A Texas think tank is pushing states to ban homeless camping The conservative Cicero Institute is working with states to ban street camps, and shift money away from housing to addiction treatment. Homelessness advocates says such moves are counterproductive.

Amid record homelessness, a Texas think tank tries to upend how states tackle it

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1251405278/1252540853" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Soaring rents, expensive food and drug use have exacerbated a serious spike in homelessness around the U.S. As states struggle to address all of this, a conservative think tank in Texas is pushing them to upend two decades of homelessness policy. Here's NPR's Jennifer Ludden with more.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Florida is the latest state to ban people from camping on public property. Governor Ron DeSantis signed the bill in March.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: You should not be accosted by a homeless, like we see. You should be able to walk down the street and live your life.

LUDDEN: Under the new law, if a city does not enforce the ban, it could be sued by the state or local residents. It also lets places designate their own temporary shelters. They would ban alcohol and illegal drugs and offer treatment for substance abuse and mental health.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DESANTIS: We're going to have clean sidewalks. We're going to have clean parks. We're going to have safe streets.

LUDDEN: Similar bills have been debated in a dozen states, and some version of them passed in a few, including Kentucky and Texas. The model for them comes from the Cicero Institute, a policy group founded by tech entrepreneur Joe Lonsdale, who's accused advocacy groups of failing to fix homelessness so they can keep their jobs. Devon Kurtz pitches Cicero's model bill to states. He says the common practice of getting people permanent housing without requiring them to get sober has made the problem worse.

DEVON KURTZ: The foremost goal is not to punish. But there are situations where we just can't accept the status quo. It is too dangerous for everyone involved.

LUDDEN: The widely accepted policy, known as Housing First, has long had bipartisan support. But this Cicero video made with the conservative content creator PragerU blames it for streets littered with needles and other drug paraphernalia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Are you really seen the underlying issues?

LUDDEN: Kurtz says with the opioid crisis, unhoused people are dying every day from drug overdoses. Cicero calls for shifting public money away from permanent housing to places that require substance abuse or mental health treatment.

KURTZ: It is a different homelessness crisis than it was five years ago or even ten years ago.

DIANE YENTEL: They're taking us back a decade or two into a failed homelessness policy that we've tried as a country, and it didn't work.

LUDDEN: Diane Yentel heads the National Low Income Housing Coalition. She says the main driver of homelessness is a severe housing shortage and sky-high rents. Research shows that forced treatment is not the solution, she says, but permanent housing is.

YENTEL: Getting people into that stable, accessible, affordable home first allows them to address any other issues, whether it's mental illness or addiction or other challenges.

LUDDEN: Camping bans that send people cycling through jails is also expensive, says Eric Tars with the National Homelessness Law Center.

ERIC TARS: You know, if giving people fines and tickets and arresting them ended homelessness, we would have ended homelessness long ago.

LUDDEN: So far, Tars says most states who've debated these Cicero-inspired bills have not passed them.

TARS: When local organizations become aware that this is being introduced, they tell their legislators, look. This is not what we actually want. It's not actually going to solve homelessness.

LUDDEN: Still, Cicero's push is part of a broader backlash. Donald Trump has called for rehabilitating unhoused people with treatment, and there are bills in Congress and California to allow homeless spending on places that require sobriety. However such ideas play out, lives are at stake for the growing number of Americans without a home. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JORJA SMITH SONG, "GREATEST GIFT (FEAT. LILA IKE)")

Copyright © 2024 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.