Homeless encampment on the Ben Franklin Parkway and 22nd Street in 2020, where community activists called on the City of Philadelphia to focus on helping the poor and homeless instead of trying to displace them (Image via The Philadelphia Tribune)
By Kristian Hernández
Georgia state Sen. Carden Summers said he drove around Atlanta before presenting a bill earlier this year that would ban homeless encampments and cut state funding from cities that refuse to enforce the ban.
“I made it a point to ride around almost every night and take 30 minutes and just drive a different route and count the homeless people on the street, living in the corners, living on the edges, living on the sidewalks, living under bridges,” the Republican said last month during a Senate Committee on Government Oversight hearing. “If you were to take your eye off the road and run off the road, you’d wipe out eight to 10 people.”
But Summers did not come up with the bill on his own. It’s almost an exact copy of model legislation published online by the Cicero Institute, a Texas-based think-tank that strives to find “entrepreneurial solutions to public problems,” according to its LinkedIn page.
As homeless encampments have become increasingly visible in recent years, states and cities have turned to solutions such as rental assistance, temporary shelters and outreach teams to connect homeless people to mental health and substance use services. But in an increasing number of states, legislators are pushing Cicero’s approach: state-sanctioned encampments with a six-month residency limit, a ban on permanent encampments and penalties for cities that refuse to remove them.
Judge Glock, chief policy officer at the Cicero Institute, testified last month in favor of Summers’ bill.
“You need that stick and that carrot,” Glock said. “This bill provides both.”
The Cicero Institute was founded in 2016 by Joe Lonsdale, the billionaire co-founder of software company Palantir, whose technology has been used for a range of controversial projects including migrant surveillance systems, predictive policing and battlefield management.
Stateline found nine bills introduced in six states in the past two years with matching or similar language to the Cicero Institute’s model bill, the “Reducing Street Homelessness Act.” In addition to Georgia, lawmakers in Arizona, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas and Wisconsin have introduced bills that are similar to or have portions identical to the institute’s model legislation.
The model bill would make sleeping on public property a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and a month in jail. The measure also would prohibit state funds from going to any municipality or nonprofit in cities that fail to enforce encampment bans. And it would create state-sanctioned homeless encampments where displaced people can stay for up to six months.
Georgia cities and advocates for homeless people strongly opposed the bill before state senators tabled it last month. A House version of the bill died in committee.
The Georgia Supportive Housing Association, an advocacy group, led a coalition of groups opposed to Summers’ bill.
Mariel Risner Sivley, executive director of the association, said the bills inspired by the Cicero Institute would criminalize homelessness and hide rather than house those experiencing homelessness.
“Advocates are alarmed that Cicero Institute is using its vast resources funding lobbyists in Georgia and elsewhere to pass bills that contradict proven best practices, disregard local needs, and do nothing to reduce chronic unsheltered homelessness,” Sivley wrote in an emailed statement. “Georgia is seeking to strengthen its mental health and safety net systems, and these bills would be dangerous reversals.”
The Georgia Municipal Association, which represents 537 cities in the state, also opposed the legislation, noting that it would divert federal and state money from permanent supportive housing into sanctioned encampments.
Opposition also came from outside the state. In a letter last month to members of the Georgia Senate panel considering the bill, the National Homelessness Law Center argued that displacing encampment residents, confiscating their shelters and destroying their personal property would contradict U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and violate the constitutional rights of encampment residents.
The advocacy group further argued that because people of color and LGBTQ people are more likely to be homeless, the new criminal penalties will only exacerbate disparities in arrests, incarceration, fines and fees.
Eric Tars, the group’s legal director, said the bill aims “to move people, either into these internment camps under threat of arrest, or into prison itself or into psychiatric facilities.”
Model bills are widely used by corporations, industry groups and think tanks looking to advance special-interest campaigns. A 2019 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, USA Today and The Arizona Republic found 10,000 bills almost entirely copied from model legislation introduced nationwide in eight years. More than 2,100 of those bills were signed into law.
The cities of Austin, San Francisco and Denver have opened similar government-sanctioned camps in the past few years. These cities acted mostly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Jennifer Forker, director of development and communications at the Colorado Village Collaborative, the operator of three camps sanctioned by the city of Denver, said these “safe outdoor spaces” could be a permanent part of helping people experiencing homelessness.
