Citywide Sweeps of the Homeless

A growing number of U.S. cities regularly conduct sweeps of the homeless, ostensibly to protect public health and to create more secure and orderly environments. During these sweeps, law enforcement officials and sanitation workers may descend—sometimes without warning—on areas where homeless people are congregating, thereby either forcing the homeless to move elsewhere or arresting them for outstanding warrants or for minor offenses, such as vagrancy and loitering. In the process, officials routinely destroy the personal property (including food, medicine, clothing, tents, and personal documents) of those they displace. Although these sweeps certainly reduce the number of people seen living outdoors on city streets or in public parks, there is little evidence indicating that they have any long-term benefits in decreasing homelessness, poverty, or crime. Although cities conducting sweeps use public security as a reasoning, it has been argued that the privacy rights of those being swept off the streets are being violated. This entry reviews some of the historical and current city sweeps of the homeless before examining the legality and long-term effectiveness of such sweeps.

To cite several instances from news reports in just 1 month (August 2014), officials conducted homeless sweeps in Fort Collins, Colorado, issuing 32 citations for illegal camping; in New Orleans, Louisiana, clearing a large encampment of 140 people living underneath the Pontchartrain Expressway; and in Salinas, California, using three bulldozers and four dump trucks to topple the temporary shelters built by homeless people and to remove couches, mattresses, clothes, bicycles, and other personal belongings to the city dump. In reporting on such sweeps, news reports often demonize the homeless and their encampments as dangerous to public health, according to an academic analysis of media coverage.

Although homeless sweeps have increased in frequency and number during the 21st century, the phenomenon is hardly new. A New York Times report from 1860 describes how police officers throughout the city were alerted by telegraph to strike at precisely the same time and capture every beggar or vagrant—regardless of age or gender—they could find. The result was 486 arrests in a matter of hours, which the newspaper declared a great success in restoring urban order and protecting the public. Other reports indicate that periodic sweeps continued in cities throughout the country, often during periods of economic downturn, when the homeless population swells. For instance, police officers raided and swept homeless settlements along the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., in February 1894; they arrested 95 homeless persons in Macon, Georgia, over the course of one weekend in August 1903; they arrested 23 “vagrants” in Anaconda, Montana, during one 24-hour period in February 1917; they arrested 59 unemployed men in 1 week and another 44 men 6 weeks later in Baltimore in February–March 1930; and in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, they used “broom squads” to arrest 85 persons in October 1951, mostly on charges of vagrancy and loitering.

One of the best-known sweeps of the homeless is the Safer Cities Initiative (SCI), which began as a pilot program in Los Angeles in September 2005, was fully launched in September 2006, and concluded in late 2007. Seeking to remove a very visible homeless population from Los Angeles’s “skid row,” the SCI assigned 50 police officers to destroy homeless encampments, issue citations, and arrest violators of the law. As a result, thousands were displaced from tent cities, thousands more were sent to jails and prisons, and thousands of citations were issued. The SCI succeeded in removing large numbers of homeless and poor people from skid row, but as critics of criminalization have noted, the SCI did not decrease the incidence of homelessness, but rather, it made escaping from homelessness more difficult for those who were displaced or arrested, due to the consequences of moving, losing belongings, or being held in custody.

Civil libertarians argue that homeless sweeps may violate the Fourth Amendment as constituting “unreasonable searches or seizures,” especially if cities do not provide sufficiently reasonable notice before the sweeps begin. Homeless advocates assert that government officials could more effectively reduce homelessness through alternatives to criminalization, such as increasing the availability of subsidized and affordable housing, improving the delivery and efficiency of social services, and ceasing to criminalize homelessness.

James I. Deutsch

See also Civil Liberties ; Crime Control ; Vagrancy Laws

Further Readings

Amster, Randall. “Patterns of Exclusion: Sanitizing Space, Criminalizing Homelessness.” Social Justice, v.30/1 (2003).

“Continued Crusade Against Vagrants.” Macon [Georgia] Telegraph (August 24, 1903).

Homeless Media Coverage Study Group. Media Analysis of Homeless Encampment “Sweeps.” Seattle: University of Washington, 2008. (Accessed January 2015).

“Maloney’s Broom Sweeps Up Streets.” Pittsburgh Courier (October 6, 1951).

National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. Mean Sweeps: A Report on Anti-Homeless Laws, Litigation and Alternatives in 50 United States Cities. Washington, DC: Author, 1996.

National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities. Washington, DC: Author, 2014.

“A Raid Upon the Ragged: Extensive Arrest of Mendicants and Vagrants.” The New York Times (September 5, 1860). (Accessed October 2017).

Vitale, Alex S. “The Safer Cities Initiative and the Removal of the Homeless: Reducing Crime or Promoting Gentrification on Los Angeles’ Skid Row?” Criminology & Public Policy, v.9/4 (2010).

White, Michael D. “Jim Longstreet, Mike Marshall, and the Lost Art of Policing Skid Row.” Criminology & Public Policy, v.9/4 (2010).