Some of the least fortunate among us are homeless. One would assume that this generous government would do its utmost to take care of them, lending a helping hand to put roofs over their heads, and doing its best to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place.
The reality is a whole other story entirely. Not only are government policies putting more people out on the streets, but they are systematically creating an economic and legal environment that does immense harm to those who cannot afford housing.
Don’t believe me? A 2011 report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty which analyzed 234 cities across the US found that:
- 40 percent prohibit “camping” in particular public places, while 16 percent prohibit “camping” citywide;
- 33 percent prohibit sitting/lying in particular public places;
- 56 percent prohibit loitering in particular public places, while 22 percent prohibit loitering citywide; and
- 53 percent prohibit begging in particular public places, while 53 percent prohibit “aggressive” panhandling and 24 percent prohibit begging citywide.
And these laws aren’t just empty threats; plenty of real damage has come from them. Survey participants had been arrested, cited, or both, for the following:
- Public urination/defecation: 73 percent of respondents;
- Camping/sleeping in public: 55 percent of respondents;
- Loitering: 55 percent of respondents;
- Panhandling: 53 percent of respondents;
- Public storage of belongings: 20 percent of respondents; and
- Sidewalk-sitting: 19 percent of respondents.
Most of these people were then robbed by the very state that claims to look after their best interests, through what they euphemistically call “fines” or “tickets”.
In 62% of these cities, respondents claimed that there were police sweeps to push homeless people towards the outskirts of the city, most of them unannounced. In many cases, police will seize the limited possessions that they find during these sweeps.
Unfortunately, it’s not easy for homeless people to find affordable housing. In 2009, affordable housing units were available to only 32% of extremely low income individuals, and 42% of all affordable housing for these individuals were occupied by high-income renters. In other words, those who can afford housing have displaced those who can’t in the market for cheap rents.
And we’re really just scratching the surface with these statistics. Let’s take a look at how governments across the US and at all levels are systematically making life worse for the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.
Note: I encourage you to read the articles I’ve linked out to. Many of them show that the situation is in fact worse than I am describing here.
In cities across the US, there are laws on the books that specifically target homeless people. These laws have a variety of “justifications”, but are primarily done to make the city look nicer and sweep the homelessness problem under the rug. Wealthier individuals, the ones who can bring more investment into a city, don’t like seeing homeless people around, so city officials have catered to their “needs” and made living in the city as challenging as possible for the homeless.
How have they managed to do this? All manner of laws, either specifically designed to target the homeless, or just selectively enforced, are used to criminalize homelessness. Here are some of the more obvious examples, although I’m sure there are plenty more:
Illegal to sleep in cars. In a huge number of cities, local governments have made it illegal to sleep in a car. Many homeless people do have a car, and it is a huge asset to them because it gives them a shelter to sleep in and a place to keep their stuff. It also gives them a mode of transportation such that they have more opportunities for traveling to work. Unfortunately, these homeless people are targets of government theft any time they try to shield themselves from the elements.
Not only do these laws hurt the homeless, but they lead to some twisted incentives. For example, this woman was arrested for not wanting to drive drunk. Considering how fatigue is the #2 (and drunkenness the #3) cause of car accidents, you’d think our “protectors” would want to reward people for having the foresight to sleep in their car. Instead, being responsible may cause you to spend the night in a jail cell.
Squatting laws. It’s not uncommon to see abandoned buildings. If a property is legitimately abandoned, then it is un-owned, and a candidate for homesteading. Of course, if the owner intended to return (in which case, it isn’t abandoned), “squatting” would be trespassing, an actual property crime. But in many places, particularly publicly “owned” and unused land, this is not the case.
If some homeless people find an abandoned building, they have every right to use it as a shelter. But the majority of cities have made this illegal, and police will sweep through these areas, pushing the homeless out and stealing their (limited) stuff! And then of course, that building will continue to go unused for years while the government decides what inefficient way to use it.
