Who Counts?

KJ Shepherd


Texas recently outlawed a state of being. Signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott, House Bill 1925 will enforce a statewide public camping ban, a euphemistic framing for a bill that criminalizes homelessness. Since September 1st, any individual caught camping in public—be it with “a tent, tarpaulin, lean-to, sleeping bag, bedroll, [or] blankets”—will be subject to a Class C misdemeanor charge. How people experiencing homelessness are expected to find stable housing after being saddled with a criminal record and fines up to $500 remains unclear. The bill also prohibits municipalities from passing any ordinances that allow for public camping, and bans cities from designating exempt park spaces without the approval of state bureaucrats.

Despite a total absence of adequate housing provisions for the tens of thousands of Texans immediately impacted by this camping ban, the bill’s Republican author, Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, has deemed its passage part of the broader “humanitarian issue” of addressing homelessness. In the same breath, the lawmaker claims that HB 1925 “helps individuals, families and business owners across the state who are unduly subjected to violent or hazardous activity linked to the rise in public camping.”

It would be foolish, however, to portray these types of measures as strictly deep-red acts of cruelty. Earlier this year in Austin, a town that likes to fashion itself a progressive oasis in the heart of Texas, voters approved Proposition B, a measure that bans homeless encampments in many areas and reinstates a “no sit, no lie” ordinance that had been overturned only two years prior. This type of legislation, transparently targeted at the unhoused, prevents sitting or lying down on sidewalks and public areas. Thousands of unhoused people are now subject to forcible removal and criminal charges.

Despite some wishful thinking that liberal Austinites were duped into bigotry via a ballot initiative from a deceitful PAC, in truth, Proposition B passed by a tremendous margin. A considerable number of the people who fashion themselves liberal in Austin—the kind of who tweet with gravitas that science is real, who display yard signs that extol “love is love” and that Black and Trans Lives Matter, who may have even joined last year’s push to defund the city’s police—voted for Proposition B, an ordinance that is undoubtedly irrational, unloving, racist, transphobic, and a boon for law enforcement.

The perpetuation of homelessness is a longstanding bipartisan failure, and Democratic strongholds have been responsible for some of the worst criminalization measures. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti recently signed a public camping ban. The order bars any encampments “within 500 feet of a ‘sensitive’ facility, including schools, day care facilities, parks and libraries,” and similarly forbids making shelter under or around major roadways. Rather than treat a decades-long crisis in a city that, with inordinately expensive housing and inadequate shelter beds, can’t accommodate even half of its unhoused population, L.A.’s leaders have decided that the best course of action is to attempt to erase any trace of their presence and drive them out of public spaces.

At the federal level, Democratic leadership repudiates—or, at best, deliberately slow-walks—any meaningful attempts to address homelessness. Congresswoman Cori Bush, who once experienced homelessness herself, introduced legislation to create an Unhoused Bill of Rights; the resolution would have declared homelessness a “public health emergency” and called for a multi-system approach to transforming housing within four years. Yet this gesture was largely symbolic. A development that was more representative of the Democratic approach to the crisis came this summer, when eviction protections were allowed to lapse. An extension came too late for many, and renters across the country were kicked out onto the streets. Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden each claimed the other was responsible.

The eviction crisis is only one example of the bipartisan failures around homelessness. The perpetuation of the crisis hinges on an unwillingness to appreciate the stakes for millions of people, in concert with capital’s material interests that preclude even the most paltry of redistributive policies. Homelessness is kept at a psychological distance. There is a widespread inability to comprehend its actual severity—the fact that it is ubiquitous in the richest country in world history. There is an inability to consider the ease with which people can suddenly find themselves without shelter, and the cascading issues (e.g., unpaid tickets that turn into bench warrants) that can make it nearly impossible to return to security. Instead, the tendency is to attribute the crisis to individual pathologies, rather than structural injustice.

Language fails us: outdated terms such as “the homeless” connote that this circumstance is a permanent condition, foreclosing the possibility that these individuals will ever find housing, branding them a permanent underclass. Attempts to correct this semantic shortcoming (“unhoused people”) still convey the idea that one either has or lacks an indoor space to live, even if they rightly allow that not all people without houses lack homes. Even newer terms that make clear that homelessness can be temporary and fixable—that one experiences homelessness rather than is homeless—are undermined by the sense that this somewhat unwieldy phrasing is not a matter of important nuance so much as needless political correctness. What we lack in our discussions of homelessness is a sense of the conditional, of the full spectrum of housing security. There are many levels of precarity between being fully unsheltered and stably housed. The distancing effect persists, enabled by misleading stereotypes, flawed statistical metrics, and by the fact that too many people lack an appreciation for just how easily they could end up on the streets themselves.

