In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Homelessness and Crime

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Criminology Homelessness and Crime
Brianna Remster
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 March 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0263


There is considerable overlap between the homeless and correctional populations in the United States. Individuals with a history of criminal justice contact are overrepresented among the homeless and those who have recently been homeless are disproportionately concentrated among correctional populations. Such overlap is in part due to shared risk factors. Poor, low skill, men of color, and individuals with mental illness and substance abuse and dependency issues are concentrated among the homeless and incarcerated. Said marginalized persons end up in correctional facilities, shelters, and the streets primarily because of two large-scale American policies: (1) the criminalization of homelessness and (2) mass incarceration and its detrimental consequences. Concerning the former, homeless individuals typically enter the criminal justice system for minor offenses that are often the direct result of being homeless (e.g., public disorder or petty theft). Yet because they are often unable to afford an attorney or bail and have no place to go if released, homeless individuals frequently remain in jail longer than individuals with stable housing, and over time they accrue lengthy criminal histories. Notably, such practices are not new; homelessness has long been criminalized. For instance, in colonial America, the homeless were sent to poor houses, which in many cases resembled modern prisons. Today, an emerging literature suggests that mass incarceration may contribute to homelessness. Indeed, the time trends overlap: contemporary homelessness grew in tandem with incarceration, beginning in the early 1980s. Over 641,000 individuals exit prison annually, of which a portion become homeless. Obtaining stable housing is not only indicative of successful reintegration, but other forms of reintegration such as employment are often dependent on having stable housing. Furthermore, homelessness is associated with recidivism. Reintegration challenges combined with the consequences of incarceration and the concentration of standard correlates of homelessness in this population help explain why individuals leaving prison are at an elevated risk. The data challenges for studying homeless and justice-involved populations are considerable. Without a permanent address, these highly mobile individuals are missing from many traditional forms of data used by social scientists such as household surveys. As a result, much of the work on this topic is theoretical in nature. Empirical assessments rely heavily on administrative data, such as correctional and emergency shelter records, and ethnographic work. Overall, much work remains to be done to understand the pathways between homelessness and the criminal justice system. Nonetheless, homelessness is a form of severe social exclusion and when combined with the stigma of incarceration, individuals may be doubly disadvantaged. Indeed, individuals with a history of prison or jail spells are among the most disadvantaged homeless, experiencing lengthy and/or repeated homelessness. However, the overlap between homelessness and the criminal justice system can be effectively reduced. Indeed, access to affordable housing saves taxpayer money while maintaining public safety.

General Overviews

Scholars have long noted the connection between homelessness and the criminal justice system. Snow and Anderson 1993 provides an excellent historical overview of homelessness in the United States and also reviews the structural and individual causes of homelessness. Additionally, based on their ethnographic work, the authors emphasize the inherent deviance of homelessness. Metraux, et al. 2008 discusses why the homeless often become entangled in the criminal justice system and also details the other pathway: why people exiting prison are at an increased risk of homelessness. Travis 2005 focuses on the connection between mass incarceration and housing issues, which ultimately leads to homelessness for some, whereas Roman and Travis 2006 highlights the barriers to housing for individuals leaving prison as well as some potential solutions.

  • Metraux, S., C. G. Roman, and R. S. Cho. 2008. Incarceration and homelessness. In Toward understanding homelessness: The 2007 national symposium on homelessness research. Edited by D. Dennis, G. Locke, and J. Khadduri. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Policy, Development, and Research, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

    This chapter reviews research on the incarceration-homeless overlap, including why individuals leaving prison are at an increased risk of homelessness and why the homeless are at an increased risk of criminal justice contact. The authors also examine the effectiveness of interventions intended to reduce the overlap.

  • Roman, C. G., and J. Travis. 2006. Where will I sleep tomorrow? Housing, homelessness, and the returning prisoner. Housing Policy Debate 17.2: 389–418.

    DOI: 10.1080/10511482.2006.9521574

    This article emphasizes both the scope of housing issues among the formerly incarcerated, including homelessness, and the challenges associated with obtaining stable housing. The authors also review promising re-entry programs that may reduce homelessness.

  • Snow, D. A., and L. Anderson. 1993. Down on their luck: A study of homeless street people. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    This ethnography includes a historical overview of how US homelessness has changed over time, including homeless persons’ circumstances and demographic composition. Despite these changes, the authors note that homelessness has always been viewed as deviant and suggest it should be viewed as a subculture. The structural and individual level factors associated with homelessness are also discussed (chapter 8). Notably, the authors argue that while much attention has been given to deinstitutionalization as a primary contributor to homelessness, it has been overstated compared to other explanations.

  • Travis, J. 2005. Housing. In But they all come back: Facing the challenges of prisoner reentry. By J. Travis, 219–248. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

    This chapter reviews the housing circumstances of individuals leaving prison as well as the barriers to obtaining housing, explaining why a disproportionate number of individuals leaving prison become homeless. Travis also reviews policies intended to reduce homelessness and facilitate reintegration and suggests several potential future avenues for improvement.

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