By Sophie Lovering
Sophie Lovering is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) and minoring in American Sign Language and Deaf Studies.
In 2019, 567,715 Americans experienced homelessness on a single night, an increase of 14,885 people from the previous year . Between the same two years, the estimated number of people experiencing chronic homelessness increased by 8.5% . There are notable racial disparities in this population. African Americans make up only 12.5% of Americans, but represent over 40% of the homeless population . Other populations that account for a disproportionately large amount of the homeless population include military veterans, survivors of domestic violence, and the LGBTQ community . If you visit any city or urban center, it is evident that homelessness is an American crisis. To make this crisis worse, many cities within the United States have criminalized homelessness.
According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, one common form of criminalization is prohibiting camping in public . In many areas, such as Charlotte, North Carolina, “camping” includes “the use of city property for living accommodation purposes such as sleeping… on city property” . The homeless population experiences several more discriminatory measures. Of the 187 cities surveyed by the National Law Center, 47% prohibit sitting and lying down in public, and 32% prohibit loitering, loafing, and vagrancy city-wide . Several cities even prohibit living in vehicles and food-sharing . These are life sustaining measures that no human can live without: food, water, and shelter.
This is not an issue of the past, and it is not an issue unfamiliar to students at the University of Pennsylvania. In Philadelphia, prohibited conduct includes sitting or lying down in particular public areas and loitering, loading, vagrancy, and begging city-wide . According to a Daily Pennsylvanian piece written by Aliza Ohnouna, Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush said that Penn Police do not chase homeless people off campus . That being said, Penn has certainly made its campus hostile to the homeless population. Anti-homeless hostile architecture can include armrests on benches to prevent people from sleeping, fenced grates to deprive homeless people of the warmth they may provide, and slanted surfaces under bridges to make shelter impossible; all of these designs are found on Penn’s campus.
This issue is especially pressing given the current COVID-19 outbreak. Penn students - alongside the rest of the nation and the world - have been advised to go home and socially distance by remaining in their homes except for truly essential activities. How are homeless people expected to follow these suggestions? Without a home to go to and without shelters that can provide safety, thousands of people are left to handle this pandemic without support. It is irresponsible to watch as thousands of Americans experience their basic, life-sustaining activities being criminalized. Although COVID-19 complicates social and political reform, the time to act, the time to decriminalize homelessness, and the time to make shelter more accessible is now.
The opinions and views expressed in this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.
 HUD Public Affairs. “Annual Homeless Assessment Report.” January 7, 2020. https://
 Sarma, Bidish and Jessica Brand. “The Criminalization of Homelessness: Explained.” The Appeal. June 29, 2018. https://theappeal.org/the-criminalization-of-homelessness-
 National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. “Housing not Handcuffs: Ending the Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities.” 2016. https://nlchp.org//wp-content/uploads/
 Ohnouna, Aliza. “Protesters, preachers and homeless people: Who is allowed on Penn’s campus?” Daily Pennsylvanian. February 28, 2017. https://www.thedp.com/article/2017/
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