Cities must balance public services with public order to reduce homelessness.
Fifteen years ago, West Coast cities were confident that they could solve homelessness. In coordination with state and federal governments, cities throughout the region established high-profile commissions and released ambitious ten-year plans to end the problem. Seattle mayor Greg Nickels declared that homelessness would become a “rare, brief, and one-time” event; Los Angeles mayor James Hahn announced a plan to “move people off the street and into places they can call their own”; and San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom promised “not to manage but to end homelessness,” praising his city’s plan as “brilliant in its simplicity.”
Armed with the latest academic studies on the success of “Housing First,” a program that provides long-term apartments to the homeless, experts argued that cities could simultaneously end homelessness and save taxpayers money. Philip Mangano, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, summarized the prevailing mood: “Five years ago the notion of cities having 10-year plans to end homelessness was naïve and risky. No one thought it was possible. But the new research and new technologies have created such movement and innovation on this issue that it may now be naïve and risky not to have such a plan.”
These ambitions proved delusions. Hahn’s plan to end homelessness in Los Angeles collapsed before it began, Newsom watched homelessness expand in San Francisco and then statewide, and Nickels has been immortalized in a series of tent cities now called “Nickelsvilles.” In nearly every major West Coast city, homelessness is worse than ever—tents line the sidewalks, and some downtown neighborhoods have turned into Brazilian-style favelas, with open-air drug markets and booming black-market economies.
The new conventional wisdom is pessimistic: homelessness is an intractable feature of the urban landscape. Political leaders have abandoned any pretension of “abolishing homelessness,” focusing instead on strategies of containment and “harm reduction.” But this outlook, too, is wrong. Homelessness is neither intractable nor permanent, and policies of harm reduction have shown little capacity to reduce it. Rather than continue down this path, West Coast officials should learn from cities that have embraced a different model—compassionate enforcement—that has demonstrated significant success over the past decade. Though West Coast cities have dominated the headlines with bad news, cities such as Houston, which has reduced homelessness by more than 50 percent since 2011, show that another way is possible.
Various misconceptions have kept major cities from reducing homelessness. A prevailing view holds that homelessness is a national problem; many service providers, local officials, and state governors have insisted that the federal government is responsible for solving it. This contention serves the dual purpose of shifting blame to Washington and obscuring the failure of the political class in West Coast cities, but it is false. Between 2009 and 2019, homelessness decreased 10 percent nationwide; moreover, on a geographic basis, homelessness declined in 40 out of 50 states. The reality is that homelessness is not distributed evenly across the country. It has become more concentrated in a handful of states, particularly California, Oregon, and Washington, which now account for one-third of the nation’s homeless population.
Why? Activists and political leaders commonly point to weather and rising rents. Though it’s obviously easier to live on the streets in Los Angeles than in Chicago during a long winter, weather alone does not explain the distribution of homelessness in the United States. As the Council of Economic Advisers has shown, the rate of homelessness is high in California cities but low in Florida cities, which also have warm winter climates. Overall, according to CEA analysis, unsheltered homelessness is two to four times higher than predicted when accounting for weather in California, Washington, and Oregon, and lower than predicted when accounting for weather in Florida, Arizona, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
The more deeply entrenched argument is that homelessness is a housing problem. Progressive leaders in West Coast cities have convinced the public that rising rents cause homelessness. There is a beguiling simplicity to this narrative: marginalized people are living paycheck to paycheck, the rent goes up—and they’re thrown onto the streets. The officials often cite in support of this claim a Zillow report that purports to show that “rising rents mean [a] larger homeless population.” In the report’s headline, the researchers find a strong correlation between increases in rental prices and homelessness in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, New York, and Washington, D.C. However, buried in the same report, the research shows that homelessness remained flat or decreased, despite rising rents, in Boston, Miami, Dallas, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Denver, Sacramento, Pittsburgh, Chicago, San Diego, Phoenix, St. Louis, Portland, Detroit, Baltimore, Atlanta, Charlotte, Houston, Riverside, and Tampa. Put another way, rising rents and homelessness are correlated in five of the top 25 metros but not correlated in 20 of the top 25 metros—undermining the conclusion that rising rents cause homelessness.
