Across US, homeless initiatives highlight a growing crisis

By Thomson Reuters Mar 22, 2024 | 10:28 AM

By Daniel Trotta

(Reuters) – U.S. state and local governments pushed ahead this week with divergent strategies to deal with the country’s homeless crisis, aiming either to raise more funds to address the issue or to empower authorities to rid public places of its visible signs.

In California, voters narrowly approved a ballot measure that prioritizes funding for homeless services. In Chicago, voters appeared to reject a tax increase on property transfers worth more than $1 million, spelling the defeat of a plan that may have raised $100 million a year to benefit the city’s burgeoning population of residents without stable housing.

In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis instead advanced a get-tough policy, signing legislation on Wednesday that bans people from camping on city sidewalks, parks and other public places.

Likewise, Kentucky’s legislature has pushed ahead with an anti-crime bill that includes a similar camping ban while also expanding the “stand your ground” rights of citizens to use force against trespassers.

The coast-to-coast activity reflects concerns that the problem of homelessness is getting worse. In many U.S. cities and towns, it’s commonplace to see destitute people living in the open, with tents pitched on city sidewalks or roaming the streets, pushing politicians to take action.

More than 653,000 people experienced homelessness in the United States in 2023, a 12% increase over the previous year, according to a U.S. Housing and Urban Development report.

Homeless advocates and policy experts say a permanent solution lies in finding more affordable housing. Crackdowns may satisfy the public’s desire for government to do something about the problem, they say, but clearances are not a long-term solution.


“It’s unfortunate to see elected officials focus on the one thing that absolutely doesn’t work, which is criminalization,” said Jesse Rabinowitz, campaign and communications director for the National Homelessness Law Center.

“Some cities in some states have put in a significant amount of funding, but we’re trying to make up for 40-plus years of underfunded housing programs. That’s not going to happen overnight.”

DeSantis said his state was taking a different approach than California, where the state has spent more than $20 billion on housing and homelessness programs since the 2018-19 fiscal year but still has more than 180,000 homeless people.

“Florida will not allow homeless encampments to intrude on its citizens or undermine their quality of life like we see in states like New York and California,” DeSantis said in a statement upon signing the bill.

The U.S. Supreme Court may soon define the limits of local government crackdowns. The justices are scheduled to hear arguments on April 22 in an Oregon case that may determine the legality of enforcing anti-camping laws and other regulations affecting homeless people when there is nowhere for them to go.

The new Florida law bans homeless people from camping in public places and, in a nod to existing federal court guidelines, directs the Department of Children and Families to authorize temporary campsites when homeless shelters reach capacity.

The proposed Kentucky bill, which a House committee approved last week, has especially alarmed homeless advocates by expanding the state’s “stand your ground” laws, authorizing citizens to use physical force to prevent criminal trespass. If also justifies deadly force against someone who is “attempting to dispossess” someone of his or her dwelling, or while committing other crimes.


“Society has the right to protect itself from the criminal element,” state Representative Jared Bauman, the main sponsor, said in a debate on the legislation.

On the funding side, California’s March 5 ballot measure passed but the margin was so narrow that it took two weeks to count mail-in votes and determine a winner. The tight vote in the heavily Democratic state may reflect voter frustration with previous efforts to solve what appears to many to be an intractable problem.

Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom, who has made the issue a political priority, declared the vote a “huge victory” as it authorizes a $6.4 billion bond measure to fund housing and mental health and drug abuse treatment.

Even so, Newsom has also supported giving local governments the authority to crack down on camping. In a legal brief, he asked the conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court to take up the Oregon case, saying lower court rulings have “paralyzed” efforts to address unsafe and unsanitary encampments.

In Chicago this week, voters appeared to have rejected a ballot measure that would raise funding for programs to benefit homeless people. It seeks to raise the real estate transfer tax on properties valued at more than $1 million while cutting the tax for the majority of Chicagoans.

The measure was losing by 7 percentage points with 87% of the vote in and thousands of mail-in votes yet to be counted. Proponents called the results disappointing but had yet to concede.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Frank McGurty, William Maclean)