In the US, the homeless population has increased in 24 states and Washington DC
  • 6.2 million poor households spend over half of their income on rent in the US
  • 75 per cent of poor renters have severe housing-cost burdens
  • Wyoming had a 310 per cent increase in the number of homeless families in 2011