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For the homeless in Boston and beyond, laws can criminalize life itself

People rested at a bench at Nubian Station in Roxbury in April. About 13 percent of the people arrested by Boston police last year were homeless, data show.
People rested at a bench at Nubian Station in Roxbury in April. About 13 percent of the people arrested by Boston police last year were homeless, data show.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

One in eight people arrested in Boston last year was homeless, the result of laws — common in cities where the cost of living is high — that advocates say criminalize the most basic necessities of life for people without housing.

In Boston, homeless people accounted for almost 13 percent of arrests last year, up from 10 percent in 2016 and mirroring law enforcement patterns across the country, according to an investigation by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland.

The Howard Center partnered with journalism programs at six universities, including Boston University, to examine laws in 54 of America’s least affordable areas where median rent is about a third or more of household income. All had at least one law that the survey categorized as criminalizing homelessness. Most, like Boston, have five or more.

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In Boston, the homeless accounted for 1,375 arrests in 2019, police data show, a number that is nearly a quarter of the 6,203 people the city’s annual homeless census found that January. Between Jan. 1, 2016 and this February, people who are homeless were arrested nearly 6,000 times.

“This is a population that is being disparately targeted by police under these laws that literally criminalize their simple act of existence,” said Eric Tars, legal director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

These laws make it illegal for homeless people to meet life’s basic necessities — sitting or sleeping in public, asking for money or food, or even standing in one place too long — creating a cycle of arrests and court proceedings that make emerging from homelessness more difficult.

Boston police Sergeant Detective John Boyle said police use discretion when making arrests, but also follow the law.

“If we have probable cause to make an arrest, we have the right to make one,” Boyle said.

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“We certainly aren’t targeting the homeless. . . . If someone is sleeping on a public sidewalk, they may not be arrested for trespassing. They would be transported to a shelter or hospital. We do the humane thing,” Boyle said. He noted that the arrest numbers are inexact because some people who are being arrested provide false addresses, or refuse to provide one.

Mark St. John, who works at Boston’s Southampton Street shelter, lauded the patience of the Boston police in dealing with the homeless.

“They do put up with an awful lot,” said St. John, who was homeless and addicted to drugs before rebuilding his life to work at the shelter. “I’m not saying that the homeless people are bad people; I’m just saying that it’s got to be a very difficult job, dealing with these folks.”

But arresting people who are homeless can be costly, advocates say, spending money on cases that often result in dismissals instead of on programs that could reduce the underlying problem.

Five other Massachusetts cities were included in the Howard Center survey because they were designated by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “Continuum of Care” program to fight homelessness and they have similar ordinances against asking for money in public, standing in one place too long, or sitting or lying on public property. Those cities include Lynn, Lowell, Springfield, Cambridge, and New Bedford.

Even in communities with few city ordinances targeting the homeless, the unhoused routinely face criminal prosecutions for charges such as trespassing, disorderly conduct, and disturbing the peace. In Worcester — which was not one of the 54 cities in the survey because, compared to the national average, its housing is more affordable than other cities — the homeless have been charged largely under state laws, with trespassing comprising the largest number of prosecutions between January 2014 and November 2019, data from the Worcester County District Attorney’s Office show.

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Roughly 40 percent of 2,500 criminal prosecutions of homeless people brought by Worcester County’s district attorney’s office between Jan. 1, 2014 and November 2019, resulted in some type of dismissal, according to the district attorney’s data.

Jailing one person costs taxpayers roughly $120 a night, and homeless people can rarely pay bail and may be incarcerated weeks or months awaiting trial, Tars said.

“All of that could easily pay for a month if not a year of putting that person into housing, finding a stable place to get a job or assistance,” Tars said.

But Worcester County DA Joseph D. Early Jr. said an arrest can direct people toward services for the homeless.

“It’s a good use of resources to get them the help they need,” Early said. “But for the arrest, we might not have run into them.”

Nahani Meuse, a Greater Worcester Housing Connection case manager, said the DA and local police have moved away from criminalizing homelessness.

“I’ve got clients that are like, ‘I can’t get a job. I can’t apply for housing because I have a warrant or because I wasn’t able to pay a court fee,’ ” Meuse said. “There are officers who will go to court with them and be like, ‘Your honor, they’re homeless. Let’s help them out instead of knocking them down.‘ ”

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In Cambridge, the city’s Homeless Court removes warrants and dismisses misdemeanor or nonviolent felony cases for defendants who complete job training, or substance abuse or mental health treatment. Judge Roanne Sragow hears approximately 20 cases per bi-weekly session, mostly misdemeanors such as shoplifting or drinking in public.

Defendants must demonstrate reform to have their case dismissed.

“It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Sragow said.

“I do think there is a lot of thoughtfulness in not just trying to criminalize homelessness here in Cambridge,” said Keitha Crozier, a homeless services planner at the Department of Human Service Programs in Cambridge.

But Jessica Eithun, who became homeless after her 2018 apartment eviction, said the police keep the unhoused on edge.

“I’ve seen some cops see homeless people drinking in public and say, ‘Dump it out and walk away,’ and others took them into custody because maybe they talked back,” said Eithun, now living in subsidized housing.

“Because we are homeless, we are nobody,” she said.

Globe correspondents Lillian Eden, Emily LeClerc, and Miriam Fauzia contributed to this report, a collaboration between Boston University journalism students and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland, where students Ryan Little and Teresa Diffendal also contributed to this story.

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