Homelessness, Indignity, and the Promise of Mandatory Citations for Urban Camping

Ben A. McJunkin 
Associate Professor of Law
Associate Deputy Director - Academy for Justice
Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University

Arizona police departments should adopt mandatory citation policies for urban camping, and similar offenses attendant to homelessness. This small, attainable reform would immediately protect the dignity of countless homeless Arizonans. 

Custodial arrests for the crimes intrinsically connected to homelessness, such as urban camping, inflict needless indignity on Arizona’s homeless residents. Arizona has an estimated 10,000 individuals currently experiencing homelessness, nearly half of whom are unsheltered—living on the streets, in desert washes, in vehicles, or other places not meant for human habitation.  Yet the state has responded to its homelessness crisis as most states do: criminalizing simple behaviors that define the homeless experience, such a loitering in parks, resting at bus stops, obstructing sidewalks, or sleeping just about anywhere. Legal academics have long understood that treating homelessness as a crime traps individuals in cycles of poverty, pushes them toward further criminality, and is ultimately more expensive and less effective than non-carceral alternatives, such as housing-first solutions. To date, however, academic solutions have challenged criminalization itself, typically centered either on aspirational calls for code reform or on constitutional litigation strategies. These solutions have overlooked the ways in which the process of arrest itself exacerbates homelessness and imposes increased risks on those who experience it. This article, therefore, proposes a simple reform: Arizona police departments should adopt mandatory citation policies for urban camping, and similar offenses attendant to homelessness. This small, attainable reform would immediately protect the dignity of countless homeless Arizonans.

Key Findings:

  • Custodial arrests of individuals experiencing homelessness threaten their property, their connection to community, their physical safety, and ultimately their humanity.  The process is also costly to police departments with little tangible benefit to the community.

  • Arizona law grants broad discretion to police departments to issue citations in lieu of arrest. But departmental guidelines use seemingly neutral rules to cabin that discretion in ways that make citations for homeless populations nearly impossible.

Key Recommendations:

  • Arizona police departments should revise their internal policies to mandate the use of citations in lieu of physically arresting individuals for homelessness-related misdemeanors, such as urban camping.

  • Departments can follow the models they used in responding to the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020. To enhance jail safety, many Arizona police departments adopted a citation-only policy for nonviolent misdemeanors, proving that the reform is viable and immediately attainable.

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