Homelessness activists have lectured Americans about how they should learn to live with the large tent encampments of their “unhoused neighbors” on sidewalks and in parks. They have derided as bigotry observations that these encampments spawn violence. They have argued that the camps would disappear only when every unsheltered person receives permanent, subsidized housing, which even the most optimistic admitted would take years or decades.
Americans have stopped listening to the activists. Citizens and politicians of all stripes have recently taken steps to pass or enforce laws against public encampments, often in the same locales that once embraced a housing-only approach. They have begun to realize that the activists’ promises that encampments would be abandoned once the government provided enough handouts and housing were a mirage.
This political shift resulted in part from the government’s encouragement of homeless camps during the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—in just one example of its confidence in upending all aspects of American life—recommended against closing public encampments unless “individual housing units are available.” The CDC said that clearing encampments would “break connections with service providers.” This advice was pure social engineering, with only the flimsiest connection to disease prevention. But many cities used it as an excuse for inaction and allowed the camps to spread.
The CDC also recommended social distancing in homeless shelters. The head of one of the agency’s Covid task forces recognized that some shelters couldn’t socially distance, so they had to “plan for how to reduce crowding.” For many cities, that meant reducing shelter beds and returning people to the streets. Of course, neither the CDC nor these shelters considered that homeless individuals living on the streets might have bigger problems than Covid.
The first sign that Americans were fed up with the sudden explosion of camps came in liberal Austin, Texas, in 2021, when voters overwhelmingly reinstated a camping ban that the city council had recently repealed. The Texas state legislature, with a large bipartisan majority, also passed a law requiring cities to enforce laws against camping. The following year, Missouri and Tennessee passed laws banning public camping. Missouri’s statute included a ban on state funding for permanent housing for the homeless, with the funds instead going to shelter or services.
The states have continued acting on homeless encampments this year. Georgia’s legislature this spring passed SB 62, which requires cities to enforce local laws against street camping, mandates a performance audit for homeless spending, and prevents cities from dropping off the homeless in areas where they have nowhere to sleep. Despite activists’ pleas, the bill received bipartisan votes in the legislature. With Democratic and Republican support, Arizona also passed a bill to ban public camping this year, though the state’s new governor, Katie Hobbs, vetoed it.
Cities are taking action, too. Both candidates in Denver’s June mayoral runoff said that they wanted to enforce existing laws against street camping. Recent polling found that 57 percent of Denver voters endorse sweeps to remove homeless encampments; only 34 percent oppose them. Mayor Eric Adams of New York has cracked down on people sleeping on subway trains and moved to allow involuntary commitment for homeless people suffering a mental-health crisis.
The West Coast has seen the worst of the encampment crisis, thanks to the 2018 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Martin v. City of Boise, which said that cities under its jurisdiction could not enforce camping bans unless sufficient shelter space was available. Though many cities made the ruling another excuse for inaction, especially during Covid, other local governments have found alternatives. Las Vegas passed a law aimed, in the city’s phrasing, “at helping to connect the city’s homeless population with services” by making it a misdemeanor to camp or sleep downtown or in residential districts’ sidewalks and streets. In 2022, to ensure that enough shelter was available to enforce the law under terms set by Boise, the city expanded its open-air Courtyard Homeless Resource Center, which now provides space for 800 people to sleep. Las Vegas keeps a constant count to ensure that open spaces are at hand in the courtyard or at other shelters, making it possible to enforce the camping law.
Portland, Oregon, which has become an international symbol of America’s homeless crisis, voted last November to ban camping in the city by 2024. Mayor Ted Wheeler has begun creating sanctioned camping sites to provide alternatives to those removed from illegal encampments. Last year, Sacramento implemented new laws to limit camps and increase enforcement. Even Los Angeles, despite fevered protests from activists, voted to ban camps within 500 feet of schools or day-care centers.
Some citizens are using the courts to fight back against Boise and its results. In Phoenix, citizens filed a lawsuit against the city’s decision to crowd the homeless into a notorious area known as “the Zone.” In March of this year, a state judge declared the Zone a public nuisance and ordered it cleaned up. Disabled plaintiffs in Portland and Sacramento have sued to demand that the cities clean up their illegal camps. They argue, justifiably, that the camps make it impossible for those in wheelchairs to use sidewalks. Portland settled with the plaintiffs and promised to start removing tents.
Neither these disabled individuals nor the many residents of America’s cities are willing to wait indefinitely for some utopian future in which every homeless individual gets a free house. They know the costs of waiting are too high, especially for the homeless themselves. Last year, Phoenix and its surrounding county saw more than 700 homeless deaths, and Los Angeles County more than 2,000. One reason for these high (and rising) numbers is drug abuse inside the encampments; in some cities, overdoses make up the majority of all homeless deaths. Another reason is violence. Recent statistics show that 15 percent of the violent crime in Los Angeles involves the 1 percent of the population who are homeless, and that 24 percent of the city’s murder victims are homeless. The idea that L.A. or other cities should do nothing to remove these deadly camps until sufficient subsidized housing is available is absurd.
Americans understand that the homeless deserve compassion and dignity, but they also know that nothing is less compassionate or dignified than letting people die slowly in illegal encampments. They refuse to accept that these camps, almost unknown to American cities as recently as two decades ago, are an inevitable part of urban life—and they are pushing back.