Georgia takes a stand on homelessness policy

The United States has a homelessness problem, but we have an even bigger homelessness policy problem. It’s a problem at the federal level — HUD spends nearly $10 billion annually creating bad incentives that reward poverty — and at the state and local levels. Two very different government approaches to homelessness were showcased this week.

In Oregon, state lawmakers wanted to give homeless people the right to camp on public property and sue up to $1,000 if their tents are disturbed. This may seem an extreme example to some, but unfortunately it is typical of homelessness policies that are largely controlled by a national activist movement. This movement, made up of thousands of service providers, is unaccountable and has failed to make meaningful improvements for the homeless while siphoning more and more money from taxpayers. In some cases, these groups have become urban political machines in their own right, with incentives to see more homeless people on the streets because it means more public funding for them. States like Oregon are happy to play along.

However, the state of Georgia is not. On Wednesday, Gov. Brian Kemp signed SB 62 into law, which will upend the status quo of 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 politics, with policymakers declaring their independence from failed approaches — and from the activists and bureaucrats who have fomented anarchy in so many of our big cities. Individual states may lack the ability to fix all of the flawed incentives imposed by Washington DC, but they can make a difference in their own states.

Our model legislation has several main 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 housing to the homeless with no obligation for treatment or sobriety. Studies show that it takes between 10 and 20 housing units to get a chronically homeless person off the street. It should come as no surprise that when the homeless are offered free housing, no questions asked, some people become “homeless” to take advantage. Due to widespread mental health and addiction problems, many return to homelessness even after being given a home.

In San Francisco, permanent supportive housing is one such failed program. In one case, the city found that a quarter of those who got vacant housing died within a few years, many from drug overdoses. The federal government and states like California endorse this nonsense, but other states should make different choices. For example, you can provide funds for treatment and emergency shelter.

Second, camping on sidewalks and in public parks should not be allowed — much less protected and encouraged, as Oregon lawmakers intend to do. These camps, where drugs and violence are rampant, are dangerous to the public and deadly to the homeless themselves. It is unreasonable to allow them to grow. Instead, states should require people to obtain services, shelter, or safer alternatives. If necessary, states can set up sanctioned and monitored camps with the necessary services – outside the public space.

Third, states should link funding for NGO service providers to outcomes. In many cases, homeless “charities” are politically active activist organizations that harass executives so they can rake in money through contracts. In extreme cases, they use funds intended to help the homeless to fund protests against new legislation like ours.

When my friend and former colleague Judge Glock, research director at the Manhattan Institute and still on the staff of Cicero, was testifying in Kansas, dozens of activists turned up to make a scene in the committee room. Activists have a direct financial interest in current policies: if lawmakers adopt accountability models, they could be out of work.

The public expects transparency, accountability and results from these groups; Our legislation requires this. Under SB 62, homeless service providers funded with state or local funds in Georgia are subject to a performance review to link funding to outcomes.

Nowadays, it is mainly the red states that are taking action against the activists. But even in deep blue Denver, voters had to choose from a bevy of Democratic mayoral candidates, nearly all of whom supported criminal charges for homeless people who refuse available housing. Both candidates in the city’s June runoff support evictions from camps, and 54 percent of Denver voters say they support a proposal to arrest those who refuse shelter.

That’s a big change – especially on the left side. When the public faces such a visible and obvious crisis, not everyone follows the party line. In our own city of Austin, left-leaning voters blamed the even more left-leaning city council and mayor for homelessness. After lawmakers lifted the city’s long-standing camping ban and invited the homeless to camp downtown, voters voted by nearly 20 percentage points to reinstate the ban in 2021.

The number of homeless people in Portland, Oregon has increased by more than 50 percent since 2019. Meanwhile, the city’s overall population has declined. As the homeless flock, residents flee – because of bad politics.

Defying the homeless industry is not always easy for elected politicians. Many choose to play along rather than be publicly defamed as cruel or heartless. In Georgia, however, things are different: SB 62 was passed with support from members of both parties. Last year, Missouri also passed legislation based on Cicero’s model of accountability. And Texas and Tennessee have banned street camping statewide.

These states reject the irresponsible, broken Oregon model. They reject the Marxist idea that American capitalism causes homelessness and that only far-left activism can fix the problem. Instead, they herald a new era in homelessness policy that puts accountability first. You won’t be the last to do it.

Photo: pstivers68/iStock


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