This failure of the imagination, of appreciating the real scope, is perpetuated by the difficulty of measuring who, exactly, counts as “homeless.” According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, different federal agencies use different working definitions for people experiencing homelessness and for unhoused youth. While these parameters aren’t necessarily in conflict with one another, they supply us with considerably different conceptual metrics for assessing the scope of the crisis.

The Department of Education’s definition of homeless youth, created by the McKinney-Vento Act, establishes a broad standard for what it means for a young person to “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” including couch surfing, staying in campgrounds, or doubling up in another family’s home. Young people are often at considerable risk of harassment or violence in shelters—especially queer and trans young people, who make up a disproportionate share of homeless individuals under 25. That some might rely on friends and acquaintances for an informal patchwork of shelter makes sense when one recalls that in several states, including Texas, it is a crime for minors to willingly run away from home. (A bill designed to decriminalize runaway youth in Texas did not make it out of committee.) Many other youth are fleeing households where they are abused by family members, are leaving foster care without any financial footing, or are simply living in a residence without a legal contract to rent the space. Accounting for these situations, the figures are staggering: 1 in 30 teenagers and 1 in 10 young adults under 25 are believed to experience some form of homelessness within a given twelve-month period. The estimate for minors alone is close to 750,000 individuals.

But the figures that we discuss more frequently—the numbers that are fodder for punditry and policy—are often much smaller. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has a four-category system for defining homelessness, but relies on its most narrow criteria when conducting the annual nationwide Point in Time (PIT) Count. Every January, Continuum of Care programs (regional planning bodies for housing coordination that were developed in the mid-‘90s) throughout the country employ a combination of census and survey techniques in order to estimate how many people within a jurisdiction are living outside or in temporary shelters. Because these jurisdictions can be massive in population (e.g., New York, Chicago, Los Angeles) or size (e.g., the entirety of Maine, 215 of Texas’s counties), limiting this annual snapshot to those who are “literally homeless” by HUD standards is already deeply reductive. PIT Count volunteers must be properly trained, jurisdictions must be adequately mapped to conduct surveys, and individuals must be approached and assessed before daybreak, whereafter they may leave their location. These variables allow for numerous individuals to slip through the cracks, leading to a count incongruent with the real scale of the crisis.

While an underestimation, the PIT Count numbers are still massive. Nationwide, at the beginning of 2020 (notably, before the pandemic), around 580,000 people were estimated to meet the HUD standards for being “literally homeless.” That figure is comparable to the number of people living in Baltimore or Milwaukee. Even so, PIT Counts allow for a tremendous underappraisal of the real number of housing-insecure Americans. Prior to the onset of COVID-19, experts estimated that the PIT might be too low by anywhere from 15 to 50 percent percent, depending on the region. The pandemic has only made figures less reliable, even as official numbers continue to increase. Because they are a primary source for media, these Point-In-Time figures define our quantified understanding of homelessness. When our numerical sense of the crisis is kept artificially low—there were “only” 2,506 people experiencing homelessness during Austin’s PIT Count in 2020, “just” one percent of people in New York City were unsheltered last January—it becomes easier to cordon off the issue as a problem affecting an incorrigible, uniquely troubled minority of people.

There is a narrative behind anti-homeless policy that goes something like this: Of course we want to end homelessness, state representatives and city councilmembers, both liberal and conservative, will stress time and again. But we also have a duty to our taxpaying citizens to keep our streets safe, so that people feel safe downtown and families feel proud to call this place home. What happens when our children see open begging on the street corners? This turns into a provocation: Do you really think that an overpass or a public park is an acceptable place to live? Do you think the correct thing to do is nothing? Within this well-worn set of talking points, homelessness is only defined by its most visible elements: the people who spend their days queued in front of shelters, panhandling outside boutique cafes, or camped by arterial roads. This minimization is facilitated by a basic statistical misrepresentation.

