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When “Compassion” is Contempt

Washington State legislators might soon legalize homeless encampments on streets, sidewalks, and parks. Originally published at City Journal

The Washington legislature is one step closer to legalizing homeless encampments statewide. Last week, Democratic lawmakers passed through committee legislation, introduced by Representative Mia Gregerson, that would usurp the authority of city governments and legalize camping in all “plazas, courtyards, parking lots, sidewalks, public transportation facilities, public buildings, shopping centers, parks, [and] natural and wildlife areas” throughout the state.

If passed, the bill, inspired in part by the work of Seattle University professor Sara Rankin, who claims to “advance the civil, constitutional, and human rights of visibly poor people” through “the repeal of laws that criminalize homelessness and poverty,” would represent the most significant extension of “survival crime” theory into American law. Survival-crime theory has been percolating through academic journals since the late 1980s. In a widely circulated paper, Rankin argues that the “intersectionality of poverty and homelessness” forces marginalized individuals to commit crimes to ensure their basic survival; therefore, state and local governments should abolish prohibitions against public camping, drug consumption, and low-level property crime.

Gregerson’s legislation adopts similar survival-crime rhetoric, stating a goal of preventing local cities and agencies from enforcing “laws that criminalize public survival by persons who are experiencing homelessness” and arguing — contrary to voluminous evidence — that “local ordinances of this kind do not reduce homelessness or crime.” The proposed law would violate every tenet of local control. It would create a separate legal standard for average citizens and “marginalized individuals.” Under the banner of compassion, it would effectively create a new class of untouchables — those who subsist in public spaces. “Compassion has become the human face of contempt,” social critic Christopher Lasch wrote a generation ago, and that observation is more relevant than ever. “Today we accept double standards — as always, a recipe for second-class citizenship — in the name of humanitarian concern.” 

Homelessness and drug addiction are ravaging Seattle, Washington’s largest city. More than 400 illegal encampments now exist within the city limits. Last year, municipal cleanup crews collected more than 2.4 million pounds of trash and human waste from a small fraction of these encampments. Discarded needles litter the streets, and even Puget Sound’s famed mussels have tested positive for opioids.

Prohibitions against public camping, littering, drug consumption, and theft do not “criminalize homelessness” — they provide the foundation for public safety in urban environments. Social disorder will only increase if Gregerson’s bill becomes law. The legislation would perpetuate the suffering of addicts and the mentally ill, who constitute more than 80 percent of the street population. The solution to the city’s homelessness crisis is to remove the incentives to live outdoors, let police officers enforce the law, and empower social workers and outreach teams to help the most vulnerable get off the streets, into treatment and housing, and on the path to self-sufficiency.

As Gregerson has noted, California, Illinois, Rhode Island, and Connecticut are all considering similar legislation. Officials there and elsewhere will be watching Washington closely. The state’s experiment with survival-crime theory will be a national test case of whether cities can survive the abolition of critical public-safety laws.

Christopher Rufo

Director, Center on Wealth & Poverty
Christopher Rufo is the director of the Discovery Institute’s Center on Wealth & Poverty. He has directed four documentaries for PBS, Netflix, and international television, including his latest film, America Lost, that tells the story of three "forgotten American cities.” Christopher is currently a contributing editor of City Journal, where he covers poverty, homelessness, addiction, crime, and other afflictions. Christopher is a magna cum laude graduate of Georgetown University, Claremont Institute Lincoln Fellow, and has appeared on NPR, CNN, ABC, CBS, HLN, and FOX News.