Cartoon: Let’s Outlaw Being Homeless! That’ll Work!

This cartoon is drawn by the always-great R. E. Ryan.

I worked for many years at a historic church site in Portland, Oregon. The most fun part of the job was directing wedding rehearsals. (As a wedding coordinator, I helped with hundreds, maybe thousands, of weddings, and I can confidently report that “bridezilla” brides are actually very, very rare.)

The least fun part was occasionally having to ask homeless people sleeping in the church doorway to wake up and move on. We had put together some info we could hand folks – numbers and addresses of local shelters – but I got the impression that most of them were well aware of those options already, and had their reasons for not going. Plus, then as now, many of the shelters are full.

Homelessness is incredibly hard to address – and the number one (but not only) policy that can help, building more and more housing, isn’t simple either, and can’t do anything about immediate short-term needs.

So it’s hard. But laws banning sleeping in public – and other aspects of being homeless – are a terrible response.

It’s not just cruel – these laws are literally demanding the impossible. Human beings are, alas, embodied physical beings existing in a physical universe, and it follows that we will inevitably be somewhere while we sleep. And if you’re someone who doesn’t have access to a private place to sleep – by definition, you’ll be sleeping in public.

Not that these laws are enforced against someone like me if I doze off while working in a coffee shop (as I have several times) or while sitting on a park bench. They’re not really laws against sleeping in public; they’re laws against being homeless. And they actually make it harder for people to get out of homelessness.

Eric Tars of the National Homelessness Law Center writes:

The growing affordable housing gap and shrinking social safety net have left millions of people homeless or at-risk, and most American cities have fewer emergency shelter beds than people who need shelter. Despite this lack of affordable housing and shelter space, many cities have chosen to criminally or civilly punish people living on the street for doing what any human being must do to survive, like sleeping, resting, and eating – activities we all do every day and take for granted. […]

Criminalization policies are ineffective and, in fact, make homelessness harder to exit. Because people experiencing homelessness are not on the street by choice but because they lack choices, criminal and civil punishment serves no constructive purpose. Instead, arrests, unaffordable tickets, and the collateral consequences of criminal convictions make it more difficult for people to exit homelessness and get back on their feet. Criminalization of homelessness might mean that individuals experiencing homelessness are taken to jail, where they may remain for weeks if they cannot pay their bail or fines, perhaps losing custody of their children, property and/or employment in the process. Once released, they could have criminal records that make it more difficult to get or keep a job, housing, or public benefits. Moreover, fines and court fees associated with resolving a criminalization case can amount to hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars. Without the resources to pay, homeless people may be subject to additional jail time. Criminalization is the most expensive and least effective way of addressing homelessness and wastes scarce public resources on policies that do not work. A growing body of research comparing the cost of homelessness, including the cost of criminalization, with the cost of providing housing to homeless people shows that ending homelessness through housing is the most affordable option in the long run.


This cartoon has four panels. All the panels show a gritty commercial doorway – the kind that’s recessed a few feet into the building – on a city sidewalk. There’s litter and graffiti here.

There are two characters in the comic strip. The first character is a homeless man sleeping in the doorway, wearing a zip-up sweatshirt over a t-shirt and a dull red knit cap, and with a full beard.  The other character is a muscular-looking cop dressed in a police uniform and carrying a baton. In defiance of tradition, he is cleanshaven. I’ll call these two characters KNITCAP and COP.


Knitcap, covered by a brown blanket and with his head pillowed on some rolled-up clothes, is lying in a doorway, apparently asleep. The cop is using his baton to poke knitcap in the side. The cop has a somewhat sadistic grin.

COP: Hey, you! Get up! We’ve outlawed sleeping in public! You’re not allowed anymore!


Knitcap is sitting up, rubbing sleep out of his eyes with one hand. He speaks calmly. The cop watches, smirking, arms akimbo.

KNITCAP: In that case, I guess I’ll sleep in a hotel tonight.


A close-up of Knitcap. He’s stroking his chin with a hand, as if thinking through his options.

KNITCAP: Or should I sleep in my townhouse instead? Or my Hamptons place? I’ll call my butler and ask what he thinks!


