As homeless become more visible, cities take a tougher line
(Stateline) In pushing for a bill of rights for homeless Michiganders, Democratic state Rep. Emily Dievendorf encountered a “cruel irony”: A homeless constituent providing advice on the measure was denied entry to the state Capitol because he didn’t have a photo ID.
Under Dievendorf’s bill, homeless people in Michigan would have the right to “move freely” in parks, on sidewalks and in other public spaces, and could not be denied employment for lacking a permanent address. They also would be guaranteed emergency medical care, privacy protections for their personal belongings and access to the official documentation required to cast a vote in Michigan — in other words, a photo ID.
“As a society, we have to admit that it takes time for folks who are struggling and don’t have a roof over their head to stabilize themselves while they wait for housing opportunities to happen,” said Dievendorf. “This bill is about a baseline of humanity and respect that we should give humans who are unhoused.”
Connecticut, Illinois and Rhode Island have similar measures on the books. And this past summer, New York City became the first city in the nation to pass a homeless bill of rights. It includes the right to shelter, the right to sleep outside and the right to vote.
But the state laws were enacted a decade ago, and homeless advocates say they are often ignored. In the years since, efforts to pass bill of rights measures in at least a half-dozen other states have fallen short. In New York City, Democratic Mayor Eric Adams is fighting to suspend the city’s separate, 4-decade-old right-to-shelter policy, under which it has to provide temporary housing for every homeless person.
Dievendorf’s bill, introduced last year, hasn’t advanced out of committee in Michigan’s Democratic-dominated legislature.
As the homeless population has grown and become more visible, many cities and states have pivoted from a focus on the rights of homeless people to the rights of local residents and businesses that are being forced to contend with homeless encampments and other fallout from the nation’s shortage of affordable housing.
In the past two years, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas have approved statewide camping bans on public property (though the Missouri Supreme Court last month struck down that state’s law over a technical issue). In Georgia, a new law requires cities and counties to enforce existing bans on public camping; steers money toward transitional housing that requires drug treatment; encourages the creation of sanctioned camping areas; and calls for a “performance audit” of spending on programs for homeless people.
San Diego and Portland, Oregon, recently tightened their camping restrictions. And San Diego has joined left-leaning cities including Albuquerque, New Mexico; Honolulu; Las Vegas; Milwaukee; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Seattle in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to give them more authority to dismantle homeless encampments.
“The friction in many communities affected by homelessness is at a breaking point,” those and other cities wrote in an amicus brief supporting Grants Pass, Oregon, which was sued by three unhoused residents who argued the city shouldn’t be allowed to punish them for sleeping in public when there is nowhere else for them to go.
“Despite massive infusions of public resources, businesses and residents are suffering the increasingly negative effects of long-term urban camping,” the brief continues. Among them: “enormous volumes of garbage, human waste, and other health hazards like used needles.”
Grants Pass is appealing a 2020 district court ruling that its ordinances regulating homelessness are unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court could decide this month whether to take the case.
‘Criminalization’ of homelessness?
A “point-in-time” count released last month by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that about 653,100 people were experiencing homelessness on a single night in January 2023, up 12% compared with 2022. Sixty percent of those people were in emergency shelters, transitional housing or other sheltered situations, while the remainder were on the streets or “in places not meant for human habitation.”
The number of homeless people has spiked since the COVID-19 pandemic, but city efforts to crack down on camping, loitering and panhandling predate the public health crisis. Between 2006 and 2019, there was a sharp increase in the number of citywide bans on camping (up 92%), sitting or lying in public spaces (78%), loitering (103%), panhandling (103%) and living in vehicles (213%), according to a 2021 report by the National Homelessness Law Center.
The group also tracked a 1,300% increase in the number of homeless encampments and noted that Black and Native American people are overrepresented in the homeless population.
Even in Rhode Island, one of the three states that have a homeless bill of rights, advocates say authorities often ignore the law in their zeal to get homeless people off the streets. Providence is one of the cities asking the Supreme Court for more authority to clear encampments.
“A [bill of rights] law without enforcement has no teeth,” said Juan Espinoza, communications and development manager for the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness. “It’s especially dangerous when the individuals who are supposed to benefit from the law are disconnected and unaware of what rights they may have, just because they lack a stable home.”
The National Homelessness Law Center and other advocacy groups argue that state and local policies that “criminalize” homelessness only make the problem worse.
