Guide to Laws Related to Homelessness in the United States

Homelessness is a major problem in the United States. Street people, houseless, unhoused, transients, vagrants – people without homes are often called many things, though hopefully not derogatory terms like “hobos” or “bums.”

Laws aimed at dealing with the activities of homeless people are often called “vagrancy laws” or “anti-vagrancy laws,” or even “quality of life laws.” Cities across the country are increasingly passing and enforcing these laws, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which some people consider “criminalizing” homelessness.

Other cities are taking an alternative approach focusing on helping homeless get off the streets, and many cities, like Los Angeles, are doing a mix of helping and penalizing. For laws specific to LA, see our Guide to Laws about Homelessness in Los Angeles.

1. Shelter

Do people have a legal right to shelter?

In most cities and states, people do not have the right to shelter, and thus the government does not need to provide it. One particular exception is New York City, which provides temporary emergency shelter to every individual who needs it. Even if the shelters are full, the city is required to provide vouchers for hotel rooms.

If there are not enough shelters for homeless people, can they sleep on the streets?

As of June 2024, cities may enforce anti-camping laws and prevent people from sleeping or camping on the streets or sidewalks, even if the government does not provide enough shelters. Prior to the Supreme Court ruling of June 2024, court rulings held that cities may NOT prevent people from sleeping on the streets at night.1Martin v Boise (2018) – 9th Circuit; Supreme Court let 9th circuit ruling stand That rules is now overturned.

2. Private Property

Are homeless people allowed on private property?

The same laws apply to homeless people as anyone else. That is, if any person (homeless or not), is on private property without permission of the owner, this is considered trespass.

3. Sleeping in your car

Is it illegal to sleep or live in your car?

In some cities it may be illegal to sleep or live in your car.

4. Being on the sidewalk or street

Is it illegal to block the sidewalk?

Yes. No person may block the public right of way.

Is it illegal to sit, sleep, or “camp” on the sidewalk?

Many cities have a “sit/lie” ban or the “sidewalk camping ban” or “street camping ban.”

What is loitering and is it illegal?

Loitering is defined as hanging around without any particular purpose, and it is illegal in certain circumstances in most states.

5. Homeless and the police

What are the police allowed to do with homeless people?

The particular rules vary by state and city. But homeless people, like everyone else, have a right to fair treatment and due process of law. See our Guide to Police Conduct.

6. Food Donations

Is it illegal to donate food to a non-profit (or could I be sued for it)?

NO! In fact, laws protect you from liability if you donate food to a non-profit and it later causes harm to someone who handles or eats it, as long as you did not intend to do any harm.2Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act

7. Soliciting or begging

Is it illegal to ask or beg for money?

In general, soliciting or asking for money is considered protected free speech. However, cities and states may place time, place, and manner restrictions on this. In particular, if the solicitations are aggressive, this is generally illegal.

Resources

See more information at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty

Related Pages


Photo credits:

Top photo by Max Pixel, Creative Commons Zero.

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