Homeless People in Wealthy Suburbs vs. Big Cities, Lowering Poverty, and Policing Strategy


People who are homeless probably violate the law in ways people with homes do not, in general, and specifically in ways that attract the attention of police forces. Responding to it presents a policy challenge. It is in the economic interest of larger municipalities to overlook some of those violations (sometimes noted under the rubric of “we can’t arrest our way out of homelessness” and similar phrases), even violations that are enforced against people with homes, but it is in the economic interest of relatively affluent smaller localities, like suburbs, to be overly zealous and drive homeless people out of their borders and out of sight.

Smaller, Wealthier Communities Gain by Driving the Homeless Away

In relatively affluent smaller communities, including most suburbs, most families likely plan to earn enough to invest well so they can retire on income from selling their eventual assets. Many have a major part of their net worth invested in their homes. They want their homes to increase in sale value faster than the cost of living rises, or faster than inflation. An executive offered a new position in another city may want to sell the family home on short notice, and so depends on value rising not only when retirement is looming but continuously year after year. Investments are more easily managed if what is invested in is something the investor understands; and people tend to understand their own homes, partly because friendly neighbors who are also homeowners often share expertise. They tend to understand that resale value goes up from putting in a new boiler or porch, the tax implications of real estate value assessments, and what may influence potential home buyers to buy theirs. The potential buyers tend to consider the quality of the neighborhood, and they judge that partly from appearances. If they see homeless people nearby, they count that negatively. Thus, current homeowners have a hefty financial incentive to make homeless people invisible; that often being difficult, an easier alternative may simply be to get rid of homeless people, often by harassment and perhaps by arresting and jailing. This costs money, but not much compared to the resulting boost in real estate worth and overall asset value.

The homeless people in a suburb might not be so hard to find, either, for the sake of harassing and arresting them. An affluent neighborhood tends to have almost every square foot under someone’s watchful eye. The watching need not be perfect; it’s enough that a neighbor sees something and says so. In suburbs, they often say so. Meanwhile, jobs are often harder to find in such coommunities, because of scarcity of affordable transit (including walking distances being too long) and local preference for hiring people who are better known and more welcome to stay, i.e., not the transient or poor. Without a job, someone’s poverty usually lasts longer.

At the same time, the homeless person who has a little bit of money likely won’t spend all of it in that municipality, because there may not be much on sale within that locality to fulfill that homeless person’s needs and because the crossable borders are nearby. The homeless person easily travels in and out of that area, as long as some kind of affordable transportation is available, and, for the purpose of leaving, it’ll be available.

Larger Cities Gain by Welcoming and Helping the Homeless


In larger metropolises, on the other hand, hiding places are empirically easier for a homeless person to find. In one small office building with little fame, a guard discovered eight homeless people in the basement. He’d let them enter one or two at a time because they said they were going upstairs for some purpose or other, but now they were downstairs, and one asked the guard where the bathroom is. He said they don’t have one and I guess he got them out of the building. Whole communities of homeless people have lived in underground train tunnels, in one railroad tunnel for possibly a decade. Many sleep in front of vacant stores. Some get jobs as night guards for small stores where they’re allowed to sleep, so that if someone disturbs the gate there’ll be someone inside to give the break-in artist a guard’s halt. Creativity helps many homeless people make it. One mentioned having been homeless for fifteen years (he had become probably eligible for housing without staying in a shelter). There are places to catch at least some naps.

It is also possible to make something of a living in that same city. Whether the homeless person gets the money from being employed by a firm (although many firms will ask for an address at least for tax purposes and will not hire someone without an address lest they steal and can’t be found), from government or insurance benefits, by self-employment through playing music for tips or collecting and redeeming cans for the deposits, by scavenging on streets for lost pennies, by asking passersby for spare change, or, if they don’t get caught, by stealing it or selling drugs, or by some other means, they wind up with cash.

Prolonging Poverty

Since they’re homeless, they often lack government-issued photo identification with their name and address, and so they probably can’t open a bank account. So, they carry their cash. Some people rob other people and probably some robbers specialize; some rob jewelry stores, some rob frail older people, and some rob schoolkids of lunch money. And some rob homeless people. One homeless person hid money in a park (and later became a musician with a career).

A solution is that many homeless people likely spend money the day they get it. It means they get value and deny robbers much benefit, and denying robbers benefit discourages the same robbers from coming back for more. By spending, homeless people are injecting income into the local economy. Stores where they spend gain taxable income. Governments receive the taxes. Stores buy more merchandise, which helps manufacturers. Government benefits pay for goods and services, such as medical care, employing doctors, nurses, and janitors and paying landlords for the medical buildings, the landlords paying plumbers and taxes. The city being larger than one suburb, almost certainly the homeless person will spend almost all of their money in that city.

But spending it all on the day of its receipt makes saving enough to pay rent even just for a week plus a one-week security deposit nearly impossible, so lack of safety for their money stretches homelessness and poverty. Homeless people are not as productive for the economy as are wealthier people, but they are productive. Society and governments benefit from homeless people moving into the middle class and paying taxes, so it’s worthwhile for cities to try to help homeless people gain traction in getting out of poverty, discontinuing no-longer-needed transfer payments meant to alleviate their poverty, paying taxes, and accumulating surpluses they apply to investments and taking care of dependents. That may require providing housing with a temporary subsidy, so they have a place with a locked door where they can get mail and keep property, including money, and don’t have to pay rent before they’ve had a chance to get a job while they can tell employers that they have an address. Even if the home gets broken into and the money gets stolen, by splitting cash between home and person they often can protect at least half of it for a day. And, given an address, they can get mail, including documents like birth certificates, and many can get photo IDs and, using that, bank accounts, which provides better protection for their cash and the ability to save up for rent and to pay rent dependably.

