Across the country, even in places where housing prices are out of reach and shelters are scarce, some communities are trying to arrest their way out of homeless problems.
FORT WALTON BEACH — In the nine years he has been homeless, Kenneth Shultz has spent one of every three nights in jail.
The 71-year-old retiree has been charged with trespassing 96 times, including after he fell asleep behind gas stations, outside office buildings and in a city park. His 1,034 days in jail have come with a crushing debt of $41,311 in court costs, fines and fees and an estimated taxpayer tab of nearly $50,000.
"I don't do it on purpose," says Shultz, who became homeless sometime around the beginning of 2011 but can't remember why. "Sometimes I just get exhausted, and boom, sit down. That's it. You're trespassing."
Police in Okaloosa County, an area with few emergency shelters, have charged hundreds of homeless people with thousands of trespassing counts in the past decade, an analysis of court data found.
Across the country, even in places where housing prices are out of reach and shelters are scarce, communities are trying to arrest their way out of homeless problems.
Cities have made it illegal to ask for money or food in public places, to sleep on a park bench, in a tent or car, or even to stand in one place too long. The laws create a cycle of arrests, hearings and unpaid fines that make emerging from homelessness all the more difficult.
In Eugene, Oregon, which has one of the nation's highest rates of homelessness, one of every four people hauled into the city's municipal court for non-driving offenses lacked a permanent place to live. In Boston, the unhoused account for almost one of every eight arrests.
Each case can cost taxpayers thousands of dollars to pay for jail, plus the hours worked by police officers, prosecutors, judges and other court staffers. And those costs pile up because governments haven't figured out other ways to deal with homelessness, or the alternatives they offer are inadequate.
In the past, the federal government has argued against using arrests and jail to address homelessness. The U.S. Department of Justice, in a 2015 court filing, said "criminalizing homelessness is both unconstitutional and misguided public policy, leading to worse outcomes for people who are homeless and for their communities."
But since then, the Trump administration has espoused expanding the role of law enforcement to rein in homelessness.
Some courts, hearing challenges to laws that criminalize the activities of people who live on the street, have sided with the homeless. For example, a federal appeals court last year ruled that the government cannot punish people for sleeping outside if no shelter beds are available. Other courts have struck down laws against begging as First Amendment violations.
But when a court strikes down one law, cities just use a different one.
The arrests reflect intolerance for the half-million people across the country who have no home at a time their ranks are expected to swell — one study predicts by as much as 45 percent — in the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland partnered with six university journalism programs to examine what happens when communities make homelessness a crime.
The consortium analyzed laws in 54 of the country's least affordable areas — places like Eugene, Boston and Fort Walton Beach — where median rent is about a third or more of median income. That's the point at which homeless rates rise sharply, according to a 2018 study. All but one had at least one law that penalized homeless people for trying to meet life's basic necessities: sitting, sleeping, relieving themselves and seeking money. Most had five or more. And only one had enough shelters or emergency housing for the number of people needing it.
The number of people in the United States without a place to live has hovered above 550,000 people in recent years, according to a nationwide count conducted for the federal government one night each January.
The supply of temporary beds has not kept pace. Based on the 2019 count, the U.S. had 178,166 more homeless people than beds. That gap has widened by 29% since 2015.
Police in Boston, Eugene and Fort Walton Beach said officers often attempt to divert the unhoused to a shelter or other services. But some won’t accept help.
"You can't narrowly look at it like a bunch of us folks just turning a blind eye and not being willing to help," said Ginger Bowden Madden of Florida, who as assistant state attorney has prosecuted more trespassing cases than anyone else in Okaloosa County since 2010. "Some of us do not have the ability or the resources to help, short of taking them home with us. It's frustrating and it's heartbreaking."
Black people are disproportionately affected by criminalization, studies and statistics show. Nationally, 40% of all homeless people are Black, though they are 13% of the U.S. population. They are more likely to be homeless because they are more likely to be poor, unemployed, or earn lower incomes than whites, studies have shown.
In Florida, for example, Blacks represent 17 percent of the population but 37 percent of those charged with criminal trespass in the past 15 years, a Howard consortium analysis found. Not everyone charged with trespassing is homeless, but a spot check of the 50 defendants charged most often found that all had a history of homelessness.
The courts have found more than two dozen anti-panhandling ordinances in violation of the First Amendment since 2015, when the Supreme Court imposed strict limits on local governments' power to restrict speech based on its purpose or content.
Between jail stints in Okaloosa County, Kenneth Shultz sleeps in a hotel room, when he can afford it. Otherwise, he has to find a place outside to throw his purple blanket.
He recalls that he operated a dry cleaning business in Fort Walton Beach in the 1990s, eventually sold it, retired and then lost much of his savings gambling at the casinos in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Shultz said he doesn't view the police as adversaries.
"Most of them give me about three warnings and I keep forgetting them. They say, 'You can't forget everything.' I said, 'I do.'"
This project was produced by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at The University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, in collaboration with journalism schools at the University of Oregon, Stanford University, Boston University, the University of Florida, the University of Arkansas and Arizona State University. It was reported by Ryan E. Little, Gina Scalpone, Nick McCool, Theresa Diffendal, Zack Demars, Aneurin Canham-Clyne and Riin Aljas. Christine Condon, Lillian Eden, Bryan Gallion, Lukas Hanson, Julia Lerner, Clara Longo de Freitas, Maya Pottiger, Callie Tansill-Suddath, and Brenda Wintrode also contributed.