Judge Glock joins Brian C. Anderson to discuss states’ and cities’ efforts to remove homeless encampments from public spaces.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is a guest who’s been on before, Judge Glock. Judge is the director of research and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. He studies economics, finance, and housing with a perspective informed by his broader study of economic history. Judge has written important essays for City Journal on taxes, homelessness, and economic regulation, and his work has been featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other publications. He’s the author of The Dead Pledge: The Origins of the Mortgage Market and Federal Bailouts, 1913 to 1939. Today, though, we’re going to discuss his recent essay, “End of the Encampments?” which appears in our summer issue and looks at states’ and cities’ efforts to remove urban homeless dwellings in public spaces. So, Judge, great to have you on the show again. Thanks for joining us.

Judge Glock: Thank you for having me back, Brian.                           

Brian Anderson: So first question. Homeless encampments have been a point of growing contention in urban and, increasingly, suburban communities across the country for several years now, maybe going back a decade. Large encampments, sometimes comprising dozens, even hundreds, in some cases of tents, crowded sidewalks, parks, other public spaces—these are posing health and safety risks to local residents, business owners, and passersby. And these encampments are known also to be generators of crime and drug use, lack of sanitation, infrastructure. There are enormous problems with these structures, I guess you could call them. As little as two decades ago, the encampments were really unknown in American cities. So when and how exactly did they begin to pop up everywhere?

Judge Glock: Yeah, it is a little bit mystifying, and for those of your listeners who remember American cities in the 1980s, the ‘90s, or even the early 2000s when many American cities throughout that period were in very dire shape, even at that point, you would be tough to remember or think of any large encampments existing in those cities. The idea that a large number of people could set up tents on sidewalks and parks and just kind of exist there indefinitely was certainly foreign to American cities until, as you noted, barely a decade or so ago.

Basically, a lot of cities began to encourage, or at the very least, allow these encampments to spread, under the assumption that to remove people’s property or tents from the parks or sidewalks would be cruel and unusual, that short-term shelter was not an sufficient alternative to these encampments, and that eventually the only way to solve homelessness was to provide all of these chronically and long-term unsheltered individuals with permanent housing or the Housing First model as it was known. So a lot of cities began to allow it to spread. And as I’ve noted before, these have become very pervasive parts of American urban life and they’ve been incredible generators of crime, of death, among the homeless and among people around them. And they’ve also obviously had a massive impact on the quality of life in these cities.

Brian Anderson: Homeless activists in many of these cities have called on residents to view those living in the tents as their “unhoused neighbors.” They’ve scolded those who’ve objected to homeless encampments as bigots, as you were just alluding to. Many Americans adopted the view that these unsheltered people had no other option but to live on the street, and they should be allowed thus to camp wherever they want to camp basically. But in recent years, citizens, politicians, they’re starting to push back against this. They’ve taken some steps to pass or enforce existing laws against the encampments. So I guess it’s easy to understand what caused the public opinion to turn, people don’t want to see these encampments in their environment, but I wonder if you could give a rundown of some of these new encampment laws, anti-encampment laws, which states and cities are really trying to implement. Are they working?

Judge Glock: Yeah. So just to move back at least one step. As you mentioned, a lot of the activists and homeless advocates will claim that these camps aren’t dangers, that they’re really not an impact on the quality of life in the cities they exist in, but anyone with a lick of sense understands that’s not true. And not too long ago, Los Angeles admitted that about 15 percent of all the violent crime in the city involved about the 1 percent of the population that was homeless, and almost a quarter of all murder victims in the city were homeless, again among that 1 percent. And that was overwhelmingly not in the shelters, that was overwhelmingly out in the camps that are existing on the streets and parks and sidewalks of Los Angeles as they are elsewhere.

So yes, people begun to push back. They certainly saw an explosion of encampments during the pandemic, partially because the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, claimed that cities should not break up encampments, as they claimed it was a pandemic reduction measure, that if you broke up encampments somehow that could cause the virus to spread. And many cities listened to them. But thankfully most citizens realized this was absurd and as the encampments exploded during the pandemic and afterwards, they began to push back.

