Is Criminalizing Homelessness Based on Opioid Addiction?

More than one-third of US addiction program clients are homeless Is that why states are now making homelessness a crime?

Despite the gains made in fighting homelessness among unaccompanied adults, homelessness among families increased 10% in Boston this year over last. At the point of the February census, 843 families — representing 2,798 people — were homeless in Boston unlike many other cities in the nation Boston has infrastructure in place to offer services to the homeless if they are willing to try. Use of the law that criminalizes homeless people generally takes on one of five forms: Restricting the public areas in which sitting or sleeping are allowed. Removing homeless people from particular areas. Prohibiting begging. The criminalization of homelessness refers to measures that prohibit life-sustaining activities such as sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and/or asking for money/resources in public spaces. These ordinances include criminal penalties for violations of these acts.

There are multiple types of criminalization measures which include:


1.Making it illegal for groups to share food with homeless persons in public spaces. Enforcing a “quality of life” ordinance relating to public activity and hygiene.


2.Carrying out sweeps (confiscating personal property including tents, bedding, papers, clothing, medications, etc.) in city areas where homeless people live. Making panhandling illegal.



The US Interagency Council on Homelessness has strongly advised local governments not to enact laws criminalizing homelessness because they create additional barriers for homeless people, fail to increase access to services, and undermine the impact of service providers. In fact according to the National coalition of the Homeless, these laws impede i a person’s Constitutional rights 1st Amendment protection of free speech – Laws restricting speech like begging targets speech based on content, or does not allow for alternative channels of communication.

  • 4th Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizure – Law enforcement being allowed to destroy a homeless person’s belongings.

  • 8th Amendment protection from cruel and unusual punishment – Imposing criminal penalties for engaging in necessary life sustaining activities.

  • 14th Amendment protecting citizenship, due process, and equal protection – Vague statutes which do not give a person notice of prohibited conduct and encourage arbitrary enforcement.

People who use drugs are at heightened risk, with many studies from Federal agencies reporting that approximately one-third of US addiction program clients had recently experienced homelessness. Studies in other subpopulations of people who use drugs have reported similarly high homelessness rates.

Results from other studies show overdose is the leading cause of death in the homeless population with rates up to 17 times higher than the general population! In both 2019 and 2020, opioid addiction rates rates were highest for Caucasian males aged 35–44 (40.5 and 53.9 per 100,000, respectively) and lowest for people aged 65 and over (8.3 and 9.4).In 2022 72% of preventable opioid deaths occur among those ages 25 to 54, and the number of deaths among individuals 55 and older is growing rapidly. Few opioid deaths occur among children younger than 15.Indeed, a recent study on racial equality in health care shows medical professionals hold prejudices about the biological contrasts between patients of color and whites. Those viewpoints can perpetuate racial bias in the perception and treatment of non-white patients. These falsehoods can result in discrimination when dealing with pain treatment, with doctors overprescribing medication to whites and under-prescribing to non-whites. This is a major factor in why the opioid epidemic disproportionately affected the Caucasian population. Structural racism is the main causal factor that lowered the overall lifespan for white Americans.


In 2021 officials in Boston are began to clear a sprawling homeless camp, citing a crisis of opioid addiction there. Workers with the Boston Public Health Commission’s Homeless Services Bureau on helped hundreds of people living in an encampment near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard — an area commonly known as Mass and Cass. Opioid-involved overdose deaths rose from 21,088 in 2010 to 47,600 in 2017 and remained steady in 2018 with 46,802 deaths.


This was followed by a significant increase through 2020 to 68,630 overdose deaths. In 2022 the annual amount of opioid deaths is over 150,000 per year (note many US states refuse to submit data, so the numbers may be significantly higher. Key findings. California, New York and Florida have the largest homeless populations. Across the three states, more than 280,000 people are homeless — that's nearly half of the total U.S. homeless population. Other states with highest rate of homeless are Texas, Washington, Oregon, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Ohio. The highest rates of prescription opioid use and long-duration prescription opioid use occur in the Southwest, South and lower-Midwest, consistent with areas with highest rates of opioid use disorder these States are Florida, Texas, Arizona, Ohio, Oregon, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, California and Ohio. A Southwestern Ohio County Tops Nation in Per Capita Opioid Overdose Deaths, Montgomery County, Ohio, was recently given a title that no community wants to receive: the overdose capital of the United States.