Court-Imposed Fines as a Feature of The Homelessness-Incarceration Nexus: A Cross-Sectional Study of the Relationship Between Legal Debt and Duration of Homelessness in Seattle, Washington, USA


Unlike legal financial obligations, other types of debt (credit cards, payday loans, student loans) were not statistically significantly associated with the duration of homelessness.

Public health practitioners have long linked homelessness and criminal conviction. This is the first study of the effect of legal financial obligations (LFOs) on the duration of homelessness. In a survey of 101 people experiencing homelessness in Seattle, WA, the authors found that having criminal legal debt was associated with homelessness and with more extended periods of homelessness. 

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Key Findings:

  • The mean duration for survey participants for their current episode of homelessness was nearly three and a half years.
  • 23 percent of respondents reported having difficulty finding permanent housing due to their arrest history.
  • Participants had an average of $12,025 of LFO debt; only 23 percent had made a payment on them.
  • Controlling for race, age, and gender, participants with outstanding LFOs experienced 1.9 years more of homelessness than those without.


Jessica Mogk, Valerie Shmigol, Marvin Futrell, Bert Stover, and Amy Hagopian
Journal of Public Health