Homelessness and Civil Rights

The United States of America has long history of using harsh, and often brutal, laws to push "certain kinds of people" out of public space. In the modern era, people who experience homelessness are the target of countless ordinances that designed to give police broad sweeping tools to move specific people out of public space. 

In communities across the country, every-day life-sustaining activities are made illegal - from sitting on the sidewalks, to sleeping and asking others for financial help. Much like historical Anti-Okie laws, Sundown Towns, Ugly Laws and Jim Crow Era policies, these laws use vaguely worded ordinances to give legal justification for harassing, arresting and pushing poor and homeless people out of public spaces.


In the city of Greensboro, North Carolina, the city has one of the most draconian and outdated bans on "panhandling" in the country, as well as two loitering ordinances that are so vaguely worded that police can charge and arrest nearly any human being at any time in any public place based solely on a police officer's discretion and arbitrary reasoning. 



Consider the following language in Municipal Ordinance Sec. 18-44: 

“(b)It shall be unlawful for any person to occupy the streets or sidewalks of the city within fifty (50) feet of the entrance or exit of any establishment that serves alcohol.”

Or this language in Municipal City Sec. 18-46: 

“(b)It shall be unlawful for a person to remain or wander about in a public place in a manner and under circumstances manifesting the intent to engage in a violation of any subdivision of the North Carolina Controlled Substances Act…such circumstances shall include:

(1)Repeatedly beckoning to, stopping, or attempting to stop passers-by, or repeatedly attempting to engage passers-by in conversation; or…
(6)Such person takes flight upon the approach or appearance of a law-enforcement officer; or
(7)Such person is at a location frequented by persons who use, possess, or sell drugs.”

Read Supporting Letters from legal teams regarding criminalization ordinances in Greensboro:

              Read the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty's letter to Greensboro's City Council regarding their panhandling laws

              Read the ACLU of NC's Letter to Greensboro's City Council regarding their panhandling laws

              Read the Letter written by local Lawyers to Greensboro's City Council regarding their panhandling laws

              Read our document - "Fight Poverty, Not the Poor: Constructive Alternatives to Criminalizing Poverty in Greensboro

Criminalizing homelessness and poverty is…

  • Counterproductive People are not helped by receiving tickets for “quality of life” crimes. Fines, court dates and criminal records only add to the list of obstacles individuals need to overcome in order to secure housing, benefits or employment.

  • CruelThese laws are reminiscent of the past, when governments openly allowed the law to legally discriminate against specific demographics of people.

But Thankfully, there is a movement growing across the country, led by poor and homeless people, to combat this evil of criminalizing homelessness. Homeless-led groups, including the Homeless Union of Greensboro, are organizing and fighting criminalization head on; calling out these policies for what they are  - cruel, racist, stupid, unconstitutional and immoral - and building power across lines of difference to make sure that we put a stop to these laws for good. 

Scroll down to read more about these campaigns... 

Statements Against the Criminalization of homelessness:


Nili Yoshi - The Problem We Live With, 2007 Adaptation from Norman Rockwell's iconic painting of the same name, depicting Ruby Bridges, (6 years old) being escorted by U.S. marshals as she entered a white southern elementary school for the first time on November 14, 1960. Yoshi's adaptation was created at a time when the Federal Government was considering a bill to create "separate but equal" schools for homeless children.

The following is credited to the Western Regional Advocacy Project's Homeless Bill of Rights Campaign: wrap@wraphome.org www.wraphome.org

The United States has a long history of using mean spirited and often brutal laws to keep “certain” people out of public spaces and consciousness. Jim Crow, Sundown towns, Anti---Okie laws, Operation Wetback and Ugly laws targeted various populations based on their racial, economic, social, immigration or disability status. Understanding this history will provide context for the exclusionary  and  discriminatory  laws  that  specifically  target  homeless  people  for  what  are  referred  to  as  “Quality of Life” or “Nuisance Crimes.” They criminalize sleeping, sitting, loitering, panhandling and even f o o d sharing.  Just like the laws from our past, they deny people their right to exist in local communities.  They have their roots in the Broken Windows Theory which holds that one poor person in a neighborhood is like a first  unrepaired broken window; if such  a  “window”  is  not  immediately  fixed or removed, it is a signal that  no  one  cares,  disorder will flourish, and the community will go to hell in a hand basket.