“Affordable housing is the answer to the crisis but that is costly and time consuming,” said Forker. “This is a solution that serves the now, we are saving lives, getting people off the streets in zero-degree weather and getting them into more stable housing.”
In 2021, the collaborative housed 242 people in three safe outdoor spaces with 47 of them transitioning to stable housing. A new camp is scheduled to open in June, and there is no time limit for how long residents can stay. Mental health and substance use services also are offered, according to Forker.
In December 2020, when the collaborative opened its second city-sanctioned camp outside of the Denver Community Church a few blocks from the state capitol, camp staff welcomed residents with heated tents, blankets, cots, sleeping bags and heat mats, according to The Denver Gazette.
“There was a lot of gratitude on site,” Dave Neuhasuel, a pastor at the church, told the Gazette. “For some of our residents who have been on the streets for eight or 10 years, they were really shocked to have this opportunity. It was really too good to be true for some folks.”
Most of the residents at the camp were relocated from an unsanctioned camp across the street from the church.
The Cicero Institute says the legislation aims to protect unhoused people: “Our main concern is that the current homelessness encampments are dangerous and deadly for the homeless themselves, and thus tend to exacerbate the existing inequalities that homelessness already manifests,” Glock wrote in an email to Stateline.
It Started in Texas
Texas was the first state to sign a version of the Cicero bill into law. The new law, which went into effect in September, bans camping in public places statewide and punishes localities that fail to enforce the ban. Lawmakers and advocates say it was a direct response to Austin lifting its homeless encampment ban in June 2019.
Eric Samuels, who heads the nonprofit Texas Homeless Network, said he remembers walking into a state lawmaker’s office and seeing copies of the Cicero Institute’s model bill on the desk of a legislative staffer.
“The [Cicero] Institute has been successful at offering simple solutions that lawmakers can latch on to and support but ultimately don’t fix any of the underlying issues of homelessness. At best they hide the issue,” Samuels said.
But not much has changed in Texas since the ban was enacted, mainly because there already were more than 700 local ordinances criminalizing homelessness across the state, according to Samuels.
The city of Austin opened an officially sanctioned camp after reinstating its camping ban in May 2021, but no additional city- or state-sanctioned camps have opened since the state law went into effect, according to Samuels.
Austin’s downtown area has significantly fewer visible encampments since the new ban, but Samuels suspects the homeless population has increased since the law was enacted. There are no official numbers to back up his organization’s estimates, though, because an official point-in-time count has not been done in Austin during the pandemic.
“This law has done nothing to help the homeless situation here,” said Samuels. “And it’s a shame that it’s spreading to other states.”
Camping Bans Take Off
Three states—California, Florida and New Hampshire—had blanket laws restricting camping in public before Texas enacted its law, according to a November report by the National Homelessness Law Center. Texas is the only one where cities risk penalties for failing to enforce the ban.
This year, five other states have considered legislation that resembles the Cicero Institute’s model bill.
In Missouri, for example, Republican lawmakers introduced bills in both chambers that would ban sleeping, camping or the construction of long-term shelters on public property. The bills also would ban cities or counties from decriminalizing public camping or risk losing state funding. And they would create homeless outreach teams made up of both police officers and social service professionals.
The bills direct officials to use state funds to open and maintain camping facilities and parking areas with potable water, electricity and bathrooms where displaced campers can stay for up to six months and where they would undergo mental and substance abuse evaluations.
A bill introduced in February by Oklahoma state Sen. Rob Standridge, a Republican, would ban camping in public statewide and make it a misdemeanor. Local entities who fail to enforce the ban risk losing state funds.
A bill that failed this past month in Wisconsin would have established state-sanctioned camps and instituted penalties ranging from a $500 fine to a month in prison for camping on public property. The bill also included financial penalties for cities that failed to reduce their homeless population.
Glock argued that leaving tens of thousands of Americans—often with severe mental illness or substance use problems—on the streets for decades until they can all be provided with permanent, supportive housing is not a viable or humane model.
“We are trying to help many lawmakers in both parties act now to add more funds to short-term shelters and services … expand mental health commitment criteria so that more people in crisis can get access to treatment, and ensure that cities do not turn a blind eye to proliferating camps that are leading to more deaths and violence against the homeless themselves,” he wrote in an email to Stateline.
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