Consider Umoja Village in Miami, where homeless people created their own shanty town society on a vacant lot. About 50 people made Umoja their (drug and alcohol free) home, despite the government’s repeated attempts to shut it down. After an accidental fire, the city used it as a pretense to seize that land and make 11 arrests.
Prohibitions on camping. In Ashland, Oregon, for instance, it is illegal to “camp” in any public spaces. Being caught leads to having possessions seized, and up to 48 hours of community service. Really, community service? Do lawmakers not see the irony of this? If homeless people aren’t even allowed to sleep outdoors, then where can they go?
But wait, it gets worse! In Pensacola, Florida, it is illegal to cover oneself with blankets, cardboard, or newspapers in public.
“Quality of life” ordinances. These are laws that tend to be related to hygiene. The most well known of these laws are ones against public urination, but there are many others as well. Take this list from Cleveland, which includes such non-crimes as “unlawful congregation”, feeding birds, and being outside past “curfew”. Some of these laws are well intentioned, but they are vague enough to be twisted in ways that police can easily fabricate an excuse to target the homeless. It’s not hard to imagine a man picking through trash to be construed as “feeding the birds”.
But the public urination laws are, in my opinion, the worst of the bunch. Even homeless people need to go to the bathroom. Yes, the world would be a nicer place if we didn’t have piss-soaked alleys, but that’s just the way it is (perhaps if government economic policy wasn’t so harmful to the poor, this would be less of an issue; more on that later). And since public urination is grounds to be given sex offender status, government agents have “lawful authority” to permanently ruin a homeless person’s life, several times per day.
Open container laws. Most people probably think of open container laws as a nuisance that stopped them from drinking on the streets in college. Their stated purpose is to prevent the non-crime of “public intoxication”. Of course, this is used disproportionately against the homeless. In Key West, for example, the law is selectively enforced so that tourists tend to not be targeted.
Begging is prohibited. Among the more absurd of these laws, prohibiting begging is quite clearly intended solely to force homeless people to leave the city or else (in tandem with laws against feeding the homeless) starve to death. Due to acts of economic warfare against the poor such as the minimum wage, most homeless people have no way to make money except for panhandling. If laws like these don’t convince Americans of the gross inhumanity of government, I don’t know what will.
Prohibitions on loitering and sitting in public places. Again, these laws are designed to push homeless people outside of the cities in which they reside. These laws are so vague and have such a wide scope that selective enforcement is rather simple. Luckily, many court cases have challenged the constitutionality of these laws. Of course, rational people should be challenging the morality of them. Some people are. For example, angry residents protested a law that would have made sitting on the sidewalk illegal in Portland.
Laws against jaywalking. Here’s yet another non-crime being banned in order to steal from the public, and disproportionately the homeless. In Los Angeles, it is illegal to use a crosswalk when the red light is flashing, even though it has a countdown. This is a $197 infraction! Sure, jaywalking is not as overtly targeted against the homeless as other laws on this list, but the hefty fines are used to destroy their lives and their chances of getting themselves on their feet.
Banning homelessness. Admittedly, this is not widespread (yet), but in Columbia, South Carolina, it is outright illegal to be homeless within city limits. The law mandates that the homeless must either check into a homeless shelter outside of the city, leave town, or get thrown in jail. Well, at least they can go to the homeless shelter! Oh wait, it only has 240 beds, and Columbia has 1500 homeless people.
Perhaps you are reading this and thinking that some of these laws don’t sound too bad. And for most people, they aren’t (beyond the fact that all laws are merely threats of violence). But the combination of all these laws, plus escalating court costs, creates a trap for the homeless and poor. Go ahead and read the following two articles before returning to this post:
There’s no way I can explain it better than those articles, but for those of you who don’t have the time to go through them, I’ll summarize the main points.
Court costs are being increasingly borne by the defendants. This means that the poor are being squeezed financially more and more as they get robbed from by the state for victimless “crimes”. These “fines” (“armed robbery” when done by a civilian rather than a government functionary) can then lead to a form of debt slavery for poor people who can’t make payments on it. Many then go to jail.
