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End of the Encampments?

Judge Glock at City Journal

Photo by Nathan Dumlao / Unsplash

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liberal Austin, Texas, in 2021, when voters overwhelmingly reinstated a camping ban that the city council had recently repealed.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.

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