Many Americans think that homelessness is a problem confined to coastal states, but the issue is becoming prominent in Texas as well. Since 2017, the number of people in the state living outside—the “unsheltered homeless”—has increased by 50 percent. About 10,500 Texans now live, and all too often die, on the streets. One reason why: many Texas cities have condoned, or even encouraged, street camping and sleeping.
Voters from both parties find this unacceptable. A large, bipartisan majority of Austin residents reinstated the city’s camping and sleeping ban last month. The Texas legislature just passed a statewide ban on camping with overwhelming majorities.
Most homeless advocates oppose camping bans. They argue that the government should provide every homeless person with permanent housing before forcing anyone off the streets. But the evidence shows that there’s no reason to delay: camping bans improve the lives of the homeless by helping them find the shelters and services they need.
After Los Angeles cleared its notorious Skid Row in 2006, the number of street deaths and overdoses dropped by more than half. A 2010 study by Richard Berk and John MacDonald showed that the campaign also led to a 40 percent reduction in violent crime, with no spillover effects into other communities.
We know that enforcing camping bans encourages more people to get their lives together. When Colorado Springs enacted a camping ban in 2010, the city had about 600 homeless people on the streets. By the end of the ban’s first year, about 160 homeless individuals had been reunited with their families, 35 had been encouraged to go into rehabilitation programs for drugs and alcohol, 80 had moved into subsidized housing, and 150 had found jobs. Robert Holmes, head of the local nonprofit Homeward Pikes Peak, called the ban “an absolute success” because “we decreased chronic homelessness by two-thirds in seven-and-a-half months. . . . Four hundred and thirty-five people became self-sufficient.”
It’s also clear what happens when cities repeal camping bans. When L.A. changed its mind and ended its ban in 2014, the city saw homeless deaths more than double, to about 1,400 a year. After Austin repealed its ban in 2019, the city saw a 45 percent increase in unsheltered homelessness. Though some advocates claimed that the homeless were just more visible, they did not explain why the number of homeless in shelters dropped by 20 percent during the same period. The only reasonable conclusion is that people were leaving safe environments for dangerous streets.
Nothing good came from the movement from shelters to the street. The number of deaths among Austin’s homeless was 77 just a decade ago but rose to 184 in 2019, the year the camping ban ended, and to 256 in 2020 (almost none of which was Covid-related). After 2019, the city also endured double-digit increases in violent crimes in which both the criminal and victim were homeless.
The sad truth is that individuals on the street simply aren’t in any condition to seek help on their own. A recent UCLA study confirmed what most people already know: namely, that 75 percent of unsheltered homeless have a severe mental disorder, and 75 percent have an alcohol or drug addiction; the majority have both. Allowing people suffering a mental-health crisis or debilitating addiction to live on the street almost ensures their eventual arrest or death.
Most people working in homeless services agree that large percentages of the unsheltered are what they call “service resistant,” and the data bear them out. Surveys of homeless-encampment residents found that up to 75 percent said they would not go willingly into shelters. Larger percentages said that if the camps were closed, they would just move away.
Yet Austin doesn’t seem to be taking votes on camping bans seriously. The city won’t begin enforcing the ban until August. A recent city proposal also suggested 45 places that could accommodate sanctioned camps, including many public parks—a practice now illegal under state law. In fact, the Esperanza Community, a state-sanctioned camping site set up near the city, shows that one large site, appropriately distanced from residential areas, would be sufficient after illegal camping places have been cleared. Though such sanctioned camping is not ideal, it’s better than allowing unsanctioned camping everywhere.
While politicians are reluctant to enforce camping bans, voters everywhere support them. Even San Francisco, home to some of America’s most left-wing voters, approved a camping ban in a 2016 referendum, though lawsuits and city council opposition have prevented the city from enforcing it. When Denver held a public referendum on a camping ban in 2018, 85 percent of voters supported it. Residents know that in dense urban areas, allowing individuals to use public space however they choose is a recipe for disaster.
My neighborhood has experienced this disaster. In the short time since I moved to South Austin, a homeless encampment has sprouted in the park directly behind my house. Five individuals—David, Linda, Richard, Kaylee, and Adam—lived there at one point. (One of the campers reports that Adam recently got arrested, for a second time, for holding a large quantity of drugs, and he has not returned. His fiancé Kaylee has followed.) I talk to them regularly, since they can hear me from my back porch, and vice versa. I have never been uncivil and have tried to help them. Yet their campsite has fires, human waste, garbage, and unleashed dogs. They have chopped down trees and bushes in the park. Between them, they have seven tents, three of which are “storage tents,” as they call them, to keep ever-accumulating piles of dangerous and unsanitary material, including a chain saw, piles of empty paint cans, and propane tanks. Before the camping-ban vote, a representative of the park service said that the city couldn’t do anything about the camp until America solved its “housing and addiction crises.” Another city official said that the campers were permitted to light fires “for warmth and cooking,” despite the obvious risk.
Encouraging people to camp in public places is not healthy for them or for their communities. Texas and its voters have a right to demand that the norms of civilization be enforced in public spaces and streets. If local city councils, for whatever reason, refuse to enforce these norms, the state and its voters can make them do so. Getting homeless Texans off the streets and into shelters is in the best interest of these cities and of the homeless themselves.
Photo by Montinique Monroe/Getty Images