The Crime of Poverty: Three Policy Approaches Across the Globe and the Need for New Strategies

Owner/ publisher: Taufiq Klinkenborg;
Owner/ publisher: Taufiq Klinkenborg;

The reasons that drive an individual to commit a crime are as complex and varied as the criminals themselves, but for a large percentage of people that reason is simply necessity.[1] Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that all humans simply by virtue of their humanity deserve access to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of [themselves] and of [their] family” which includes food, shelter, medical care, and access to social services when applicable.[2] Yet, the World Economic Forum reports that worldwide 150 million people do not have access to the most basic version of these services.[3] The result is that without any better options, these people are forced into a Hobson’s choice: do whatever it takes to make up the difference, or die.[4] The result is all too often petty crimes or administrative sanctions and fines.[5] The exact combination of fines and criminalization that each country uses varies based on their history and culture. Three examples are highlighted below.

Life in England was beginning to change in the 1800s and with this societal change came new government legislation including harsh punishments for those that challenged the King and his social order.[6] Thanks to what would later be called the ‘Bloody Code’ more than 200 crimes carried a possible death penalty.[7] Even pocketing a dozen doubloons from a Spanish shipwreck or cutting down another’s trees could result in public execution.[8] Starting in 1824, the U.K. used the Vagrancy Act to criminally punish anyone caught ‘sleeping rough’ with property seizure and fines up to GBP 1000 with return of that property delayed until payment.[9] While not an outright death sentence, taking basic survival equipment and whatever money they can scrape together has contributed to the deaths of unhoused people year after year in the Kingdom.[10] The Act ensured that the police and not social workers had the primary responsibility for responding to people sleeping outside or begging.[11] Despite its age, Section 3, which defines begging, was used in 926 prosecutions and resulted in 742 convictions just in 2019.[12] During the Pandemic, then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson announced his government intended to repeal the law and replace it with a more wholistic response.[13] The law was effectively repealed in April 2022, but a technicality meant as a placeholder for future legislation means the law could still be revived, albeit in a new form.[14] If the promised changes will actually occur and what result they may have remains unclear.

Singapore’s public assistance programs were once considered among the best in the world for providing citizens with low-cost public housing options.[15] Today an average citizen walking down the street may not see a single sign of the unhoused, but this invisibility doesn’t mean they aren’t there. In fact, the unhoused population remains relatively constant.[16] Their numbers include youth who do not qualify for subsidized housing, the elderly who lack the savings required to keep up with payments, and foreigners.[17] The country’s Destitute Persons Act was intended to provide care, but applies to people determined to be a “nuisance” or cause “annoyance” to the public.[18] Rather than going through the criminal system, this law allows the unhoused to be involuntarily admitted into a welfare facility and permits officials to require they remain until staff deem them ready to discharge regardless of the citizens’ desire to leave.[19] The result is that the unhoused are often afraid to interact with the public, further isolating them from their community. [20]

A final example is the United States, where more than four hundred thousand people are homeless, roughly a third being chronically homeless individuals.[21] Among these people are traditionally at-risk groups like those with substance abuse problems and the LGBTQ, where more than a quarter report being housing unstable or homeless at some point.[22]A growing percentage are families who cannot continue to pay rent and are forced into their cars or to public assistance.[23] These families, who often maintain jobs and otherwise contribute to their community, face increasing criminalization.[24] Even the volunteers that try to help them by giving out food can be charged with misdemeanor offenses and fined.[25]

Homelessness is unfortunately a concern that crosses all cultural and social boundaries. As inflation continues, more and more people will face housing insecurity. Whether new or old, laws that fine and imprison citizens for a social condition will not solve the underlying issues. Some strides have been made in recent years towards protective policies and away from policing and this must continue. Lawmakers, judges, and prosecutors cannot forget that by virtue of their office they owe a duty to all, and punishing the impoverished with tools that make them even more in debt does nothing but expand the problem. All people deserve to be lifted out of poverty, not pushed deeper into it.[26]

[1] Ben Roebuck, Homelessness, Victimization and Crime: Knowledge and Actionable Recommendations, Inst. for the Prevention of Crime (Jan. 2008),

[2] G.A. Res.  217 (III) A, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, art. 25 (Dec. 10, 1948).

[3] Patrick Henry, These Innovative Projects Are Tackling Homelessness Around the World, World Econ. F. (Oct. 29, 2021),

[4] Wilson Criscione & InvestigateWest, Why Unhoused People in the US Are Choosing to Go to Jail: ‘I Kept Reoffending’, The Guardian (Nov 2, 2022 02.00 EDT),

[5] See Id.

[6] The ‘Bloody Code’?, National Justice Museum (July 29, 2019),

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Molly Finn, Anti-Homeless Legislation in the UK and the Criminalisation of Rough Sleeping, St. Andrews L. Rev. (May 21, 2021),

[10] See generally Off. for Nat’l Stat., Deaths of Homeless People In England and Wales: 2013 to 2021 Registrations (Nov. 23, 2022, 9:30am) (analyzing deaths during the reporting period by region and case of death among other comparison points).

[11] Finn supra note 9.

[12] Finn supra note 9.

[13] Martine Martin, Is It Scrapped Yet? An Update on Our Campaign to Repeal the Vagrancy Act, Crisis.Org (Dec. 13, 2022),

[14] Id.

[15] Harry Tan & Helen Forbes-Mewett, Whose “Fault” is it? Becoming Homeless in Singapore, 55 Urb. Stud. 3579, 3580 (Dec. 2018),

[16] Derrick A Paulo et al., “This is the Happiest Day of My Life”: Small Wins, But Long Struggle, for the Homeless in Singapore, CAN (May 17, 2023 06:00AM)

[17] See generally K. H. Ng & J. S. Atac Sekhong, Seeking Shelter: Homeless During the COVID-19 Pandemic in Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew Sch. of Pub. Pol’y (2022), social-inclusion-project.

[18] Global-Is-Asian Staff, 3 Broad Cases of Homelessness in Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew Sch. of Pub. Pol’y (Nov. 8, 2019),’s-hidden-homeless-insights-from-a-nationwide-street-count.

[19] Id.

[20]  Minh-Ha La, Homelessness in Singapore, Borgen Project (June 9, 2020),

[21] State of Homelessness: 2023 Edition, Nat’l All. to End Homelessness (last accessed Oct. 23, 2023),

[22] Homelessness and Housing Instability Among LGBTQ Youth, Trevor Project 1, 12 (last accessed Oct. 23, 2023),; Stacy Mosel, Substance Abuse and Homelessness: Statistics and Rehab Treatment, Am. Addition Ctr. (Aug. 22, 2023),

[23] Hard Time Generation: Families Living in Cars (CBS New television broadcast Nov. 27, 2011).

[24] Thatcher Schmid, Vehicle Residency: Homelessness We Struggle to Talk About, The Nation (Nov. 11, 2021),

[25] Grace Guarnieri, Why It’s Illegal to Feed the Homeless in Cities Across America, Newsweek (Jan. 16, 2018, 5:01 PM EST),

[26] The author would like to credit several individuals whose experiences and passions inspired this line and the article overall. Without your insightful discussions, this article would not be possible. Thank you to C.M., K.D., A.L., and S.F.