To avoid misunderstanding, let’s concede this much: it is certainly true that weather and housing prices have some effect on homelessness. Warm weather allows for year-round unsheltered living, and expensive real-estate markets raise the economic floor for avoiding homelessness—it’s much easier to maintain housing where the rent is $300 a month, not $3,000. But these explanations go only so far.
Public policy is a better explanation for the current distribution of homelessness in the United States. Researchers mostly have analyzed homelessness according to middle-class norms, believing that the homeless respond primarily to measures of poverty, rental prices, and housing policy. That overlooks an important distinction: the homeless have a different set of incentives from the average citizen. Their world is not like that of the middle class. The facts, which have become taboo in progressive cities, are simple: 75 percent of the unsheltered homeless have a serious addiction, 78 percent have a mental illness, and, as a group, they are nearly 100 times more likely to commit crimes and get booked into jail than the typical citizen. Theirs is a world of tangled pathologies, driven by the economics of the drug trade, the psychology of addiction, and the culture of transient encampments.
And yet, notwithstanding their high rates of addiction and mental illness, the homeless are essentially rational actors in the sense that, on their own terms, they respond to economic, policy, and cultural incentives. Consider one situation that illustrates the larger point. The Venice Boulevard underpass on the border of Los Angeles and Culver City is one of thousands of concrete structures in Los Angeles County, but its Los Angeles side has been seen full of tents, while its Culver City side was empty. Why? As neighboring cities, Los Angeles and Culver City have the same regional economy, climate, and rental prices—in fact, Culver City is slightly more expensive than Los Angeles. The difference is public policy. Los Angeles has effectively decriminalized public camping and drug consumption; Culver City enforces the law against them. After two Los Angeles city councilmen complained in the Los Angeles Times that Culver City was pushing its homeless into L.A., then–Culver City mayor Jeffrey Cooper shot back in a letter to the editor: “The encampment under the 405 Freeway on Venice Boulevard . . . has been the scene of numerous violent crimes. The Los Angeles Police Department does not check in with the homeless people living there nearly as often as Culver City police do. If I was a homeless person inclined to do drugs and commit crimes, I would feel safer in Los Angeles than Culver City, whose police are there to protect all residents.”
The Venice Boulevard experiment provides a useful framework for reexamining the geography of homelessness. In California, the data are consistent with the enforcement principle: across the state, the homeless gravitate to the most permissive policy environments. In Los Angeles County, 35 percent of the homeless migrated to the county after becoming homeless elsewhere, including 19 percent who came from another state. In San Francisco County, 30 percent of the homeless came to the county after becoming homeless elsewhere, plus an additional 6 percent who became homeless after living in San Francisco for less than a year. The San Francisco Chronicle estimates that 450 chronically homeless individuals migrate to the city each year because of the “perception that it is a sanctuary for people who are unwilling to participate in programs designed to get them off, and keep them off, a life in the streets.”
In Washington State, the numbers from the Seattle metropolitan area provide more evidence for the enforcement hypothesis. According to data from the City of Seattle, an astonishing 51 percent of the homeless migrated to the city after becoming homeless somewhere else. By the conventional wisdom’s middle-class logic, this would be an irrational choice: an individual with no shelter or stable source of income would not move to one of the nation’s most expensive cities. But again, the homeless operate under a different set of assumptions and incentives. They are strongly motivated to move to the most permissive environment. In a research survey of homeless migrants to Seattle, 15 percent said that they came to access homeless services, 10 percent came for legal marijuana, and 16 percent were transients who were “traveling or visiting” when they decided to set up camp. These responses may obscure the largest incentive of all: the de facto legalization of street camping, drug consumption, and property crime. As former Seattle public safety advisor Scott Lindsay has shown, the city is now home to a large population of homeless “prolific offenders” who commit property crimes to feed their addictions—and are rarely held to account by the criminal-justice system.
