Criminalizing homelessness is harmful and ineffective

On a single night in January 2023, 4,648 Oklahomans did not have a home to sleep in. Some legislators are proposing we fine them or put them in jail. Senate Bill 1854 and House Bill 3686 would prohibit unauthorized camping on state-owned land. Violators would be subject to fines or even jail time. Not only are these proposals harmful, but they are counterproductive. Research shows us that the best way to combat homelessness is to increase access to affordable housing. With a growing disparity between housing costs and wages, more Oklahomans will struggle with housing instability and homelessness. If state legislators are serious about solving homelessness, they should find solutions to grow Oklahoma’s affordable housing stock and slow the high rate of evictions, not further traumatizing people already experiencing an enormous hardship.

Criminalizing people experiencing homelessness is counterproductive

Policing people experiencing homelessness doesn’t decrease homelessness. A study in Denver showed that 70 percent of people arrested for an offense related to homelessness had at least one other similar arrest the year before. Arresting people for crimes related to homelessness did not keep them from being arrested again. It did not stop them from experiencing homelessness. Instead, it just moved the issue to other geographic locations, jails, and emergency rooms rather than addressing the root issues.

Most people experiencing homelessness are not homeless by choice. When people experiencing chronic homelessness in Denver were offered housing, 90 percent agreed to housing within six months. Two and a half years later, 85 percent of the program participants from that study remained housed. While participants were offered other supportive services like case management, stable housing provided the foundation needed to get back on their feet.

The importance of affordable housing is not isolated to just that study from Denver. In 2023, when people experiencing homelessness in Tulsa were asked the reason for their homelessness, the top responses were lack of affordable housing, loss of income, relationship breakdown, mental health struggles, job loss, and substance use struggles. Fines and jail time only make the situation harder to overcome.

Lawmakers have claimed this legislation will help connect people with resources because unhoused people can avoid punishment by agreeing to be transported to a shelter, receive food from a food pantry, or connect to other resources. However, there are not enough shelters or resources to meet the needs of Oklahoma’s homeless population. Law enforcement cannot connect people with resources that are already over capacity or simply do not exist.

More affordable housing is the answer to homelessness

Fortunately, there is a solution with a well-proven track record of success: Housing First. Housing First is an approach to homelessness that connects people experiencing homelessness to permanent housing without preconditions such as sobriety and treatment requirements. This model leads to long-term housing stability, improved physical and mental health, and reduced use of services like emergency departments, hospitals, and jails. Housing First does not mean housing only. When people have a safe shelter, they are better able to complete treatment for other issues such as mental health or substance use disorders.

A growing body of research shows that increasing access to affordable housing is effective and fiscally responsible. A program in Charlotte, North Carolina housed more than 1,000 people experiencing homelessness between 2015 and 2020; a vast majority have remained housed. Additionally, participants in the program had fewer mental health symptoms, reduced substance use, and reduced service use including emergency shelters, criminal justice services, and health services compared to those who were unhoused. Similarly, Houston was able to cut homelessness down by 63 percent since 2011 by moving people directly into apartments and homes.

Arresting people experiencing homelessness doesn’t generate affordable housing

While many factors may contribute to homelessness, the root cause of homelessness is that housing costs are out of reach for too many folks. In Oklahoma, 2 in 5 wage earners do not make enough to afford a two-bedroom rental. One life event can quickly tip someone into homelessness. These range from job loss, relationship breakdown, eviction, and — most importantly — rising costs due to a serious shortage of affordable housing. Proposals like SB 1854 and HB 3686 punish people for something outside of their control. They are neither helpful nor effective at combating the growing problem of homelessness. Punching people while they are down will not get them into a home. Even worse, making homelessness a criminal offense can perpetuate an already difficult cycle to break. 

Fortunately, we know what works: Expanding access to affordable housing, which is the most direct and efficient way to reduce homelessness. If legislators are serious about solving homelessness, there is a list of good policy solutions to choose from this session including establishing an affordable housing task force or commission, increasing the eviction timeline to give people more time to either make up back rent or secure housing, and raising the minimum wage. If legislators want to solve homelessness, they should start here.


Sabine Brown joined the Oklahoma Policy Institute as Housing Senior Policy Analyst in January 2022. She previously worked at OK Policy from January 2018 until September 2020 as the Outreach and Legislative Director, and earned a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa. Before joining OK Policy she served as the Oklahoma Chapter Leader for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Sabine also earned a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Health Science from the University of Oklahoma and was a physician assistant prior to discovering advocacy work. She grew up in Germany but has called Oklahoma home since 1998.