Volume 59

"Arrest All Street Mendicants and Beggars:" Homelessness, Social Cooperation, and the Commitments of Democratic Policing

by Brandon del Pozo

In “Are Police the Key to Public Safety?: The Case of the Unhoused,” Barry Friedman argues that one of the problems with policing in the United States is that it encompasses too narrow a view of public safety. In the case of homelessness, this narrow view fails to understand that providing shelter and subsistence to the unhoused is providing them with a basic form of safety as well. By this view, enforcing most laws against the behaviors associated with homelessness is unjust because it penalizes people for seeking a form of personal security that the government should have provided them with. This Essay argues that while this concern should guide police conduct in many cases, it does not mean the police have no legitimate reason to regulate the behavior of homeless people using discretionary enforcement of the criminal law. Police are not only tasked with providing some conception of safety but have a man-date to equitably broker and enforce the cooperative use of a community’s public spaces, which is a critical feature of democratic equality for both housed and unhoused people. Enforcing laws against the behaviors associated with homeless-ness should therefore be a balance between ensuring everyone has access to public spaces for various conceptions of recreation, transportation, expression, and commerce, and an awareness that even the most disruptive and uncooperative uses of public space by homeless people are a product of duress rather than choice. Both the housed and the unhoused have a legitimate claim on the commons, and while one is more urgent than the other, this does not mean the more urgent claim is an unrestricted one. Requirements of social cooperation may still apply to unhoused citizens, and when they do, it is the criminal law that empowers the police to broker and enforce them as necessary.

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