But it’s not just laws that harm homeless people. There is also an attempt by the state to make the lives of the homeless as challenging as possible in general. For example, in Manteca, California, the city turns sprinklers on in parks at night so the homeless can’t sleep there. And in numerous locations, including Sarasota, Florida, the city is removing benches in order to prevent homeless people from congregating.
Finally, there is the rash of police beatings of homeless people. The most high profile of recent cases was that of Kelly Thomas, who was beaten to death by a group of police officers using a taser and a baton, literally, for no reason. The whole affair was caught on video (Warning: graphic and disturbing), and yet the police officers got acquitted. I wish I could say this was an isolated occurrence, but it’s not.
Economic Sanctions Against The Homeless
Besides the direct criminalization of homelessness, the government is also systematically launching an economic war against the less fortunate. It’s beyond the scope of this article to discuss all the ways in which the government screws over the poor, but I will touch upon some of the most egregious.
Criminalizing Charity and Food Sharing
Governments are doing everything they can to make sure that homeless people will starve to death if they don’t get out of their cities.
Yes, that is a bold statement. But it’s true. Many cities have made it illegal to feed the homeless, both on a small scale and in larger charitable events. Of course, this is always done with their “best interests at heart”, in order to prevent someone from giving out contaminated food.
In New York City, former mayor Michael Bloomberg outlawed donating meals to homeless shelters because they could not assess the salt, fat, and fiber content of the food. Because I’m sure that’s exactly what the homeless are concerned about. “I haven’t had a meal in 36 hours, but this food has half a gram too much sodium. What if I get hypertension?!”
What kind of monstrous psychopaths would enact laws like this?
To get a true feel for the scope of this heinous immorality, I suggest skimming through this 2010 report from the National Coalition for the Homeless. Local governments use numerous kinds of regulations, such as requiring a permit to serve food, limiting the number of people who can be served, and imposing zoning restrictions against charitable groups.
It’s not just food sharing restrictions either. Building codes and zoning laws make it harder for charities and shelters to operate. For example, in Lorain, Ohio, a shelter was shut down for not passing fire inspection. Again, the noble intention is being used to justify an act of horrible immorality. Sure, there might be more risk in a fire, but the homeless people were choosing to stay there voluntarily. The fact that they had been operating for two years while in known violation of the fire code shows just how arbitrary the enforcement of these laws are.
The Rent is Too Damn High!
There is also a more indirect, but equally nefarious means of economic warfare that the government is waging upon the homeless, as well as the poor in general. Government economic policy (aka, threats and intimidation against those would interact with each other on a voluntary basis) both drastically increases the cost of housing as well as makes it more challenging for people to lift themselves out of poverty.
Why is it so hard to find affordable housing in America’s cities?
One of the greatest economic sanctions against the poor comes disguised specifically as a way to help (as usual). The stated intent of rent control policies is to keep the prices of housing down (by threatening with violence those who would charge rents above a certain arbitrary price) so that people with lower incomes can afford to live in a home for a “reasonable” price without “exploitation”.
And, as usual, this government policy causes significant harm to precisely those who, at least on the surface, it is designed to help. The actual effect of rent control policies is a shortage of adequate housing. These policies lead to decreased investment and a deterioration of housing quality. It causes existing homes to be converted into luxury apartments, condos, and office space so that landlords can charge a higher price. Because of this, rent controls actually lead to higher housing costs in sectors not covered under these laws (in addition to the shortages in the sectors that are covered).
By decreasing the availability and quality of low-income housing, rent control leads to more people out on the streets. With a near zero vacancy rate in low-income housing, those who are homeless would need enough money to afford the now higher priced, non-controlled housing units before they could find a place to live. As Assar Lindbeck said, bombing is the only thing that can destroy a city more effectively than rent control. Don’t believe him? Go here, and try to guess which images are of bombings and which are rent control. It’s not easy.
