The combination of a mental health crisis and a decade-long real estate boom have created a new, especially vulnerable, visible generation of the unhoused in West Coast cities. Over the 2009-2019 decade, unsheltered homelessness continued to grow in California, Oregon and Washington, even as it declined in major cities outside the West Coast. The increase is leading to the vast criminalization of the homeless for largely nonviolent violations and generating unaffordable fines for unhoused individuals, sapping police resources and failing to address the core problems fueling homelessness, Reveal News reports. Although the homeless population in all the cities reviewed was less than two percent of the overall population, they accounted for anywhere from seven percent of arrests in Oakland to about half of all arrests in Portland.
In San Diego, police used one municipal code violation more than any other from 2013 to 2020: a law, intended to force residents to clear their trash cans from the street, that has been transformed to cite and arrest unhoused people for taking up public space with their possessions. Reveal found the driving force behind arrests often isn’t proactive police enforcement, but residents reporting that a person is making them feel unsafe, refusing to leave the area, or leaving trash and other items behind. A criminal record can complicate getting a job, housing or social services for unhoused people. Some cities have begun programs to divert these calls to unarmed social workers, but the programs are still limited in scope and funding.