President Trump arrived in California on Tuesday night and declared that Los Angeles and San Francisco will “destroy themselves” if they don’t clear out homeless encampments that threaten to ruin the “prestige” of our “best highways, our best streets, our best entrances to buildings.” Trump has directed aides to launch a major crackdown on homelessness in California, which could involve removing people residing on California’s streets. It all seems to echo Trump’s attempted crackdowns on undocumented immigrants in liberal “sanctuary cities,” this time applied to another marginalized group in Democratic strongholds. The president often blames Democrats for sustained poverty and crime in major cities, and he’s used typically stigmatizing language to describe homelessness: “You take a look at what’s going on with San Francisco, it’s terrible,” he told Fox News recently. “. . . We may intercede. We may do something to get that whole thing cleaned up. It’s inappropriate. Now, we have to take the people and do something.”
But the residents and leaders of these liberal cities are also intolerant of the unhoused. On the West Coast, criminalizing homelessness is already policy orthodoxy — even among those who are part of the vanguard of the anti-Trump resistance.
Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s spokesman called on Trump to put “serious solutions, with real investment, on the table,” rather than just divisive rhetoric. But as mayor of San Francisco, Newsom pushed a successful ballot initiative to make it illegal to sit or lie on city sidewalks. State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who said this month that Trump should “back off,” co-sponsored a successful ballot initiative that bars camping in public spaces in his hometown. San Francisco Mayor London Breed said that “simply cracking down on homelessness without providing the housing people need is not a real solution.” Meanwhile, during her term, the city’s police department has increased the number of officers assigned to addressing homeless complaints from 24 to 58, while also raising the number of sanitation workers dedicated to sweeping encampments. Voters in these liberal cities not only continually pass these laws, they call on the police to enforce them. In 2017, San Francisco police were dispatched nearly 100,000 times for caller complaints of homeless concerns.
Jim Crow, anti-Okie, “ugly” and vagrancy laws long empowered police to manage the down-and-out. But the judicial reversal of anti-vagrancy laws in 1972, coupled with the explosive growth of homelessness in the 1980s, led U.S. cities to restrict a wide variety of behaviors associated with homelessness, including panhandling, sleeping in parks and sitting on sidewalks. These laws reached new prominence in the 1990s as they became central to the sorts of “zero tolerance” policing campaigns pioneered by then-New York mayor Rudy Giuliani — now a Trump adviser who is reportedly shaping the administration’s emergent policy on homelessness.
Such laws spread rapidly across the country. A recent report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty found that half of the 187 cities in its study banned camping and sitting, lying down in public or loitering and begging in particular places. Between 2006 and 2016, the number of bans on sitting and lying down increased by 52 percent, citywide camping bans by 69 percent, prohibitions on loitering and loafing citywide by 88 percent, and laws against living in vehicles by 143 percent. Another study by the Policy Advocacy Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley’s law school found that California cities each have an average of more than 10 anti-homeless laws, while Los Angeles and San Francisco have 17 and 24, respectively. Each law may target one or two behaviors; collectively, they effectively criminalize homelessness.
As part of my research in San Francisco, I spent 57 nights in 2014 and 2015 sleeping on the streets in encampments and more than 100 days following people as they acquired food, shelter, benefits and money and interacted with the local welfare and justice systems. I also went on ride-alongs with police officers and sanitation crews. I experienced and witnessed interactions between police and homeless people nearly every day, and they were often devastating. Several times, I saw people refuse to go to the hospital to address serious medical issues, afraid that if they were admitted, their tents and belongings would be confiscated by city officials. The move-along orders and sweeps, aimed mainly at keeping people out of sight of other residents and business owners who would call 911, put services, food and toilets farther from reach; created conflicts and encouraged theft among those on the streets; and increased the vulnerability, particularly of women, to assault. Although the officers I observed saw their dispatches as a pointless shuffle — “a big game of whack-a-mole,” as one described it — for the people they were policing, it was far from that: What the cops considered busywork was pushing people further into poverty and ossifying their homelessness.
This approach to homelessness has been driven by what sociologist Forrest Stuart calls “therapeutic policing,” where police interactions become a way to push people into recovery and shelter. In San Francisco, officers already have the authority to and regularly do force those living on the streets with their own shelter to either hand over their tents as evidence in an illegal-lodging citation or move into a government shelter for seven days. Until local officials realized it was ineffective and discontinued it in 2014, Los Angeles’s Safer Cities Initiative authorized police to cuff those found camping, detain them and give them an ultimatum: Enroll in a 21-day residential rehabilitation program or face charges. Even those who moved inside nearly always wound up returning to the streets because of time limits on services or inadequate shelter conditions. After a federal appeals court ruled last year that arresting or citing homeless people when no shelter is available is cruel and unusual punishment, cities are increasingly creating superficial — but insufficient — shelter solutions so police can continue to enforce anti-homeless laws.
