The United States has a homelessness problem, but we have an even bigger homelessness-policy problem. It is an issue at the federal level—HUD spends nearly $10 billion annually to create bad incentives that reward destitution—and at the state and local level. This week, two widely divergent state approaches to homelessness were on display.
In Oregon, state legislators sought to grant the homeless a right to camp on public property and to sue for up to $1,000 if their tents are disturbed. This may strike some as an extreme example, but it’s unfortunately typical for homeless policy, which is largely controlled by a national activist movement. Made up of thousands of service providers, this movement has become unaccountable and has failed to make meaningful improvements in conditions for the homeless, all while docking taxpayers more and more money. In some cases, these groups have become urban political machines in their own right, with incentives to see more homeless on the streets because it means more public funding for them. States like Oregon are happy to play ball.
The State of Georgia, however, is not. On Wednesday, Governor Brian Kemp signed SB 62 into law, which will upend the status quo on homelessness policy in the Peach State. Passed with bipartisan support, the law is based on model legislation developed at the Cicero Institute, which I founded.
Georgia and other states are part of a growing revolution in homelessness policy in which policymakers are declaring independence from failed approaches—and from the activists and bureaucrats who have created anarchy in so many of our major cities. Individual states may lack the ability to fix all the broken incentives pushed down from Washington, D.C., but they can make a difference in their own states.
Our model legislation has several major pillars, each of which deviates from the prevailing—and failing—wisdom of what some call the Homeless Industrial Complex.
First, states should not fund Housing First—the policy of giving “free” and permanent homes to the homeless without any mandate for treatment or sobriety. Studies show that it takes between ten and 20 housing units to remove one chronically homeless person from the street. It shouldn’t be surprising that, when the homeless are offered free houses with no questions asked, some people become “homeless” to take advantage. Due to pervasive mental health and addiction issues, many return to homelessness even after being given a house.
In San Francisco, “permanent supportive housing” is one such failed program. In one instance, the city found that a quarter of those given a free apartment were dead in just a few years, many from overdoses. The federal government and states like California embrace this boondoggle, but other states should make other choices. They can dedicate funding to treatment and emergency shelter, for example.
Second, camping on sidewalks and in public parks should not be permitted—much less protected and encouraged, as Oregon legislators are moving to do. These camps, where drugs and violence proliferate, are dangerous to the public and deadly to the homeless themselves. Allowing them to grow is unconscionable. States should instead require people to move into services, shelter, or safer alternatives. If necessary, states can establish sanctioned and policed camps with necessary services—outside of public spaces.
Third, states should tie funding for NGO service providers to results. In many cases, homeless “charities” are politically involved activist organizations that bully leaders so they can mop up money via contracts. In extreme cases, they use money intended to help the homeless to fund protests against new legislative approaches like ours.
When my friend and former colleague Judge Glock, the director of research at the Manhattan Institute and still a fellow at Cicero, testified in Kansas, dozens of activists showed up to make a scene in the committee chamber. The activists have a direct financial stake in the current policy: if lawmakers adopt accountability models, they could be out of work.
The public expects transparency, accountability, and results from these groups; our legislation mandates that. Under SB 62, homeless-service providers funded by state or local money in Georgia will be subject to a performance audit to tie funding to results.
Today, it’s mostly red states pushing back on the activists. But even in deep-blue Denver, voters had their choice from a bevy of Democratic mayoral candidates, nearly all of whom supported criminally charging the homeless who refuse available shelter space. Both candidates in the city’s June runoff support forcibly clearing encampments, and 54 percent of Denver voters say that they support a proposal to arrest those who refuse shelter space.
This is a major change—especially on the left. When the public faces such a visible and obvious crisis, not everyone toes the party line. In our own city of Austin, left-wing voters rebuked the even more left-wing city council and mayor on homelessness. After legislators repealed the city’s longtime camping ban and invited the homeless to camp downtown, voters chose to reinstate the ban in 2021 by nearly 20 percentage points.
The homeless population in Portland, Oregon, has surged over 50 percent since 2019. Meanwhile, the total population of the city has declined. As the homeless are coming in, residents are fleeing—because of bad policy.
It’s not always easy for elected leaders to stand up to the homeless industry. Many choose to play along rather than be publicly defamed as cruel or heartless. It’s different in Georgia, however: SB 62 passed with support from members of both parties. Last year, Missouri also adopted legislation based on Cicero’s accountability model. And Texas and Tennessee have banned street camping statewide.
These states reject the unaccountable, broken Oregon model. They reject the Marxist idea that American capitalism causes homelessness, and that only far-left activism can fix it. Instead, they are ushering in a new era in homeless policy, where accountability is king. They won’t be the last to do so.