Jhe Democratic leaders who control our nation’s cities should never have let the problem escalate, but there are encouraging signs across the country that patience is running out when it comes to homeless encampments.
In Washington, DC, it took the fatal shooting of a homeless man in broad daylight at a Thomas Circle encampment to spur the city to action. Authorities still don’t know if the shooting death was a suicide, homicide or self-defense, but they do know the Thomas Circle encampment has seen 35 arrests in the past four months for various weapons offenses fire and narcotics. In one instance, a man brandished a gun at a neighborhood convenience store before hiding it in one of the tents.
Public safety isn’t the only thing jeopardized by letting homeless encampments fester. Illegal campsites are also public health threats, as they attract and sustain massive rodent populations and lack sanitation infrastructure to prevent the spread of disease.
Even the Biden administration is starting to tackle the problem. Federal authorities eventually cleared an illegal encampment that housed 35 people at Columbus Circle, National Park Service land just outside Union Station.
Local and federal authorities in Washington had become far too lenient in allowing encampments to become infected before COVID, but with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advising cities not to crack down on illegal camping during the pandemic, the number of encampments exploded to nearly 100 in Washington alone.
Now that the pandemic is finally over, authorities can start pushing people into the shelters and housing programs they need. Many of those living in encampments do not want to go to shelters due to rules prohibiting pets, drug use and intimate relationships. But there is an upper limit to the increase in violence and public health hazards that city dwellers should tolerate simply because homeless people feel that available shelters interfere with their preferred ways of life.
Washington is not the only locality that is tired of homeless encampments interfering with people’s lives. The Los Angeles City Council this week approved a new ordinance that would make it easier for city officials to clear up illegal campers within 500 feet of schools and daycares.
“I’ve seen elementary schools with conditions that none of us as parents would find acceptable for our children,” LA Unified School District Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said at the board meeting. . “People with mental illness, some of them absolutely naked, shouting profanity into the attentive ears of children.”
The LAUSD superintendent is right: children shouldn’t have to hear mentally ill, naked people shouting obscenities on the way to school every day. But adults shouldn’t have to experience the same disturbing sights, sounds and smells either.
Resources are not the problem. Hundreds of billions of dollars are flowing into homeless programs nationwide. They are simply not spent wisely. Yes, there is a lot more local governments could do for housing affordability, but more money for housing subsidies is not the answer while housing supply is tight. Local and federal governments must repeal environmental and zoning laws that prevent new housing from being built.
Much more can be done to provide mental health and career counseling services to the homeless population, but these services will not work if homeless people are allowed to continue many of the bad behaviors that got them into a homeless encampment in the first place.
We can hope that the decision to dismantle homeless encampments in Washington and Los Angeles will continue to spread to blue cities across the country.