Cover Story

Many crimes homeless people commit are non-violent "nuisance offenses," such as panhandling or turnstile jumping in the subway. But when city ordinances, such as anti-panhandling legislation, make those activities more difficult, homeless people sometimes escalate to more serious crimes, including theft or breaking and entering.

That's according to a 2008 study by New York University psychology graduate student Sean Fischer and colleagues, who examined the relationship among homelessness, mental illness and criminal activity among 207 New York City homeless people over four years (American Journal of Community Psychology, Vol. 42, No. 3).

"Criminal activity isn't a staple characteristic of these people," Fischer says. "It may be more accurate to think of them as people struggling to get by."

Fischer and his team didn't find any difference between street homelessness and sheltered homelessness when it came to incidence of non-violent crime, but things were different for violent criminal activity. They found that homeless people bouncing from shelter to shelter were more likely than homeless people living on the street to commit violent crimes, such as robbery and assault. One explanation for that could be that for people who are already stressed, living in close quarters with other similarly stressed individuals can lead to conflict and violence, Fischer says.

"Bouncing around from place to place can be very stressful," he says. "Moving them quickly into housing rather than relying on temporary shelters is probably a pretty good way to prevent this fighting."

—M. Price