Should homeless individuals be allowed to sleep or encamp on public property?

Public property is designed and built for all citizens. However, an argument has emerged around whether this also applies to homeless individuals, and whether they should be allowed to sleep or encamp on it.

Rise of the Issue

Estimates say over half a million people in the United States are currently experiencing homelessness – which translates to 0.2 percent of the population. Reasons for homelessness include everything from economic hardship to untreated mental illness. 

With a lack of affordable housing and a shortage of beds in shelters, many take to sleeping on public property. This can create a nuisance for people trying to enjoy those public spaces. Some argue that it is a duty of the government to provide shelter to those who are unhoused, including allowing them to sleep or encamp on public property. The argument’s underlying idea is that homeless individuals are citizens just like everyone else and have a right to public property. Others, however, believe unhoused people have themselves to blame for their own individual situations and that occupying public space for shelter is not the answer.



Homelessness First Becomes National Issue

Emerging urban cities such as New York City attracted an increasingly large homeless population. In smaller towns, “hobos” – people who often stayed near train tracks for a few days while working in that location before moving on to the next job elsewhere – were more common.


Great Depression Increases Homelessness

This period of extreme economic downturn caused a wave of poverty and subsequent homelessness – estimates say there were two million homeless people in the United States at the time.


Deinstitutionalization of the Mentally Ill

The mass release of mentally ill individuals who were previously housed in psychiatric hospitals led to an uptick in homeless people on the streets.


Gentrification of Inner Cities Increases Homelessness

Since the 1980s, rents in inner cities have continued to rise while salaries have stagnated. Less available affordable housing has strongly contributed to more homelessness.


Court Rules on Legality of Public Sleeping

The 9th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals - which covers 9 western US states - ruled that if there is no room at shelters, people should be allowed to sleep on public property without fear of arrest or prosecution.


Supreme Court Upholds Legal Public Sleeping

The Supreme Court refused to review the decision by the Ninth Circuit Court, effectively upholding the decision from a year prior.

Micro Issues



Supporters say there is a safety issue with people sleeping on public property, while opponents say it is more important to allow people to sleep without fear of arrest.



Opponents say arresting people for sleeping on public property is effectively criminalizing homelessness, while supporters refute this claim stating that the goal is to remove homeless individuals from harm's way and prevent harm occurring to others.



The two sides differ on whether experiencing homelessness is often the individual’s own fault or if other contributing factors are overwhelmingly to blame.



The unhoused would have somewhere to sleep.

Without enough beds in shelters to give people a place to stay overnight, allowing encamping or sleeping in public spaces provides the homeless with more sleep options.


It would stop the taboo around homelessness.

Without a home of their own or a place in a shelter, public property is the only place left to sleep. Making that illegal, indirectly makes it illegal to be homeless and punishes those for simply being homeless.


It reduces the chance of recidivism.

Providing the unhoused a space to sleep or encamp on public property can stop homeless individuals seeking to be arrested to then be given shelter, reducing the recidivism rate.


Prevents the homeless from harm.

People still need a place to sleep, and barring it on public property could lead them to sleep on private property, and be harmed by private property owners.


Could stop the cycle of homelessness.

Criminal convictions are one contributing factor that make it harder for people to come out of homelessness. It makes it harder to get a job, qualify for benefits and affects eligibility for certain types of housing. Criminalizing unhoused people for sleeping on public property perpetuates the cycle of homelessness.



It contributes to a feeling of safety for the public.

Homeless people camping out in public spaces often makes those areas feel unsafe for people.


It helps keep the streets clean.

Places where homeless people camp are often surrounded by personal items or trash that affect cleanliness.


It allows public property to be used as intended.

Public property is meant for use by all of the public, often for recreational purposes. Allowing people to sleep there takes away from that intended use.


It prevents the spread of diseases.

If people camp out where there are no sanitary facilities, it leaves them vulnerable to communicable diseases.


It could motivate people to improve their situation.

With less options for sleeping outside, people have even more incentive to come out of homelessness.