Knitcap, grinning, is now holding a hand next to his face, thumb and pinky finger extended, pretending it’s a phone as he talks. The cop is glaring and slapping his baton against his palm.

KNITCAP: Smithers? Smithers old boy! My super fun street sleeping holiday is done. Which of my mansions shall I sleep in tonight.

COP (thought): Next step: Outlaw sarcasm.


Chicken fat are unimportant but fun details cartoonists sometimes sneak into comic strips.

In panel one, in the lower-right-hand corner of the panel, two rats are sitting, holding playing cards and apparently playing poker, or some similar card game. In panel two, a cat walks in, apparently stalking the rats. The rats look at the cat. And in panel four, the cat has been dealt in and is playing the game with them.

In all the panels, Knitcap is wearing a t-shirt with some words that are hard to make out. But what it says is “No, you’re Spartacus.”

In panel three, there’s a lot of mostly-unintelligible graffiti, but just below the doorknob someone has painted “BACKGROUND DETAILS RULZ.”

Let’s Outlaw Being Homeless! That’ll Work! | Patreon

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4 Responses to Cartoon: Let’s Outlaw Being Homeless! That’ll Work!

  1. 1
    bcb says:

    I appreciate the animals playing cards: it lightens the mood for a very heavy page.

    What’s the comparison on the price for buying homes for all homeless people vs keeping them all in prison for life? I would not be surprised if the first option was cheaper.

  2. 2
    Elusis says:

    The complication is that some people who are unhoused need what’s called “permanent supportive housing” – staffed housing that includes case managers, counselors, etc. to help them manage whatever mental health, disability, substance use, etc. issues make it hard for them to function well in a situation of total independence. And people seem remarkably opposed to building and staffing housing, with professionals trained to help people manage their benefits and resources in a setting where people are mostly allowed to decide what they do with their lives otherwise, even when building and staffing a prison, with professionals trained to enforce compliance and punishment in a setting where people are mostly not allowed any choice about what to do with their lives, costs much more AND worsens people’s ability to function if and when they finally leave.

  3. 3
    Jacqueline Squid Onassis says:

    Yeah, that support is vital and there are so many different types of support that people are liable to need. Building and staffing that housing is probably more cost effective than having ER’s be the be all and end all of care. Even if it’s not, building that infrastructure is the right thing to do. Plus, you know, it creates jobs and enhances the economy.

    The Puritan heritage of the US has certainly held us back.

  4. 4
    Petar says:

    The US public is opposed to giving “those people” benefits that are denied to the average citizen.

    It is much easier to create programs giving homeless people housing and counseling with no strings attached, as Finland recently did, if you already have a population that benefits from an effective social safety net. Note that even in Finland, the program only reduced the homeless population by 80%. Or at least, people who are foolish enough to believe that Finland exists say so.

    But when many regular US tax payers live paycheck to paycheck, dread an emergency that can prevent them from making rent, consider psychiatric care an unattainable luxury, etc. etc. etc… how do you expect them to be happy to support helping the unworthy, unproductive, weird bums, junkies and hobos?

    Paying for prisons is much easier to justify. That’s punishment, the homeless who end up behind bars suffer, and the taxpayer is not feeling jealous. No one got elected by appealing to reason over emotion.

    You may think I’m being overly dramatic and unfair to the American taxpayers. But… my city voted to cut the amount devoted to addressing homelessness, because the previous budget did not come close to being spent. Why was it not spent? Because every single attempt to build any housing, care facilities, etc. for the homeless has been met with unassailable Not-In-My-Backyard unity in the previous elections, while general practitioners, fast food restaurants, etc. saw their reviews plummet and their customers evaporate as they accepted homeless as clients, or food stamps as payment.

    And I am not pointing fingers at others, while laying claim to some kind of sainthood. While I do not write reviews, I stopped going to the closest El Pollo Loco when they joined the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, because I could not handle the smell.

    It is hard to patch up specific issues when they are just a symptom of a larger problem, and trying to address said larger problem is “Socialism!” aka political suicide.

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