Underestimating the crisis contributes to a belief the issue can be solved by excision: lancing the boils wherever they’ve blistered up. Taking any kind of action—even by the forcible removal of encampment sweeps—can be posed as a social good. Homeless encampments are a marginal aberration, something outside of society, instead of its structural product. Responding to requests from businesses and homeowners to “sweep” away undesirables in service of protecting retail sales, business functioning, a locality’s appeal to tourists, or real estate value—in other words, profit—is construed as an act of service to the public. The unhoused who refuse shelters or “sanctioned encampments,” no matter their reason (and they can have very good reasons), are “service-resistant.” They are the intransigent who refuse all help offered; by doing so, they bring sweeps down upon themselves.

This logic is, of course, bullshit. The reliance on sweeps proceeds under the pretense that cities are doing something to manage the crisis, rather than, in order to appease wealthy constituents, worsening it. We also know that the most visibly homeless are often multiply marginalized—disproportionately people of color and/or with disabilities—and are already subject to heightened police harassment, even without sweeps or explicit anti-camping or sit/lie ordinances that catalyze further criminalization. Such measures have no utility in housing people and mitigating the crisis; on the contrary, they make it far more difficult for them to escape their circumstances.

As anyone who has worked in homeless services will tell you, the Point In Time Counts that quantify the people in those circumstances are little more than a blurry, zoomed-in snapshot. Many of the people quantified in one year are not the same people counted in the next, even if the overall figures remain relatively stable. Los Angeles County’s PIT numbers, at around 59,000, do not capture the real dynamics of homelessness, as nonprofit research has revealed. Over the course of a year, people are constantly sliding into homelessness, while others filter in and out of housing. The number of people who were homeless at some point in the year, according to an analysis by the Economic Roundtable, was closer to 102,000. This constant tide is obscured by the once-a-year count. COVID-19 has made accurate counts even more difficult. Many jurisdictions have received federal waivers to skip the 2021 count entirely, using come combination of sheltered counts and previous data to forge murky estimates. The presumption that people experiencing homelessness are easily identifiable and counted vastly understates the extent of the crisis.

What we’re left with are city policies that cater chiefly to three groups: homeowners, business, and tourists. Prioritizing the interests of the wealthy goes hand-in-hand with a continued privatization of public space in service of profit, an approach built on surveillance and suspicion. The exclusion of “undesirables” manifests in the built environment, an everyday architecture of cruelty: seat dividers at benches and bus stops, spikes on surfaces and knobs on downtown windowsills, and all manner of attempts to discourage unhoused sleepers.

The public commons, and the right of all people to exist outdoors, is shrinking. An increasing amount of space falls within the presumptive sphere of influence of private owners. Panhandling outside a downtown Starbucks is “bad for local business.” Camping in a neighborhood is a blight to property values. Through countless complaints made to cities and police, as well as apps like NextDoor and Citizen, our surveillance of those experiencing homelessness in public makes us all cops on behalf of cities’ preferred residents: the ones with money and property.

Despite the amount of handwringing that politicians do about a lack of solutions to homelessness, several proven ones already exist: permanent supportive housing, rent control, landlord restrictions, increased social services. It’s almost boring how self-evident this is. Placing people in secure shelter with wraparound services is actually much less costly and far less gruesome than the continued spectacle of cops issuing dozens of pointless tickets before executing violent encampment sweeps. Coupling rent control with restrictions on landlords will prevent the type of weaseling that helped make San Francisco, for example, a hellscape for lower-income tenants. Moving municipal funds from cops to actual social service providers would reduce police brutality and confront the problem at the source. The complete refusal to consider major changes appropriate to the scale of the problem betrays a lack of political imagination; more to the point, it betrays how beholden governments are to the interests of corporations and the rich.

What unites liberals and conservatives in anti-homelessness policies is the shared assumption that the unhoused themselves—and not austerity and social policy—are the root of the problem. This is perpetuated by ideologies that render people culpable for the conditions of their immiseration. Coupled with flawed statistical methods and an interest in underselling the crisis, we remain woefully far from reckoning with the true extent of housing precarity.

The insistence that cities can wish away homelessness by force, by sweeping it around the corner, is fueled by the delusion that housing precarity is a marginal problem, suffered only by a fraction of people with individualized pathologies. Suffering is a glaring eyesore, instead of an indicator of how wretched the entire system is. Rather, the pathology is social. This is a system in which 40 to 60 percent of people experiencing homelessness are employed. Even if they weren’t, all people deserve housing for the sheer fact of their humanity. There should be no debate on this point. Anything less is monstrous.♦

 

 


KJ Shepherd is the editor/producer/co-writer of the Ask Any Buddy Podcast. They live in Austin, Texas.