Many have many needs. Some may need health care to become employable or to qualify for housing from private landlords. Some may need substance abuse treatment, if they can’t end the abuse by their own willpower. Some may need clothes. Some may need a place to stash a shopping cart or two of grungy-looking things while they access social services (the things looking grungy may lower the risk of being robbed and the things may include clothes, documents, official correspondence, money, medicines, personal care supplies, family photos, food, utensils, cooking supplies, alcohol, and illegal things like drugs). Some may need a shower. Priorities may vary and a homeless person may know their own priorities well enough. It is likely economically worth a city government’s resources to deliver some set of services that get most homeless people out of homelessness and poverty.

The Politics of Trying to End Poverty

It is politically challenging. People compete for resources governments offer, and sometimes on the basis that a poor person is too long-term a basket case to benefit anyway, which may seem plausible to reasonable people who know only a little about it. Homeless people who have just gotten homes often look somewhat less appealing, maybe repulsive, than other neighbors, and this may impede growth in real estate values and in the resale worth of family homes next door. If they have violent streaks or tend to substance abuse, they may still be violent (perhaps on walls) or substance-abusive until treatment has positive effects. Street crime may rise and be attributable to the newly-arrived formerly-homeless, requiring policing. Success may backfire; if poverty reduction becomes astoundingly successful, word gets around, and people with problems move froom other cities into the hopeful city, possibly overloading the local resources; that may call for national support for cities making good efforts. But as long as problems due to poverty persist, it may be best to make these problems temporary through support services that help get people out of poverty.

Criminal Justice with Other Solutions

The law enforcement problem touches all of this. If no crime was or is being committed, arrest simply to hassle is illegal and counterproductive. It’s counterproductive because it costs the arresting jurisdiction to arrest and then to do everything until final release, and most of that money probably cannot be recovered from the arrested low-income person. If the policy of the jurisdiction is to issue a ticket (summons) except that if the person lacks sufficient identification then the person is to be arrested for the same offense, the whole event will probably lose money for the government. If a fine is levied, the person will likely pay it partly from benefits meant to alleviate poverty, thereby extending poverty, and partly from money being saved for longer-term living expenses like future housing, thereby being unable to meet those expenses and extending poverty. If the person cannot pay the fine, poverty will be extended. If the fine is compounded by being added to, such as with late fees, the inability to pay will extend that person’s poverty.

At the other end of the scale, some crimes should lead to arrest and conviction regardless of housing status.

But in between are offenses that should lead to summonses and arrests of people who have the means and not of people who don’t. This will be controversial. The differentiation is likely practiced already, just without an announcement from any City Hall. But a society defines certain forms of conduct as offenses in order to constrain those behaviors, and fines may be necessary to that end, along with the processing associated with the policing, the adjudications, and the fines. Simultaneously, some of those same offenses when committed by people in poverty raise the question of when to use costly enforcement and when to spend to alleviate poverty through transfer payments and guidance accompanied by policing in the form of lower-cost warning and hassling (e.g., “move along”, because it’s all right for someone to catch enough sleep to support functionality but it’s not so good for the person to fail to keep seeking housing or income to pay rent). Sleeping while lying down on public benches or public urination where public bathrooms are unavailable are often examples.

A common argument is for the duty of everyone to obey the law and, if the law is disliked, to seek a change in the law without violating it. That’s reasonable, normally. However, should one obey the law if the result would very soon be death of oneself or of a dependent but a life would be saved by violating it? We’ll put aside the less stark cases in a gray zone. The question has already been answered in practice, if not in theory. Almost no one agrees to die just to conserve food and housing for other people, except for people, usually older and jobless, who see little or no point in staying alive at someone else’s expense. Almost no one will prefer to die than to violate a law, especially if the violation can be brief or temporary and all other people can be left mostly intact in their persons, families, and property (like shoplifting a dinner vs. murder for hire). As a result, when crime is temporary and aimed at survival, the responses of a criminal justice system should be present but less draconian and combined with reducing loss of housing (e.g., preventing undue evictions and opening alternative housing) and helping likely perpetrators move up the economic scale into stable self-sufficiency and thereby, even if never arrested, out of crime and out of temptation into crime. That, too, has been embraced in practice, if not always in theory. We have welfare programs in most places, because paying welfare is more orderly and lets a society function in a more orderly way when people’s survival needs are met through families and taxes and without crime. For example, when crime is less, stores don’t have to spend as much on security and don’t have to raise prices as much to cover security and losses due to crime when security failed, benefitting customers, benefitting families and taxpayers.

Bottom Line

A criminal justice system is generally supposed to deter future crime by individuals committing offenses and by others observing what happens to individuals committing offenses. In cases where the total deterrence value is far below or consistently below the total cost of applying criminal justice, the response to crime has to be reconsidered. This of course does not apply to all crimes or all circumstances but to specific subsets. The reconsideration of how criminal justice is applied and in tandem with what positive services is for the benefit of the society, its taxpayers, and the individuals committing crimes and their families.