The problems and politics surrounding housing policy and homelessness have taken on new exposure this year amid the pandemic and the other agitations which have branded this year what it is. In Denver, it has been most starkly illuminated in the advent of the numerous camps and tent cities springing up around the beleaguered downtown core.
That these are unlawful was confirmed by a Denver District Court judge who last week overturned a lower court ruling from last year which claimed that the city’s prohibition against “urban camping” was somehow unconstitutional. The new ruling (which will in all likelihood be appealed in turn) finds fault in the previous opinion which, in a fit of judicial activism that was remarkable even in this age of hyper-active judiciaries, managed to find Denver’s park-and-sidewalk-camping ban an abrogation of due process; of the American’s With Disabilities Act; of the injunction against imposing cruel and unusual punishment, and perhaps the Magna Carta and the Treaty of Westphalia.
The encampments have, here and there, been cleaned up, but for the most part they have tended to just move elsewhere, bringing the concentration of assorted problems, including disease, crime, and drug use, to different city blocks. The clean-ups may be a welcome move, but they do not, alone, solve the problem.
It is a cold, but accurate, observation that a certain amount of homelessness, like unemployment, will persist in society, for a variety of reasons. The problem of homelessness issues many questions and contentions; not among them, one hopes, the question of whether they ought to be cared for at all. There is nearly universal acceptance of the idea that something should be done to provide relief. But the current and proposed approaches, especially those considered more progressive, have not only failed to improve the lot of those on the streets, but have made the situation worse.
Much has been made in recent months, owing to the COVID pandemic, of halting or postponing evictions of those who fail to pay their rent. These moratoriums may be well-intentioned, on a superficial level, but are wrongheaded on nearly every other. Earlier this month, the CDC under the Trump administration issued a sweeping proclamation banning landlords from evicting tenants who claim they cannot afford to pay due to COVID, through at least the end of the year. Not only was this yet another test of the elasticity of government emergency powers, but such broad interventions — this one extends not only to federally-subsidized housing, but to all rental agreements — ignore the central fact of economics; that someone will be left holding the bag. It is worth noting that no relief has been proposed for the people who owe mortgages or have invested life savings into rental property only to be told they can’t collect the rents they are due. One may see that as a disincentive to providing housing.
Generally missing in discussions around homelessness is a diagnosis of its causes. Certainly economics in a key factor in many instances, and here too progressive policy shares most of the blame; like minimum wage laws, for instance, which price many people in the lowest economic classes out of the job market.
Simplistic calls persist for a greater abundance of “affordable housing,” but it has been decades of progressive-minded policies which contribute most directly to higher housing costs. Rent control, restrictive zoning laws, land-use policies calling for greater “open space” and the like, have all made the housing market artificially higher that it would otherwise be.
There is also an unavoidable element of chronic homelessness, largely independent of the general economy. This group is characterized by various types and degrees of mental illness and drug use, and liberal policies have amplified the difficulties associated with both. In terms of mental health, a certain social acquiescence, if you will, or, as Kevin Williamson put it, a sense of who-are-we-to-judge has pervaded the system and limited the options once available providing necessary care for these individuals. Similarly, as drug use has increasingly been decriminalized and, inescapably therefore, normalized, it has been effectively encouraged. Neither approach serves to get these unfortunate people off the streets and into the care they need.
The replacement of the private structures within society that traditionally have provided for many of the needs of the homeless — family, church, community — by the state has not worked. Solutions to the problem are not easy to identify and will not neatly fit into ideological boxes, but if we are to liberate the homeless from their wretched situation we need first to liberate ourselves from the wretched polices which perpetuate their condition.