Yet this failed strategy of slim carrots and big sticks seems to be precisely what the Trump administration is pursuing. The White House released a 40-page report Monday that telegraphed its approach: “Of course, policies intended solely to arrest or jail homeless people simply because they are homeless are inhumane and wrong. At the same time, when paired with effective services, policing may be an important tool to help move people off the street and into shelter or housing.” The report also states, without empirical evidence, that a primary contributor to homelessness is the creation of new shelters without time limits or other requirements, on the theory that shelters discourage people from living in, and paying for, their own housing. So we may expect new federal facilities to be even more uncomfortable than what currently exists.
More often than being pushed into services, those experiencing homelessness are simply punished with move-along orders, citations or arrests without any offer of services. This should seem obvious, considering most West Coast cities have massive deficits in available shelter in the first place. San Francisco, for instance, has only 2,400 emergency shelter beds for a homeless population of more than 8,000. In a recently published study surveying homeless San Franciscans, my colleagues and I found that in the previous year, 70 percent of them had been forced to move by an officer, 69 percent had been cited, and 46 percent had their tents or other belongings confiscated by city workers. Only about 12 percent reported that they’d been offered services — usually a sandwich or a pamphlet — and less than 5 percent said they were offered shelter. In 2017, half of the arrests in Portland, Ore., were of homeless people, although those experiencing homelessness make up less than 3 percent of the population. Some of those arrested later help perpetuate the city’s policies, as Portland pays inmates $1 per day to clear homeless encampments.
Trump’s infusion of federal money and policy directives may merely expand this punitive approach. So the criticism by West Coast politicians of his attempt to “fix” homelessness in liberal cities is accurate: It won’t work, and we know that because their own punitive plans haven’t worked, either.
In Seattle, which enforces park exclusion orders, off-limit orders and criminal trespass rules, one study found little to no impact on crime and disorder, as people returned after their removal, despite the risk of arrest, to meet their needs for food, shelter and social ties. In Los Angeles, where Trump administration aides toured the 50-square-block Skid Row neighborhood this month to prepare their new plan, a hyper-policing effort that began in 2006 under Giuliani’s former police chief William Bratton was supposed to have pushed people into services. One study in 2007 found that the program was accomplishing very little, and the city canceled it after nearly a decade. L.A. officials now acknowledge that the Safer Cities Initiative failed, but their new Operation Healthy Streets continues to emphasize criminalization, harassment and removal of people and their belongings, instead of taking a health-based approach to ensuring safe and clean streets for all.
These policies aren’t just costly and ineffective. They also perpetuate homelessness. In San Francisco, we found that more than half of the 10,000 to 15,000 citations given to homeless people each year for sitting, camping or loitering go unpaid — no surprise considering the poverty of those cited. The unpaid citations result in arrest warrants and suspensions of driver’s licenses, erecting multiple barriers to employment, housing and services. Thanks to organizing by the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness and the city’s Financial Justice Project, San Francisco is beginning to end some of these practices, but they persist in other cities. Even simple move-along orders and sanitation sweeps mean that people lose medicine, identification they need for benefits, protection from the elements and personal property.
Still, Trump’s call for a crackdown on homelessness could be even worse. The president’s rhetoric plays to a different political base than the liberal Democrats running city and state governments in California and the Pacific Northwest. And like his remarks about immigrants, Trump’s comments about homelessness are clearly meant to warn of urban and civilizational decay. There’s a racial angle, too: Although only 12 percent of the U.S. population is African American, 40 percent of those experiencing homelessness are black. Portraying the homeless as a drain on American taxpayers and declaring a need to detain them in government facilities to promote order is an easy and predictable step in the president’s populist narrative.
While Democratic politicians criminalize homelessness, they at least see its root causes in stagnating wages and a lack of government-funded affordable housing — diagnoses supported by research. Trump, on the other hand, blames high taxes, overregulation, poor public service delivery, mental illness and drug addiction. Carrying on the legacy of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan — whose administrations heralded the rise of mass homelessness in part through massive cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development — the real estate mogul has overseen cuts of 31 percent to HUD for the production of new housing over his first two years in office, and he wants to slash its budget by 16 percent more in 2020.
Perhaps the similarity between Trump’s musings and their own failures will prompt Democrats to examine their criminalization of homelessness. Diverting money into policing and incarceration while demonizing “the homeless” only makes it harder to push for the services, affordable housing and jobs that will actually help end the crisis.