Why some liberal cities are cracking down on the homeless
Public camping has gotten worse, not better, under housing first policies
Trash trucks lined the street at Lady Bird Lake in Southeast Austin last month as city officials removed homeless encampments where more than 30 individuals were living. As crews piled camp debris into wagons, some people took their belongings and moved deeper into the woods.
In 2019, the Austin City Council voted to allow camping on public land as a measure to decriminalize homelessness. But the camps that popped up all over the city overwhelmed businesses and residents, who voted in 2021 to reinstate the ban. Now, Austin is one of many blue cities across the nation cracking down on homeless encampments as it experiences the failure of a poverty-fighting policy called “housing first.”
Los Angeles has banned public camping in 54 locations since October 2021 and will soon close and fence off a large camp in Little Tokyo. New York City, Sacramento, Seattle, and Portland, Ore., either have recently cracked down on street sleeping (in New York it was on the subways) or are considering proposals to do so.
The federal government began promoting the policy of “housing first” in the mid-2000s under President George W. Bush. In 2013, the Department of Housing and Urban Development defined housing first as an “approach to quickly and successfully connect individuals and families experiencing homelessness to permanent housing without preconditions and barriers to entry, such as sobriety, treatment or service participation requirements.” Michele Steeb, senior fellow with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, called the model a “one size fits all solution.” Originally designed for a tiny segment of the homeless population — the chronically homeless — housing first promises that “housing alone will solve homelessness,” she said.
But the numbers tell a different story. Federal government homeless assistance spending climbed by 200 percent and the number of housing units increased by 42.7 percent nationwide between 2014 and 2019. The homeless population increased by 15.6 percent. California created 33 percent more permanent housing units and increased its homeless spending by 101 percent between 2016 and 2019. The state witnessed a 47 percent increase in the unsheltered homeless population during that same period. Steeb argued that affordable housing is a factor, but it is only one of many. Domestic violence, addiction, and mental health issues are just as important. She experienced this during her work at St. John’s, an 18-month program in Sacramento that helps women and children overcome the root causes of their homelessness.
Instead of building more housing units, Steeb argued, efforts should focus on congregate housing where individuals receive rehabilitation services that see the client as a whole person and not just someone who needs a roof over his or her head — a “people first” approach that treats the client for what led him to homelessness. Rehabilitation services may be more expensive in the short term, but she noted that they are much more economical over time. The average cost for each home built by the city of Los Angeles is nearly $600,000.
Back in Austin, Cleo Petricek, co-founder of the bipartisan political action committee Save Austin Now, knows the problem runs deeper than housing. Save Austin Now raised $1.25 million to put Proposition B, an initiative to reinstate Austin’s camping ban in 2021, on the ballot. The measure garnered significant Democratic support. Soon after, the ban passed statewide. The city removed 602 camping sites in 2021. Individuals who ignore the mandate do so under penalty of a misdemeanor charge or a $500 fine.
After Austin reinstated the camping ban, the city’s HEAL initiative worked to clean up encampments and help individuals find shelters and eventually permanent housing. But Petricek said the majority are already back on the street. On ride-alongs with social workers and police, she has seen many of the underlying problems firsthand. “We are not dealing with the real issues,” she said, pointing out that while politicians are cleaning up encampments, they aren’t compelling people to stay in shelters or seek treatments for the underlying issues of drug addiction and mental health.
Stephen Eide, a social policy expert with the Manhattan Institute, agrees. Though California has embraced the housing first approach by spending billions, the state has become “exhibit A” for the homelessness problem, he said. Permanent housing units and homelessness have increased together: “We can’t house our way out of the problem.”
The San Francisco Bay Area is home to the third largest homeless population in the United States — 28,000 people at last count — second only to New York and Los Angeles. Bram Begonia heads the Bay Area Rescue Mission, a Christian organization in Richmond, a city in the San Francisco Bay Area. The organization offers emergency shelter, but it is only one of many programs that include a yearlong life transformation program. Unlike many shelters, it does not accept government funding. It takes a holistic approach that includes addiction recovery, employment training, financial education, job placement, and Biblical training.
City and statewide rapid rehousing efforts to end encampments and put people in housing units or hotels do not end the cycle of homelessness, he said. With the homeless population climbing to 28,000 in the Bay Area, Tom Butt, the mayor of Richmond, announced the city will pay landlords 12 months’ rent for taking in a homeless individual. “What happens on month 13?” Begonia asked. Officials building permanent housing, providing more shelter beds, and removing encampments don’t consider the long-term consequences of these initiatives, he pointed out.
His organization stays in touch with the individuals who exit the program to see if they stay sober, employed, and housed. Seventy percent of their graduates do, he said. Fifty percent of the rescue mission’s staff members have gone through the program. Success isn’t about how many beds are filled, he argued, it’s about life transformation. “If you take care of physical and mental needs but don’t address the spiritual, the cycle does not end,” he said.
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