Some critics will dismiss these conclusions as an endorsement of an “enforcement-only” approach that “criminalizes homelessness.” But the lesson is not that cities should withhold help from the homeless; it’s that cities must balance the provision of public services with the maintenance of public order. Cities that fail to acknowledge the relationship between permissiveness, migration, and rates of homelessness will not make progress.
Houston is perhaps the American city that best demonstrates the power of “compassionate enforcement.” Its Harris County is a moderate district, with conservative suburban areas and a liberal urban core. Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, is a Democrat, but his rhetoric on homelessness is very different from that heard in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. “It is simply not acceptable for people to live on the streets; it is not good for them, and it is not good for the city,” Turner has declared. “We will tackle this complicated issue, and we will do it humanely with a meaningful approach that balances the needs of the homeless and the concerns of neighborhoods they impact.”
Houston’s policy exemplifies what Turner calls a “tough love” approach. The city has built permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless, cobbled together a coalition of nonprofit partners, and lobbied the state government for more mental-health and addiction services. At the same time, Turner has enforced a strict ban on public camping and proposed a citywide campaign to discourage citizens from giving money to panhandlers. The Harris County sheriff’s homeless-outreach team attempts to connect the homeless with services but also enforces the law. The sheriff’s office acknowledges that “mental illness and substance abuse are common in [the homeless] population” and recognizes that it must maintain order in residential neighborhoods. The team shuts down tent cities and conducts regular cleanups, discouraging the permanent encampment culture seen in West Coast cities. The results have been stunning: between 2011 and 2019, Houston reduced its homeless population by 54 percent.
These outcomes lay waste to the conventional wisdom. Houston has warmer winters than Seattle, Portland, Sacramento, and San Jose. During the same period that Houston reduced homelessness by more than half, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment rose by 54 percent. Clearly, neither the weather nor housing prices can explain the outcomes in Houston.
Some analysts have suggested that Houston’s approach worked because the city built permanent supportive housing, created a coalition of partners, and implemented advanced data-tracking. But every major West Coast city has done these things. Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles have also spent billions on permanent supportive housing and subsidized apartments, hosted conferences and working groups to increase coordination, and implemented the same Homeless Management Information System as Houston. And yet, over the same period, homelessness increased 15 percent in Los Angeles, 24 percent in San Francisco, and 25 percent in Seattle. If these interventions worked in Houston, why didn’t they work elsewhere?
The truth is straightforward. Houston achieved different results because, in addition to these supportive policies, it also enforced the law. Unlike the West Coast cities, Houston did not enable and encourage the worst aspects of street homelessness. Where a Seattle politician opposes hosing down feces-covered sidewalks because hoses supposedly have racist connotations, Houston fights in the courts for the right to clean up encampments. Where California leaders push for supervised injection sites and decriminalizing thefts under $950, Houston pushes for tighter restrictions on aggressive panhandling, windshield washing, and other “street obstructions.”
Political culture currently prevents West Coast cities from implementing the same policies as Houston. As social scientist Jonathan Haidt observes in a study coauthored with Jesse Graham and Brian A. Nosek, liberals and conservatives operate on different moral foundations. Liberals base their views primarily on the values of care and fairness—that is, they value compassion above other concerns. Conservatives, on the other hand, “construct moral systems more evenly upon five psychological foundations,” showing concern not only for care and fairness but also authority, purity (in the sense of cleanliness and control of impulses), and in-group loyalty (the obligations one has as a member of a group or society).
Haidt’s theory helps illustrate why progressive cities have been unable to reduce homelessness, despite billions in public spending. Progressives, according to Haidt, have an “unconstrained vision” of the world and “an optimistic view of human nature and of human perfectibility.” They tend to believe that the homeless are victims of circumstance and inequality and simply need a helping hand to improve their lives.
