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Penalizing the Poor and Homeless: Psychology’s Contribution


Image source: Flickr user ccozzaglia [Astrid Idlewild] on Flickr, under Creative Commons

By Maha Khalid (Program Coordinator, Office on Socioeconomic Status)

“Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.” – Nelson Mandela

Communities across the country respond to poverty and homelessness with a variety of programs: food banks, emergency shelters, transitional housing, and permanent supportive housing. However, despite these programs, there has been an emergence of class-based stigma, stereotyping, and discrimination, which has led to policies that penalize unavoidable aspects of poverty.

Historically marginalized and disenfranchised populations have been disproportionately affected by the lack of affordable, accessible, safe, and stable housing. Such oppressed groups include racial and ethnic minorities, refugees and immigrants, older adults, veterans, persons with disabilities (including mental illness), female-headed households with children, and unaccompanied youth — many of whom are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, and/or aging out of foster care systems (Cochran, Stewart, Ginzler, & Cauce, 2002; Lehman & Cordray, 1993; Shinn, 2007; Toro, Dworsky, & Fowler, 2007; U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2008; U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2009; U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2009).

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty has noted nationwide trends among states and cities that target the poor. For instance:

  1. Individuals living in poverty who may have only committed a minor crime may be unable to keep up with the financial penalties, which can result in violating probation. Ultimately, these unaffordable fees can result in a vicious cycle of poverty and incarceration.

  2. Children involved in the welfare system are disproportionately detained in the juvenile justice system, which is psychologically distressing and places youth at increased risk of subsequent delinquent activity.

  3. Recent food sharing bans in cities across the United States have imposed fines and even jail time for the crime of disbursing of food to hungry and homeless individuals.

As such, National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week in 2015 (November 14-22) focused on the decriminalization of homeless individuals. Psychological research and practice contains significant contributions to understanding the correlates and consequences of homelessness. Watch Susana A. Lopez, PhD, of the Nathanson Family Resilience Center at UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, provide an overview of the current research on “Criminalizing Housing Status: Focus on Homeless Youth.” The presentation is available here.

Additionally, the APA Presidential Task Force on Psychology’s Contribution to End Homelessness was tasked with identifying and addressing the psychosocial factors and conditions associated with homelessness, and defining the role of psychologists in decriminalizing and ending homelessness. The report and its recommendations are available at

What do you think?  What do we need to do to better address the needs of homeless individuals in our communities?  Add your thoughts in the comment section.


Maha Khalid is the Program Coordinator of the Office on Socioeconomic Status and the Editor of the SES Indicator. She works to facilitate and promote psychology’s contribution to the understanding of SES and the lives and well-being of the poor. She received her bachelors in Psychology from the George Washington University.

Image source: Flickr user ccozzaglia [Astrid Idlewild] on Flickr, under Creative Commons


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