Mises Wire

Homelessness and the Problem of Public Space

Last month, 82 percent of Denver voters voted down Initiative 300, which would have overturned the city ban on camping in public spaces.

In other words, Initiative 300 sought to make it legal for homeless people to live in public parks, medians, greenbelts, and similar locations. Faced with the prospect of tent cities along every bike path and softball field, a lopsided majority of voters turned down the measure. Moreover, many voters likely feared that Denver would become more like San Francisco, which has now become notorious for streets lined by tent cities of homeless.

Many voters who opposed the initiative recognized that part of the problem of homelessness in public space is due to an unwillingness on the part of public officials to manage the use of public space. Ultimately, however, the problem of public-space homelessness is two pronged: as we shall see, it is produced by both a lack of housing supply and government mismanagement of public space.

What Are “Public Areas” for?

The debate over Initiative 300 highlights a larger debate that has taken place between leftwing activists and nearly everyone else: namely, that public spaces ought to be opened up for use by anyone wishing to live on it.

In the case of Initiative 300, this was framed as a “right to survive,” and that public space resources ought to effectively be converted into a type of social-welfare subsidy that could offer a space for do-it-yourself housing.

The response to this has been to point out that public spaces are generally designated for specific purposes. For example, some public spaces are designated for use as recreational sports facilities. Some are designated as paths for biking and walking. If we include public spaces like public libraries and recreation areas, it’s clear that these places have specific uses as well.

Uses contrary to these designated uses tend to incur sanctions. For example, if an entrepreneur were to set up a booth selling hotdogs and beer on a green belt next to a bike path, he’s likely to be soon forcibly removed by police. Similarly, if a group of dog-lovers tries to turn a playground area into a dog park, odds are good they’ll be told to go elsewhere.

Public Space and Private Common Areas

The issue of proper use is not unique to public space. Housing developments, condo high-rises, and apartment complexes all have common areas such as lobbies, sidewalks, elevators, playgrounds, and swimming pools. These areas are “public” in the sense they are accessible to everyone who lives there.

However, tenants and residents who have access to common areas are only allowed to use them for designated purposes. A condo owner in a condo building may not use the laundry room for purposes other than laundry. He may not nap in the lobby or take a bath in the swimming pool.

Nonetheless, advocates for open-ended use of public spaces insist that any restriction on how public spaces may be used voids their designation as public areas.

“Hostile Architecture” in Public Space

This  notion that public space is for any and all purposes can be found in opposition to so-called “hostile architecture.” This is a term invented by activists who oppose the use of urban design to discourage use of public spaces in ways not intended by the city or private owner.

Examples include benches designed to deter people from sleeping on them, and uneven ground designed to prevent homeless people from sleeping on sidewalks and in entryways of private and public buildings.

These specially designed fences, benches, grates, and pavings exist primarily as cost saving measures to reduce the cost of employing security personnel (e.g., both police officers and private security) to remove those who are misusing public areas.

The fundamental principle behind “hostile architecture,” of course, is that public spaces are intended for specific purposes.

Although opponents of hostile architecture often intimate that these elements illustrate a rising intolerance to homeless populations, there’s little evidence of this. City government and urban residents have never been especially tolerant of people once referred to as “tramps” and “vagabonds.” Police were commonly employed to force these people to “move along” and this is why homeless populations — which have always existed — tended to congregate in neglected and undesirable parts of the city on the periphery.

Why So Many Are Trying to Live in Public Spaces

The problem we encounter with homelessness and public space today revolves around several factors, chief among them being:

  • Housing policy has reduced housing supply for low-income people.
  • Elected officials are unwilling to control use of public areas.

First and foremost, homelessness is largely a housing-supply problem.1 Over the years, there have been many efforts to attribute homelessness primarily to mental illness and other factors with the implication being that most modern homeless people are people who cannot earn any income at all. But only a small portion of the homeless population suffers from conditions so debilitating they cannot earn any income.

The majority of the homeless population — both temporary and chronic — are better described as people who have very low income potential, and are thus in need of very-low cost housing. Even drug addicts and mentally impaired people can hold down undemanding and low-pay jobs. They are only rendered homeless when low-wage jobs are insufficient to pay for housing in an environment of artificially reduced supply.

