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

In October, Florida will become the latest state to ban homeless camping. Starting in January, any city that does not enforce the ban can be sued, by the State Attorney General or by a local business or resident.

"We're gonna have clean sidewalks. We're gonna have clean parks. We're gonna have safe streets," said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, when he signed the new law in March.

If there are not enough beds available in homeless shelters, the law will also let cities designate their own temporary shelter sites, something former President Trump supports and has called "relocation camps."

Florida is among a handful of states that has passed tougher laws on homelessness in recent years — including Kentucky and Texas — and lawmakers in about a dozen states have debated such legislation. Most all of them are taking guidance from the lobbying arm of a conservative Texas-based think tank, which aims to upend homelessness policies that have had bipartisan support for two decades.

The Cicero Institute was founded by billionaire tech entrepreneur Joe Lonsdale, whose data mining products have been used by the CIA, the U.S. immigration agency, and local police departments. He derides a "homeless industrial complex," accusing advocates of prolonging the problem so they can keep their jobs.

"The foremost goal is not to punish," says Devon Kurtz, who oversees Cicero's homelessness policy and pitches its legislation to state lawmakers. But he says the common practice known as Housing First — which prioritizes getting people into permanent housing without requiring them to get sober — has made the problem worse.

"There are situations where we just can't accept the status quo. It is too dangerous for everyone involved," he says.

A documentary Cicero produced with the conservative content creator PragerU blames Housing First for streets littered with needles and other drug paraphernalia. Kurtz says with the opioid crisis, people are dying every day from drug overdose. Cicero's model bill calls for shifting money away from housing, and toward substance abuse and mental health treatment.

"It is a different homelessness crisis than it was five years ago or ten years ago," Kurtz says.

Under Florida's new law, sanctioned shelter sites would ban alcohol and illegal drugs, but offer treatment for substance abuse and mental health problems. In an early memo to Florida lawmakers, Kurtz had suggested the state also make it easier to force people into treatment for mental illness.

Advocates say Cicero's legislation is counter-productive

Cicero's push is happening amid record high rates of homelessness. An annual federal count found some 650,000 unhoused people on a single night in 2023, with nearly half of them sleeping outside. At the same time, drug overdose deaths last year hit 112,000. Homelessness advocates say Cicero's approach to these problems is counter-productive.

There is a record high rate of homelessness in the United States. An annual federal count found some 650,000 unhoused people on a single night in 2023.
Mario Tama / Getty Images
Getty Images
There is a record high rate of homelessness in the United States. An annual federal count found some 650,000 unhoused people on a single night in 2023.

"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," says Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

She says the main driver of homelessness is a severe shortage of housing, including an estimated 7.3 million unit deficit for the lowest income renters. Research shows that forced treatment is not the solution, she says, but permanent housing is.

"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," Yentel says.

Opponents of Cicero's approach also cite the expense.

The fiscal cost of a law will often be listed as zero, "but nothing could be further from the truth," says Eric Tars, senior policy director at the National Homelessness Law Center. "Studies have shown it actually costs two to three times more to keep people churning through the jail system, through law enforcement, the courts, all of that, than it does to simply provide housing," he says.

After Georgia passed a Cicero-inspired law that required enforcing camping bans, an audit found the Marietta Police Department estimated 50% of its officers' time was spent dealing with homeless issues.

"If giving people fines and tickets and arresting them ended homelessness, we would have ended homelessness long ago," Tars says.

So far, most states who've debated these Cicero-inspired bills have not passed them. Still, they're part of a broader backlash. Donald Trump has calledfor "rehabilitating" unhoused people with treatment. And there are also 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.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.