  • Anti---Okie Laws

The agricultural workers who migrated to California for work in the 1900s were generally referred to as “Okies”. They were assumed to be from Oklahoma, but they moved to California from other states, as well. The term became derogatory in the 1930s when massive numbers of people migrated west to find work. In 1937, California passed an “anti-Okie” law which made it a misdemeanor to  “bring  or  assist  in  bringing”  extremely  poor  people  into  the  state.  The law was later considered unconstitutional.


  • Jim Crow Laws

After the American Civil War (1861-1965), most Southern states passed laws denying black people basic human rights. Later, many Border States followed suit. These laws became known as Jim Crow laws after  the  name  of  a  popular black-face  character  that  would  sing  songs  like  “Jump  Jim  Crow.”

In California, Jim Crow played out against Chinese immigrants more than black people. From 1866-1947, Chinese residents of San Francisco were forced to live in one area of the city. The same segregation laws prohibited inter-racial marriage between Chinese and non-Chinese  persons  and educational and employment  laws  were  also  enforced  in  the  city.  African and Native American children had to attend separate schools from those of white children. In 1879, the California constitution read that no Chinese people could vote and the law was not repealed until 1926.  Oregon and Idaho had similar provisions in their constitutions.

In 1891, a referendum required all Chinese people to carry a “certification of residence” card or     face arrest and jail. In 1909, the Japanese were added to the list of people who were prohibited by law from marrying white people.  In 1913, “Alien Land Laws” were passed that prohibited any Asian people from owning or leasing property.  The  law  was  not  struck  down  by  the  California  Supreme  Court until 1952.

  • Ugly Laws

From the 1860s to the 1970s, several American cities had laws that made it illegal for people with “unsightly or disgusting” disabilities to appear in public. Some of these laws were called “unsightly beggar ordinances”. The first ordinance was in San Francisco in 1867, but the most commonly cited law was from Chicago.   Chicago Municipal Code section 36034 stated:


“No person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object or improper person to be allowed in or on the public ways or other public places in this city, or shall therein or thereon expose himself to public view, under a penalty of not less than one dollar nor more than fifty dollars for each offense.”


  • Operation  Wetback

Operation Wetback began in 1954  in  California  and  Arizona  as  an  effort  to  remove  all  illegal,  Mexican immigrants from the Southwestern states. The Operation was by the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and coordinated 1,075 border control agents along with state and local police agencies. The agents went house to house looking for Mexicans and performed citizenship checks during traffic stops.  They would stop any “Mexican looking” person on the street and insist on seeing identification. Operation Wetback was only abandoned  after  a  large  outcry  from  opponents  in  both  the  United  States  and Mexico.


  • Sundown Towns

Sundown Towns did not allow people who were considered "minorities" to remain in the town   after the sun set. Some towns posted signs at their borders specifically telling people of color to not let the sun set on them while in the town.  There were town policies and real estate covenants in place to support the racism, which was enforced by local police officers. Sundown Towns existed throughout the United States and there were thousands of them before the Civil Rights Act of 1968 prohibited racial discrimination in housing practices.


Sundown Towns simply did not want certain ethnic groups to stay in their towns at night. If undesired people were to wander into a Sundown Town after the sun had set, they would be subject to any form of punishment from harassment to lynching.  While the state of Illinois had the highest number of Sundown Towns, they were a national phenomenon that mostly targeted anyone of African, Chinese, and Jewish heritage.


  • Today……  Broken Windows Laws

Today’s laws have their roots in the broken-windows  theory which holds that one poor person  in     a neighborhood is like a first unrepaired broken window and if such a “window” is not   immediately fixed or removed, it is a signal that no one cares, disorder will flourish and the community will go to hell in a hand basket. A direct outcome of this theory is the introduction of legislation to criminalize the presence of homeless people in public.

Current “Quality of Life” laws also take a certain population into account:  homeless persons. Using these laws, people are criminalized for simply walking, standing, sleeping, and other regular human behaviors. In other words, they are penalized and harassed simply because of who they are. Just as with Jim Crow, Ugly Laws, Anti-Okie Laws and Operation Wetback, how people look and their very existence is the basis for charging them with criminal behaviors.



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