Now, in my article I mention Austin, Texas, my hometown, where in 2019, a unanimous city council actually repealed the ban on street camping in the city. Immediately you saw an almost 40 percent jump in the city in unsheltered homeless and a reduction of the number of people in shelters. So it was an almost immediate disaster that was exacerbated during the pandemic. But by 2021, you saw almost 60 percent of the population vote to reinstate the camping ban. And you saw the state of Texas require local cities to enforce their own camping bans and pass a statewide ban on camping on public land.

So other states have followed up. Missouri recently passed laws against public camping. Georgia passed a law just this year against public camping. Tennessee did not too long ago as well. And lots of cities, like San Diego, not two months ago, recently very close vote in the city council there by five to four, voted to ban public camps in the city. Basically, citizens everywhere from red states and blue cities and across the country realize that having large encampments of dangerous individuals often, people who often have severe problems with mental illness and drug addiction, is not a way to have a thriving city. And more and more people everywhere are pushing back.

Brian Anderson: You mentioned San Diego. The West Coast has seen the worst of this encampment crisis, thanks in part to the 2018 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Martin v. City of Boise that cities can’t enforce public camping bans without providing shelter space for each person sleeping on the streets. So this ruling basically prevented cities in the jurisdiction that it covers from restricting the growth of encampments. But San Diego has just passed this local measure banning them. Some cities are using the courts to push back on this ruling. I wonder where that stands and how can states and cities in the Ninth Circuit enforce public camping bans while at the same time complying with this decision?

Judge Glock: Yes, this mildly absurd decision from the Ninth Circuit, City of Boise v. Martin that you mentioned, basically said, “Unless you could provide shelter for everybody that’s unsheltered in the street, you cannot enforce camping bans against anybody.” There was a recent further follow-on decision, Grants Pass, that seemed to cement some of this idea into law.

Now, luckily, the cities in the Ninth Circuit, after seeing an explosion of encampments and unsheltered homelessness in the years after the first ruling, have realized that they have to come up with some sort of alternative. So Las Vegas just a few years ago passed a new law after the City of Boise ruling that required enforcement of anti-encampment laws downtown and residential areas. And to make sure they were abiding by the ruling, they set up this or expanded this courtyard homeless resource center that allows—an open-air place next to some of their shelter and service capacity—that allows people to camp, and they keep a daily running toll to show that there’s always sufficient space there, to show that they can always enforce the camping laws out on the streets.

San Diego is promising to set up sanctioned encampments, areas that are going to be policed and with service provision where people can camp, but ideally in a much safer situation than out in the parks. Portland, Oregon, long a famous poster child of the homeless crisis in America, recently voted to ban street camping in the city, and the Mayor, Ted Wheeler, is promising to set up several of these sanctioned encampment spots outside the city. Again, this allows them to comply with that Ninth Circuit ruling. It provides them an alternative without going into the full complete, “We’re building a long-term shelter or we’re spending tens of millions of dollars on a big structure that will take years to build.” They realize waiting for those for years and years is going to be unacceptable, so you need to have these more short-term measures in place. But it’s beginning to take effect. So you’re seeing places like Las Vegas see some reductions in unsheltered homeless, unlike a lot of the Ninth Circuit, and hopefully these other cities will follow through with their new laws.

Brian Anderson: The activists, the homelessness activists, argue, as we said, that the encampments should be allowed in public spaces until every unsheltered person receives some kind of subsidized permanent housing. But as you just noted, even if municipal governments embrace this premise as a solution to the problem, it would take them years, perhaps even decades, to put in place a full-scale subsidized housing program. Yet meanwhile, there are all sorts of people dying in the U.S. each year who are living on the streets. So what is the primary reason we’re seeing so many deaths among the homeless, a number that’s rising? Is this a consequence of drug use? Is it murderous, as in L.A., as you noted? What other alternatives are there that might improve this crisis?

