Laws That Prohibit Sleeping Outside Don't Fix The Problem Of Homelessness Laws that ban sleeping outside favor relocation over resolving the problems that force people onto the streets.
NPR logo

Opinion: Should It Be Illegal To Sleep Outside?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/787997875/788056647" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Opinion: Should It Be Illegal To Sleep Outside?

Opinion: Should It Be Illegal To Sleep Outside?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/787997875/788056647" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A woman lived in her car in front of our apartment building for a couple of weeks. Our family brought down some food, clothing and a blanket, but the woman hesitated to open her door when we knocked and smiled. After all, who were we? Why should she trust us?

We did not call police or a city agency to say there's a woman living in a car on our street. I've reported stories where I've spent the night in city homeless shelters. They can feel crowded and unsafe and have little privacy. I can see why someone would choose to stay on the street or in their car.

Neighbors told us that city social workers came to speak with the woman in the car. And days later, the woman was gone. We hoped she'd been brought someplace safe.

A few days after that, my wife saw a city worker hook up the woman's car to be towed. He said he didn't know where the woman in the car had been taken - it was a different department - but that she could reclaim her car after she paid several thousand dollars in fines. My wife pointed out that the woman had probably taken shelter in her car because she couldn't afford to pay for a place to live, much less any penalties to recover her car. The city worker was courteous and seemed concerned, but he emphatically explained he was just there to tow the car.

A report this week from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty says more and more American cities, large and small, are passing laws that make it illegal to sleep outside on the street, in a park or in your own car. The Housing Department says homelessness has dropped over the past decade, but the number of homeless people don't have anywhere to stay is beginning to grow and become more visible.

In high-tech headquarter cities like Seattle or San Francisco, housing costs keep rising. There are many people who work and have families, then still wind up living in their cars. They drive to work or to look for work but don't earn enough to afford a place to live.

I understand that cities don't want encampments in their neighborhoods. They want public spaces to be open and safe. But passing laws to make it illegal to sleep outside or in your car doesn't resolve the problems of people who have no place to live. It just relocates them in a season that exalts a family that, 2,000 years ago, couldn't find room at the inn.

(SOUNDBITE OF DR. TOAST'S "UNTOUCHABLE NUMBER")

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.