But whatever the cause of greatly reduced income, many people often experience a need — either temporary or chronic — for housing that can be obtained at very low cost. Naturally, this sort of housing will tend to be of very low quality. But sleeping in a ramshackle unit with a working toilet and a locking door is far better and far safer than sleeping on a sidewalk.

The problem we encounter today is that cities have largely destroyed much of their earlier-existing housing stock that catered to very-low-income populations, and have imposed restrictions that prevent construction of new housing that could be suitable. The eradication of boarding houses, single-room-occupancy units, and the “flophouses” of old have all forced very-low-income populations into public spaces.

Moreover, homeless shelters are extremely difficult and costly to build due to political opposition from residents, and due to zoning laws.

Certainly, there has always been a certain portion of the population that has gravitated to living “for free” in public spaces, but the modern growth in homelessness numbers is likely a product of the severe lack of supply of housing brought about by government regulation. After all, living in public spaces is never really “free,” since this lifestyle brings with it a host of non-monetary costs in terms of personal safety, health, and sanitation.

Moreover, given that six of the top-ten most expensive cities for rental housing are found in California, it is no mere coincidence that tent-cities and large homeless populations are found primarily on the west coast of the United States. The 2018 homeless assessment, for example, found that California — by itself — accounted for 49 percent of the chronically unsheltered homeless population.2

Yes, homeless populations may, in part, gravitate to California for a lack of extreme weather and for an allegedly greater availability of social benefits. But if San Francisco had not demolished much of its lowest-priced housing over the past fifty years, the volume of people now living on sidewalks would not be as large.

Thus, we find that those with very low incomes are encouraged by housing policies to seek shelter in public spaces.

Local Governments Aren’t Controlling Public Space

The city government must then make the decision of whether or not this can be tolerated, and this brings us to our second factor: access to public space is not easily controlled.

In the United States, few parks and greenbelts control access through physical barriers like fences and gates. Unlike common areas in a private apartment complex — many of which require a resident’s key to access — public spaces are physically open to all.

Enforcement of rules around public space usage is therefore costly in terms of security personnel. Many governments are either unwilling or unable to pay these costs. Moreover, public opposition to forcing homeless out of public spaces — as we see with groups such as the Initiative 300 activists — raise the political cost of enforcing public-space rules for elected officials. In San Francisco, for example — due to both political and financial constraints — the municipal government’s response to homelessness has been mixed. The city stepped up come efforts to enforce its own camping ban in September of 2018. But in October, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, the “district attorney’s office has hit the brakes on charging people who have been cited for sleeping on the city’s streets and in other public areas.”

The result is a sizable population of homeless who cannot retreat to any sort of very-low-price housing, but are also tolerated as permanent residents of public spaces.

Tent cities are the result.

  • 1See “Is Homelessness a Housing Problem?” by James D. Wright and Beth A. Rubin: “only about a third of the homeless have clinically significant psychiatric disorders, leaving two-thirds whose homelessness must result from other factors altogether. It would be misleading to suggest that homelessness is mainly a mental health problem when most of the homeless are not mentally ill.” (https://www.innovations.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/hpd_0203_wright.pdf). Moreover, writing on the 1980s wave of homelessness, Todd Swanstrom writes in “No Room at the Inn”: “Survey evidence shows that the vast majority of the new homeless do not have any especially debilitating condition. This evidence contradicts explanations that rely on personal characteristics of the homeless population. Explanations based on personal pathology also suffer from an inability to explain historical change. It does not make sense to attribute the recent rise in homelessness to a sudden upsurge in the number of people who are unable to cope with life for personal reasons.” Conceivably one could argue that today’s homeless populations are more susceptible to debilitating addictions and mental problems than the people of the 1980s. But given the rampant drug use and crime of the 1980s, this seems unlikely. (https://openscholarship.wustl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1282&context=law_urbanlaw)
  • 2See “The 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress,” page 66.   (https://www.novoco.com/sites/default/files/atoms/files/hud_ahar_2018_121718.pdf)
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