This understanding has three moral blind spots. First, because progressives discount the moral foundation of authority, they dismiss worries about crime, disorder, and violence when thinking about homelessness and generally are skeptical about the need for law enforcement. West Coast progressives have sought to decriminalize public camping, drug consumption, and property crimes because they view authority as the problem, not part of the solution. Second, because progressives discount the moral foundation of purity, they overlook and excuse the filth associated with street camping. Homeless encampments have proved to be havens for trash, needles, drugs, human waste, and infectious diseases, yet West Coast progressives have fought to “stop the sweeps” of tent cities and filed lawsuits against encampment cleanups. They prioritize “care for our curbside neighbors” over sanitation, cleanliness, and public-health concerns. Third, because progressives discount in-group loyalty, they do not see a significant homeless influx as a problem. They tend to make no distinction between the local and nonlocal homeless population and reject concerns about cities becoming magnets for homeless migrants as “xenophobic” and “homeless-hating.” Put simply, progressive cities have adopted a philosophy of all compassion and no enforcement that creates a cycle of permissiveness, enablement, and disorder.
Critics might deny that the progressive approach is extreme, pointing to outreach teams as examples of authority, sanitation plans as examples of purity, and bus programs as examples of in-group loyalty. But at the practical level, the homeless-services apparatus has become one of the most ideologically radical sectors of West Coast government. In Seattle, the regional homelessness authority recently held its annual conference on the theme “Decolonizing Our Collective Work,” with sessions designed to “[interrogate] the current structures of power” and “examine the legacies of structural racism in our systems, and co-design a path towards liberation with black, indigenous, brown and other marginalized communities.” As part of the conference, the agency hired transgender stripper Beyoncé Black St. James to perform a drag show, give lap dances, and kiss attendees. What does any of this have to do with reducing homelessness? Nothing. It’s about repeating the nostrums of social justice, radicalizing homeless-services providers, and advancing the larger progressive political project. Of course, these agencies have failed to reduce homelessness; any entity that prioritizes “decolonizing our collective work” over actually improving things is doomed to fail.
Policies can change quickly, but ideologies have deeper roots. In the near term, there will likely be a continued redistribution of homelessness toward the warmest, most expensive, and most permissive cities, focused primarily on the coastal enclaves of California, Oregon, and Washington. West Coast cities have recently announced unprecedented multibillion-dollar expenditures on homelessness, but money alone cannot overcome deficient political cultures that have proved unable to cope with the dark side of homelessness: addiction, crime, violence, squalor, and disease. If the homeless-services apparatus continues to prioritize political convictions over practical plans, it will waste billions on programs that fail to address the need for both compassion and enforcement.
The crisis presents an opportunity, however, for cities willing to try a different approach. As Houston has demonstrated, local leaders can meaningfully reduce homelessness through a strategy of tough love—leading with the provision of shelter and services but maintaining public order through outreach, cleanups, and enforcement of anti-camping laws. Some progressive leaders have complained that enforcement policies shift the burden of homelessness onto the largest cities. But Houston is the nation’s fourth-largest city. And cities already compete on taxes, infrastructure, amenities, and various other policy choices—why should homeless policy not be among them? Small and medium-size cities should not lower their standards of public order; rather, it is incumbent upon neighboring cities to reduce the “magnet effect” of their own permissive policies.
In the long term, it would be best for all cities to adopt compassionate enforcement. If cities can close down negative pathways—public encampments, open drug consumption, and uncontrolled property crimes—they will be able to redirect the homeless toward better outcomes. In cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle, political leaders must reorient their policies and think more broadly about the moral dimension of homelessness.
More than 180,000 people live on the streets of West Coast cities. Their fate depends, in part, on policymakers. Ultimately, compassion should be measured not by good intentions but by outcomes. If progressive leaders want to live up to their own values, they must demonstrate results on homelessness. Houston provides a model of how to do so.
Originally published in City Journal.