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Anti-homelessness legislation can take two forms; legislation that aims to help and re-house homeless people, and legislation that is intended to send the homeless to homeless shelters compulsively, or criminalize homelessness and begging.
Since the publication of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Charter of the United Nations — UN) in 1948, the public perception has been increasingly changing to a focus on the human right to housing, travel and migration as a part of individual self-determination rather than the human condition. The Declaration, an international law reinforcement of the Nuremberg Trial Judgements, upholds the rights of one nation to intervene in the affairs of another if said nation is abusing its citizens, and rose out of a 1939–1945 World War II Atlantic environment of extreme split between "haves" and "have nots." The modern study of homeless phenomena is most frequently seen in this historical context.
Laws supporting homeless people generally place obligations on the state to support or house homeless people.
The Scottish parliament passed the Homelessness Etc (Scotland) Act 2003 which has an aim of ensuring that by 2012 everyone assessed as being unintentionally homeless will be entitled to permanent accommodation. In addition, the Homeless Persons (Unsuitable Accommodation) (Scotland) Order came into force in December 2004 and requires councils to ensure that pregnant women and households with children are not placed in unsuitable temporary accommodation, unless there are exceptional circumstances.
The charter of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1986 (Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act) is to "coordinate the Federal response to homelessness and to create partnerships between the Federal agencies addressing homelessness and every level of government and every element of the private sector".
Use of the law that criminalizes the homeless generally takes on one of four forms:
The Vagrancy Act 1824 makes it an offence to sleep on the streets or to beg. In essence, therefore, it is a crime in England and Wales to be homeless or to cadge subsistence money. When the Act was passed, criticism of it centred on the fact that it created a catch-all offence. To sleep on the streets or to beg subsistence became a crime, whatever reason an individual might have had for being in such a predicament. That provision still pertains today in England and Wales. So far as it extended to Scotland, it was repealed by the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982.
The National Coalition for the Homeless reports that there is a growing trend in the United States towards criminalizing the state of being homeless. Proponents of this approach believe that punitive measures will deter people from choosing to be homeless. To this end, cities across the country increasingly outlaw activities such as sleeping, eating, sitting, and begging in public spaces, and selectively enforce more neutral laws—such as those prohibiting open containers or loitering—against homeless populations. Violators of such laws typically incur criminal penalties, which result in fines and/or incarceration.
In Jones v. City of Los Angeles, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the City from punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the City of Los Angeles. It is important to note, however, that on October 15, 2007, the Court vacated its Opinion after the parties settled the case and sought withdrawal of the Opinion.
Critics of homeless criminalization claim that such measures do nothing to actually solve homelessness and in fact make matters worse. Homeless people find it harder to secure employment, housing, or federal benefits with a criminal record, and therefore penalizing the act of being homeless makes exiting such a situation much more difficult. In fact, a recent federal appeals court ruled an anti-homeless policy in Los Angeles as unconstitutional. Similarly, in response to growing reports of hate crimes, some state governments have proposed the addition of "people experiencing homelessness" to their hate-crimes statutes.