Alumni Op-Ed: Stop Criminalizing the Homeless

As the weather gets colder, many in Dallas look forward to creating warm winter memories. While we decide whether to sit by the fire drinking cider or snuggle under blankets with a good book, the more than 1,200 homeless youth in Dallas face far less jovial choices. Their daily decisions may include: picking between breaking into abandoned buildings and risking legal consequences or sleeping on the streets and putting their physical safety at risk, deciding to use the DART with no ticket and facing a fine or missing the job interview they have lined up, and going without food for another night or engaging in survival sex.

Most Americans believe that our society should provide a safety net for these youth. However, not only does a lack of adequate programs and resources allow homeless youth to slip through the cracks in Dallas, but a number of actions and laws by policymakers are making it actively harder for youth to get off the streets and to even survive. While being homeless isn’t illegal (yet), many policies have been designed to make life considerably harder for the homeless.

Dallas has issued thousands of citations for sleeping in public and the police have the capacity to stop citizens who are loitering or panhandling during certain times in specific public areas. Homeless youth are generally incapable of paying tickets for these sorts of infractions and a lack of payment could lead to jail time. This contributes to cyclical poverty: receiving a ticket you can’t pay can give you a criminal record, thus preventing you from getting a job and being able to get off the streets, putting you in a position to get even more citations.

There are some things that Dallas is doing right when it comes to youth homelessness. There is a community court option offered by The Stewpot where homeless people can complete community service hours instead of having to pay tickets for minor offenses. The Dallas Police Department has created specially trained police units to deal with youth in the commercial sex trade. Their program flags youth who have run away more than four times in a given year, allowing officers to build a relationship with these youth before a youth may be brought in for engaging in prostitution. It also allows youth the opportunity to live in a special city shelter for a month and receive counseling, rather than being put in juvenile detention. The program’s success is clear: three quarters of the youth who get this treatment do not return to prostitution.

However, other laws that criminalize harmless activities by homeless youth undermine these sorts of positive initiatives. Giving out citations for sleeping on a park bench is not a good way to build trust between our city police and the homeless youth population, nor is it effective in getting homeless youth off the streets. Instead of trying to treat homeless youth as offenders and law-breakers, we should see them for what they are: teenagers who have often faced severe neglect and abuse and who require compassion and adequate resources to be able to alleviate their homelessness and its symptoms.

In order to effectively combat poverty, Dallas must stop criminalizing activities associated with homelessness and instead focus on offering better resources to its vulnerable populations. Dallas voters just passed a $20 million bond that will help create more housing for the city’s homeless population, which is a plan with great potential. If this new housing is combined with police initiatives that focus on offering resources rather than handing out citations, a better winter may be in store for homeless youth in Dallas.