Overview:

Missouri's latest law reveals a much deeper humanitarian nightmare in the US. With poverty and precarity rising across the country, what can be done by policymakers now?

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As of January 1, 2023, the state of Missouri requires cities and counties to enforce a ban on sleeping on public property: under bridges, in parks, and of course along public walkways. Offenders face up to 15 days in jail, or a $750 fine. The same law also redirects state and federal funding away from permanent housing projects, and toward “assist[ing] individuals with substance use, mental health treatment, and other services like short-term housing.”

This makes Missouri’s version of a bill developed by the Cicero Institute the most extreme yet—but also perfectly aligned with Cicero’s opposition to the Housing First model of state response to the unhoused. With some parts of Missouri lacking shelters entirely, and funding not rising to match anticipated need, this bill amounts to criminalizing the homeless.

It’s not the only one.

In late November, New York Mayor Eric Adams announced an agenda that broadens state sanction for the “involuntary removal” of people deemed by officials to be “in danger due to an inability to meet their basic needs”. This aggressive move to force people into treatment programs met with backlash, but courts tentatively upheld it in mid-December.

Likewise, in Los Angeles’ autumn elections, the city grappled with fallout from a recent escalation of Ordinance 41.18, which had already banned “sitting, lying, sleeping, using, maintaining, or placing personal property in the public right-of-way”. As of August, sitting, lying, or sleeping on sidewalks near schools or daycare centers had been banned as well. In December, newly elected Mayor Karen Bass declared a state of emergency for the city’s homeless crisis, and called for a united response to the problem, which finds some 42,000 local residents unhoused. But will this be done humanely?

The broader US crisis

California is an important case study in US poverty and precarity. Research makes clear that the state’s homeless crisis derives from a lack of affordable housing, stark shelter shortages, and the role of decades-long cuts to institutional supports for people living with mental illness and/or addiction, along with people transitioning through the justice system. However, Housing First policy also struggles in California due to skyrocketing costs for living for everyone. This highlights another part of the overall crisis in the US.

It’s not for nothing that other US laws coming into effect this year address taxation and wages. 20 states still follow the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. 23 states will see a local raise this year, ranging from Michigan’s 23 cents (to $10.10) to Nebraska’s $1.50 hike (to $9.50), while the highest paid district remains Washington, at $15.74 per hour for the same labor. Around two thirds of states will also see tax cuts or one-time rebates for average citizens this year, with cuts to income tax and (in Kansas, Virginia, and Colorado) some household products. Meanwhile, Massachusetts, with a four percent surcharge on income over one million dollars, increased taxes on its most affluent.

Will this be enough to weather the difficult economic storm predicted for 2023?

Probably not. A recent State Newsroom analysis found that US child poverty was highest in states that haven’t raised their minimum wage: in 16 states, more than 12 percent of children already live below the line. In New York City, 14 percent of locals live in poverty, with BIPOC citizens represented at a two-to-one ratio to white New Yorkers. The national average, of 12.8 percent, is little better.

Against this already bleak backdrop, the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently released data on the stark deterioration of household finances in 2022, especially for “Hispanic consumers, consumers under 40, and low-income renters”. Over 37 percent of households could not cover expenses for more than a month if they lost their income, and 31 percent of renters missed at least one payment in 2022.

The “winners”, and the rest of us

So where does this brutality toward homeless people come from, when the line between precarity and abject poverty in the US is thinner than ever?

The Cicero Institute, a conservative think-tank out of Austin, Texas, was only founded in 2016, but has already had an outsized impact on US government action. Nine bills thus far, in Arizona, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wisconsin, match language from its “Reducing Street Homelessness Act”, which makes a Class C misdemeanor out of sleeping on public property, and proposes a fine of up to $5,000 and a month in jail for the individual—along with penalties to any municipality or nonprofit service that fails to uphold the ban.

As ever, the idea that conservative groups are actually for smaller government goes out the window when it comes to punitive public policy. But in this case there’s a clear profit-motive, too. Cicero’s founder, Joe Lonsdale, is the billionaire co-founder of Palantir, a software company noted for surveillance systems targeting migrants, along with systems for battlefield management, predictive policing, and facial recognition. Such companies clearly benefit from legislation that requires constant vigilance on the part of local governments and related state organizations. Policies such as Missouri’s latest ban predict future spending increases on enforcement services such as theirs.

READ: Fear corporate monopolies, not AI

Corporate steering of public policy is an increasingly common issue in US democracy. In 2019, the Center for Public Integrity, USA Today, and the Arizona Republic produced the “Copy, Paste, Legislate” project: a review of eight years of legislation that found over 10,000 bills using language set by corporations, think tanks, and industry reps, in service to their special interests. Over 20 percent of those bills became law.

In the case of Missouri’s latest bill against sleeping in public spaces, there is also attendant interest in establishing a designated encampment similar to Camp Esperanza in Texas, which since 2019 offered communal housing to some 170 unhoused people, far from main city services, and which in 2021 was demolished so that the dominant nonprofit involved could rebuild in the form of modest single-person units.

And therein lies the maddening reinvention of a shoddier wheel: the original project not only sanctioned uprooting homeless people from intercity networks and job proximity, but also increased health and wellbeing risks to its kettled residents. The state’s short term solution, finding a nonprofit willing to build something resembling stable individual housing in its stead, wasted time and state resources that could have been spent on the obvious fix: building safer, more affordable permanent residences from the outset.

The line between precarity and poverty in the US is already fragile. Since 2016, the country has seen a rise in homeless populations, tethered in large part to state decisions shaping housing costs and zoning policy. Missouri’s latest bill can easily be read as a one-off of US extremism, but this “union” as a whole has a serious humanitarian reckoning on its hands for 2023. As the world’s economic fortunes continue to decline for reasons ranging from war to pandemic to climate change, how we build better on a local level will determine the robustness of our societies for many difficult years ahead. Are we up to the task?

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.