Judge Glock: Yeah, so it is overwhelmingly problems around drug abuse and violent crime. So, yes, I already noted the number of homicide victims who are homeless in Los Angeles, but if you look at the other causes of death in that city, drug abuse is the most common, drug and alcohol overdoses or poisoning is the most common. But you see a lot of other causes of death that are clearly indicative of someone who either has a severe mental illness or is on drugs, such as being hit by cars out in traffic, large number of people being hit by cars and walking out into the middle of the street. In some cities like San Francisco, you just have the overwhelming majority of deaths being drug abuse. In Phoenix, you have over 700 deaths of homeless individuals a year, and drug abuse is the number one cause among those people who are dying out there.

So to tell a lot of people in these cities, “Not only will you have to wait years or maybe decades for all of this free and permanent housing to go up, in the meantime you will have to deal with these camps indefinitely, and the homeless will have to suffer hundreds or most likely thousands upon thousands of deaths in that period.” And again, people are realizing that’s not acceptable. In Phoenix, there was a lawsuit against the city that a judge issued a preliminary ruling just a few months ago that I participated in as a witness where the city said, “It’s a public nuisance to have a large encampment in your downtown.” Cities have been sued for abetting or allowing public nuisances for much less, but having hundreds of people in tents with garbage and human waste out of the streets is clearly a public nuisance. And you’re also seeing some other cities being subjected to lawsuits for having basically these large unsanitary and dangerous encampments where you’re having murder and drug abuse run rampant.

So, they know the homeless activists are not willing to wrestle with that fact that even in their sort of ideal world of providing subsidized housing for everybody, you’re just going to have these thousands upon thousands of deaths for years or decades.

Brian Anderson: Is there a role for policing in addressing this problem?

Judge Glock: There has to be. Now, most of the time in the states that have passed these laws, they usually allow a warning before a violation of any anti-camping ordinance. And when you look at how they’re actually enforced, they very rarely result in arrest. I think in Austin, in the first year after the encampment ordinance was put back in place, there was a solitary arrest, and it was someone who basically refused shelter and every possible alternative.

So the police need to be out there, and that means telling people that they have to move on, telling people that there are alternatives ideally available, either some of the existing shelter beds that are often going unused, or that they can have these alternatives such as the sanctioned camping spots or open air shelters and so forth. They need the penalty in place if they’re going to tell people to move. It can’t be just an absolute request and recommendation because obviously otherwise they wouldn’t be listened to.

But in those cities where they put the laws in place, you do see reductions in public camping and the unsheltered population, and again, very few arrests, but that’s the result of good policing, going out there and making sure people move to a safer situation.

Brian Anderson: A final question, Judge. We’re coming up to a presidential campaign. This seems to be primarily a state and local issue, but is there a federal argument that might come into play here?

Judge Glock: Yes, The Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Biden has been discouraging cities from enforcing camping bans and clearing up encampments unless, again, basically they provide everyone permanent housing or some sort of alternative to that. There is little the federal government can do about these existing encampments on the ground or the enforcement against them, but they certainly can change the current model of the Housing First sole focus on permanent supportive housing.

If the federal government can refocus on emergency shelter, transitional housing, you’ll have a lot more of those spaces open up, which will help cities move people off of the streets and into those more secure locations. But if the federal government continues to focus solely on creating large permanent housing projects and hoping that the only long-term cure for the chronically homeless is this permanent subsidized housing, then cities are just going to have less options to enforce, and they’re going to have more trouble taking those measures that are going to get people off the streets. So ideally, a next presidential administration could return the focus more on treatment services, transitional housing and shelter, as opposed to these kind of no-requirements permanent subsidized housing units.

Brian Anderson: Well, thank you very much, Judge Glock. Don’t forget to check out Judge’s work. It’s on the City Journal website, www.city-journal.org. We’ll link to his author page in the description, and you can find him on X, as it’s now called, @JudgeGlock. The piece we’re talking about is called the “End of the Encampments?” and it appears in our most recent issue. You can also find City Journal on X @cityjournal and on Instagram, @cityjournal_mi. And as I usually say, if you like what you’ve heard on today’s podcast, please give us a nice rating on iTunes. Judge Glock, thank you very much.

Judge Glock: Thank you so much for having me.

Photo: 400tmax/iStock

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