For example, some laws prohibit people who are not blood or marriage-related from sharing a home. Building codes usually limit the number of residents who can live in a given apartment or building. This eliminates one of the most obvious ways for poor people to get a roof over their head. If a handful of homeless people could band together and chip in a smaller amount, they could live in a real, albeit cramped, apartment.
Not only that, but the many regulations regarding plumbing, electricity, safety, etc., while well-intentioned, drastically increase the cost of housing. Not only does it cost a lot of money to abide by these regulations, but they also become barriers to entry, resulting in less housing investment as well as decreased competition among construction companies. In fact, government regulations make up about 25% of the final cost of a new home.
The difference between high rent areas and low rent areas in the US is almost entirely explained by the zoning laws in the high cost areas. Since 1970, the increase in housing prices is mostly due to the difficulty in obtaining regulatory approval to build new homes. The fact is, cities with high regulation costs are not responsive to demand for new housing construction.
One of the most evil zoning laws I’ve ever heard is in Madison, Wisconsin (and also Washington D.C.), where it is illegal for a building to be taller than the Capitol building. This drastically decreases the amount of available housing, thus increasing its price. Anyone walking around downtown will notice the huge number of homeless people here. It is inexcusable that in a city with a population of only 250 thousand, nearly 3500 people will be spending a night in a shelter per year, and over a thousand students in the school district don’t have a home. If more housing units were available, there would be far fewer homeless people.
And then of course, there’s “eminent domain”, a euphemism for stealing someone’s land. Not only does the government forcibly make people homeless through eminent domain, but they will also seize formal title to unused properties. They will then hold these lots out of use, often for years at a time, all while prosecuting any “squatters”.
Cutting Off the Bottom Rungs
If poor people had fewer restrictions on how they could earn an income, not as many of them would be unemployed and forced to live on the streets.
Government (often with the support of large swathes of the misinformed public) has decided that it isn’t okay for two people to engage in mutually beneficial economic relationships on a voluntary basis unless certain conditions are met.
The most obvious example of this is the minimum wage, which cuts off the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder by outlawing employment relationships where one party is paid less than some arbitrary amount of money.
Let’s say there is a minimum wage of $10 per hour. If someone can only produce $5 per hour’s worth of output, an employer would be out of his mind to hire that person. And I imagine that unemployed homeless people would be seen as a fairly risky investment, especially compared to, say, the white son of a wealthy family. Since the employer would have to pay either of them $10 per hour regardless, the choice is obvious. Without a minimum wage, the homeless man could offer to work for $4 per hour and then actually have an income. As they prove themselves, they will surely become more valuable and get paid more to reflect it.
Besides the minimum wage, there are a whole slew of regulations surrounding cottage industries which make it far more challenging for poor people to compete (not to mention raising prices for everyone).
Different industries have their own separate regulations, but a lot of potential entrepreneurial opportunities are eliminated by government extortion rackets. In order for someone to get involved in many industries that poor people might have skills in, they must acquire a license. This usually involves some form of mandatory training and paying a tribute to our bureaucratic overlords.
Why can’t someone with the right skills just cut hair, operate a food cart, or have a taxi service, without going through a whole process? If a homeless person has a car, driving people around for a small fee would be an easy way for them to get off their feet. Too bad they don’t have a “medallion”, and can’t afford to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for one.
More controversially, entire industries have been outlawed, including prostitution and drugs that are politically out of favor. These may not be the most “wholesome” solutions, but oftentimes becoming a prostitute, even just for the occasional income, is enough to help someone get by. These laws turn innocent poor people into “criminals”.
Homelessness is a large and growing problem in America. Most people just assume that homelessness is inevitable or that they should just “get a job”.
Unfortunately, government policies have made that far more difficult. And to add insult to injury, cities are doing their utmost to harass the homeless and make their lives as difficult as possible.