Inside the push to criminalize homelessness
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We’re following progress made on debt limit talks. The current deal holds discretionary spending about flat. So what does that mean for big, expensive priorities like the affordable housing crisis and homelessness?
When it comes to addressing homelessness, for a while now advocates have backed a policy approach known as “housing first,” the idea that people first need reliable homes before they can really improve their lives. But that requires a lot of funding. We’re also seeing growing pushback to the housing first approach.
As part of our special series, “Finding Your Place,” we wanted to better understand of the current policy climate surrounding homelessness.
Marketplace’s David Brancaccio spoke with Ann Oliva, CEO of the nonpartisan National Alliance to End Homelessness. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
David Brancaccio: Give me a sense of what you’re seeing in several states about what you might term “criminalizing homelessness.”
Ann Oliva: So what we’re seeing across the country is a rise in the number of people who are living unsheltered. And in fact, the number of people living unsheltered, that means on the streets or in their cars, has been going up every year since 2015. And part of the reaction to this increase in visible homelessness has been a move by sometimes state legislatures or local city councils or mayors to pass ordinances or pass state laws that make it harder for people to simply exist outside, even if they don’t have a place to call home.
Brancaccio: I’ve seen moves calling for bans on encampments, where unsheltered people gather ad hoc. But then where do they go, is the question that’s left dangling.
Oliva: That is always the question that’s left dangling. Right now, we are in an unprecedented situation in terms of an affordable housing crisis and moving to criminalize people simply for existing outside when they have nowhere else to go. What that does is it harms them. It harms the people who are experiencing homelessness, personally, for a variety of reasons. It also makes the jobs of service providers, which are already very difficult jobs on the front line, even more difficult, because then they have to go track people down in other locations. And it also costs the system money. It makes the system less effective and less efficient. So there’s a variety of reasons why we shouldn’t be criminalizing people who are experiencing homelessness, yet it seems to be persisting.
Brancaccio: Let’s talk about some ideas out of the Cicero Institute, a think tank started by Joe Lonsdale, who’s the co-founder of the very successful big data analytics firm Palantir. The Cicero Institute released a blueprint for how states can push laws to, what it sees as reduce homelessness. It’s not how you would prefer to go about doing things.
Oliva: It is definitely not how we would prefer or really advise communities to address the issues of homelessness. And primarily because it again sort of dehumanizes people who are experiencing homelessness in really damaging ways, both to them and to the system. For example, it can be really damaging to young people, because the effects can really follow them for a long time at a sort of crucial point in their development. And it’s damaging for all people who are viewed as something that’s less than worthy, less than human. And so what our approach is, is that we really are working with our political leaders and elected leaders to make sure that we’re pushing for affordable housing – which is the thing that actually solves homelessness, criminalizing somebody, arresting somebody, putting them in jail or fining them is never going to solve their homelessness, but housing will and behavioral health services that people want need will. So we are really quite opposed to the way that the Cicero Institute and others who are like them, are pushing forward on encampments that are really what they’re saying is that we should be rounding people up and putting them into what I would call internment camps. And whenever we go down that road in this country, I think that we should all be cautious.
The Cicero Institute’s approach
Brancaccio: Yeah, I mean, the Cicero Institute describes it this way: “States should direct funds away from expensive and ineffective housing first programs toward short-term shelter and sanctioned, police encampments,” which you read in this other way.
Oliva: Oh, I think I’m reading it exactly how they intended. When we talk about, again, criminalizing people and dehumanizing people, and we say, you know, “Other citizens, housed folks, who are in the community shouldn’t have to see that,” I think that that’s a statement about how worthy we think folks are of resources and attention. And I think that those kinds of camps that they are suggesting, we know it doesn’t work, we know it doesn’t solve homelessness. What we know solves homelessness, what the evidence tells us solves homelessness, is housing and services. And that’s where we should be investing our long-term funding to develop additional housing and services to address the needs of people who are both at risk of homelessness and who are experiencing homelessness now. I think it’s really easy and pretty lazy to say that because there are more people who are experiencing homelessness now than a few years ago, or unsheltered homelessness than a few years ago, that homeless policy or a housing first approach doesn’t work. I often refer back to a colleague of mine, Dr. Margot Kushel, who is saying, “That’s like saying chemotherapy doesn’t work because people still get cancer.” It doesn’t actually make sense, policy sense or financial sense.
Housing first takes money, time and commitment
Brancaccio: But homeless people are still suffering and people in places where homelessness is festering would be forgiven for wanting there to be some new thinking about doing something. I mean, affordable housing requires the long view, you know, zoning rules, changing public attitudes toward more development, that takes time.
Oliva: It does take time. And that’s why when we talk about what solutions need to be in place here at the Alliance, we often talk about what are the interim solutions that we can have in place, while affordable housing is being built? And what do those look like? How do those meet the needs of people who are experiencing homelessness? So for example, during the pandemic, a lot of communities stood up what we call noncongregate shelter in hotels. And the data and information that we’ve gleaned from that is that people did well in those programs in many, many communities and exited to housing at higher rates and were able to access services in those kinds of programs. So there is new thinking about how interim solutions can work while we are building the affordable housing system that we want and need. And we also have to push Congress to make sure that we’re getting the investments that we need in both the affordable housing side and on the services side.
Brancaccio: You mentioned access to psychiatric care. One of the other proposals that the Cicero Institute is supporting reads this way, “States should amend civil commitment laws to make it easier to help those who can’t help themselves.” They see making it easier to commit someone as another option beyond what they see as abandonment, not doing anything and prison. What about when we can direct people into psychiatric care?
Oliva: So when we talk to people who have been through housing first programs or other permanent supportive housing programs successfully, what they tell us is that the housing itself provided a base by which they could access the services, you know, whether they’re mental health services or health services or substance use treatment that they wanted and needed. And forcing people into those types of interventions is not a proven strategy. The proven strategy is really for us to use housing as the base, then having people — once they feel safe, once they’re not worried about just surviving on the streets every single day — then making sure that they have access to the resources to the services, behavioral health services, mental health services that they want and need to address those underlying issues that they have in their life.
Marketplace reached out to the Cicero Institute for comment. It said: “Decades of the same failed homelessness policies have resulted in an explosion of unsheltered homeless in our cities — and an explosion of dollars being thrown at the problem with no accountability. Deaths among unsheltered homeless are soaring, and policies that encourage and abet dangerous street encampments result in more death and despair. Americans are ready for a new path on homelessness policy, and they broadly support banning street camping, which is dangerous to the homeless and the public alike. The Cicero Institute’s policies help the vulnerable homeless to get the shelter and treatment that they need.”
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