“Because people experiencing homelessness are not on the street by choice but because they lack choices, criminal and civil punishment serves no constructive purpose,” the report states. “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.”
Steve Berg, chief policy officer for the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said he expects more cities and states to take a punitive approach this year.
“We’re worried about states implementing criminalization and fines as a way to address homelessness, when there’s evidence that it doesn’t work,” Berg said in an interview with Stateline. “We’ve seen these laws challenged in court and our belief is that due process would prohibit that kind of criminalization.”
Instead, advocates argue, the solution to homelessness is more housing and behavioral health services for the many unhoused people who are struggling with mental illness or substance use.
A complex problem
But even many progressives argue that housing and services must be combined with enforcement. In a separate amicus brief supporting Grants Pass, the left-leaning California State Association of Counties and the League of California Cities point to the billions of dollars public officials have spent on supportive services, outreach teams, emergency shelters, rental subsidies, micro-dwellings and safe camping sites with 24-hour security, bathrooms and storage. It hasn’t been enough.
“Homelessness in California is a complex problem with many root causes, and it demands a comprehensive solution,” they argue in the brief. Enforcing camping restrictions, they say, “is a critical component to the overall well-being of the community.”
In August, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom used stronger language in criticizing a court order barring San Francisco from clearing homeless encampments, calling it “preposterous” and “inhumane.”
“People are moving out of the cities. Businesses are shutting down. People are dying of overdoses because of this,” Newsom told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Ultimately, everyone’s going to blame me for everything. … But damn it, they need to be accountable as well. These judges are wrong on these overriding sweeping orders.”
In conservative states with recently enacted camping bans, legislators have relied on model legislation drafted by the Cicero Institute, a Texas-based think tank founded by Joe Lonsdale, the co-founder of tech firm Palantir and managing partner at the venture capital firm 8VC.
The new Georgia law is the most far-reaching. It goes beyond a camping ban by steering the state away from the “housing first” strategy embraced by many advocates. Under that approach, people experiencing homelessness are provided with free permanent housing first — before they receive help with mental health issues, substance use or job placement. Lonsdale and other critics say that given the high percentage of homeless people experiencing those problems, housing first usually fails.
The law also takes aim at what Lonsdale and other critics refer to as the “Homeless Industrial Complex,” or the array of homeless-service providers that, they argue, benefit from the status quo. Under the Georgia law, the state will examine the awarding of contracts and grants to service providers to determine whether they are meeting metrics of success.
Bryan Sunderland, executive director of policy at the Cicero Institute, said the group isn’t advocating the criminalization of homelessness. Rather, it is trying to prevent the worst outcomes of street homelessness.
“I find it laughable when some people say that it’s better to leave someone on the street because we know where we can find them to help them later,” Sunderland said in an interview with Stateline.
“It boggles the mind, and I don’t want to impugn anyone’s motivations, but the folks that often make those arguments are the ones that are collecting millions of dollars from the federal government to continue running the nonprofits that they run.”
Multiyear effort in Michigan
Lisa Chapman, policy director for the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness, said it’s unfortunate that a bill to give homeless people basic rights is even necessary. A person’s housing status shouldn’t dictate whether they are protected under the law, she told Stateline.
“The bill is aspirational,” Chapman said. “Of course, we want everyone to have the same rights. But in reality, people experiencing homelessness aren’t being treated equally, and there have been cities in the state responding to rising homelessness with criminalization.”
She also cited the increasing use in Michigan of so-called hostile architecture on city benches to physically prevent people from sleeping on them.
In July, the Grand Rapids City Commission approved two ordinances designed to crack down on street homelessness. The first bars loitering in public or private buildings — including doorways — and prohibits “accosting” another person who is using an ATM, waiting at a bus stop or eating or drinking outdoors.
The second ordinance prohibits the storage of unattended or “excess” personal property in public rights-of-way and parks, and allows the city to impound such property, without prior notice. The ACLU of Michigan criticized both measures as unconstitutional.
“The proposed amendments criminalize behaviors fundamental to the experience of being unhoused: keeping personal property in public, using tents, and spending time (“loitering”) in public places,” the ACLU wrote in a letter to Democratic Mayor Rosalynn Bliss and the other members of the commission.
“This approach only pushes our unhoused neighbors further into the margins of society, exacerbating their struggles. Indeed, we fear that may be the goal, because it is uncomfortable to be confronted with the reality that others have so much less.”