In a referendum last week, the idea that vagrancy should be legalized was shot down by a resounding 83 percent of Denver voters.
The more that progressive policies have failed to address the homelessness problem in urban areas, the more that progressives are doubling down on bad solutions.
Take Denver. The Mile High City presented voters last week with Issue 300. It was placed on the ballot by advocates for the homeless who wanted to legalize “camping” in parks and in vehicles on city streets, including in front of homes and local businesses. This was too much for voters, even in a city that gave Donald Trump only 19 percent of the vote in 2016. The idea of legalizing vagrancy was shot down by a resounding 83 percent of local voters.
Liberal mayor Michael Hancock said the city had dodged making a bad situation worse. Noting that tent cities had already begun already sprouting up in parks and alleyways, he maintained that “300 would have created an unsanitary problem for the homeless and for Denver residents.”
But that doesn’t mean the courts elsewhere aren’t stepping in to impose what voters rejected. Last September, the notoriously liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that officials in Boise, Idaho, had violated the Eighth Amendment rights of the homeless when they issued citations for sleeping or camping in public. In 2015, the Obama Justice Department backed a lawsuit against the Boise anti-vagrancy laws, arguing that “if a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”
But it’s not as if cities aren’t already spending vast amounts on the homeless. In 2017, the Puget Sound Business Journal in Seattle reported that Seattle-area governments were spending $1.06 billion a year on programs for homeless people. “Having failed to build enough shelters for the growing numbers of homeless, the activists will soon be back with a rock-stupid big-government solution — and all they’ll need to implement it is a massive amount of taxpayer funding,” says John Carlson, a Seattle radio talk-show host.
Peter Droege is a former executive director of Step 13, an innovative homeless shelter in Denver. “What these activists do not understand is that people struggling with homelessness, mental health issues, or addiction do not want to be enabled in their behavior,” he wrote last month in the Washington Examiner. “Nor do they need greater access to drugs or alcohol. What they need is community support and supportive services that require them to be accountable and self-sufficient.”
When I first toured Step 13 some 20 years ago, it was an eye-opening experience. The late Bob Cote, a homeless man who picked himself up off the streets and founded Step 13, had a high success rate in rehabilitating people with his “no drugs, no booze, find a job” program. “My biggest adversaries are government homeless shelters that don’t ask people to do anything for themselves, and Social Security Disability programs that allow people to continue the same mistakes they’ve been making,” he told me. Cote was constantly battling local bureaucrats who oversaw homelessness issues. It’s one reason he would not accept government money, or the strings that came with it.
Every homeless person has a different story, and some are truly down on their luck through no fault of their own. But most are mired in a cycle of behavior that they refuse to change. I once reported on an effort in San Francisco to encourage pedestrians and tourists to hand out coupons instead of money to the homeless. The coupons were redeemable for many things: a free meal, clothing, haircuts, and laundromat services. Over the course of several days, I tried to distribute such coupons myself and met rejection about 80 percent of the time. Cash was what homeless people wanted — and for you know what.
Allowing people to remain mired in problems involving mental illness, drugs, or alcohol affects the wider community. In Seattle, Scott Lindsay, a former public-safety adviser to the mayor’s office, has written a new report called “System Failure.” He found that a mere 100 “prolific offenders” among the homeless are responsible for more than 3,500 criminal cases. Often they are released from jail the same day they are taken in.
“We need help, I have businesses broken into every single night,” says Erin Goodman, head of a local Seattle Business Improvement Area. “Something has to change.” Goodman says crime is up 31 percent this year in her area because of the “prolific offenders.”
There are options out there. Rhode Island has had great success with its Medically Assisted Treatment (MAT) program, which blends punishment with treatment, managing to keep most addicts from straying into old alliances and bad habits. Several people in the MAT program say that jail, accompanied by treatment, saved their lives. Rhode Island authorities are hosting a two-day workshop at the end of the month for cities around the country that have asked about it. But progressive Seattle can’t be bothered and isn’t sending anyone. The city attorney, Pete Holmes told a local podcast that the Seattle’s problems are caused in part by its failure to impose a new city income tax.
Last month, Michael Gordon, a former vice president for grants at the San Francisco–based Thiel Foundation, wrote in NRO that a walk through his city is a sobering experience:
You notice homeless men and women — junkies, winos, the dispossessed — passed out in the vestibules of empty storefronts on otherwise busy streets. Encampments of tents sprout in every shadowy corner: under highway overpasses, down alleys. Streets are peppered with used syringes. Strolling the sidewalks, you smell the faint malodorous traces of human excrement and soiled clothing. Crowded thoroughfares such as Market Street, even in the light of midday, stage a carnival of indecipherable outbursts and drug-induced thrashings about which the police seem to do nothing.
The confused mumble, the incoherent finger-pointing tirade, the twitch, the cold daemonic stare, the drunken stumble and drool — these are the rhythms of a city on the edge of a schizophrenic explosion.
Whatever cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Denver have been doing isn’t working.
Finding the right balance between compassion and personal responsibility in homelessness policy is incredibly difficult. Simply spending money on more apartments for the homeless only attracts more homeless and breeds corruption. Demanding that people get off drugs and alcohol and on to any prescribed medication they have invites howls of outrage and civil-rights lawsuits.
That’s why it’s noteworthy that the citizens of liberal Denver finally said “Enough” to liberal plans to broaden the right of homeless people to live on city streets. It’s now time for reformers to realize that the public is yearning for answers and to propose tough-love solutions that address the root cause of the homeless problem, rather than sentimentalize it.