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Wealth & Poverty Review The New Favelas

A West Coast experiment with sanctioned homeless encampments has proved disastrous—and Covid-19 might make it even worse. Originally published at City Journal

Progressives routinely denounce economic inequality, yet the nation’s most liberal cities offer the most dramatic illustrations of it, with tech-driven wealth at the top and addiction-driven homelessness at the bottom. In the past five years, some streets in Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, and Seattle have started to resemble Latin American favelas, or shantytowns, with thousands sleeping in tents, shacks, and packing crates. One United Nations official recently compared West Coast encampments to the slums of New Delhi. California governor Gavin Newsom has declared homelessness a “state of emergency.”

And yet, as the coronavirus pandemic persists, West Coast cities have legalized and provided services to these encampments, rather than enacting emergency shelter and moving people off the streets. This reckless decision follows a disturbing trend. Last year, Oakland began supplying 22 officially sanctioned homeless encampments with services, sanitation, and supplies. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “the camps, which were once largely confined to freeway underpasses and the warehouse district . . . have now become a common sight on city streets, in parks and even in residential neighborhoods.” Activists organized one homeless encampment in accordance with the principles of the Occupy Wall Street and Standing Rock protests, declaring it a radical experiment in proving that “curbside residents” have a “right to exist.” The media touted the 77th Avenue Rangers, an encampment that permits children as residents, as exemplifying compassion, safety, and self-governance.

Despite their benign rhetoric of “housing our curbside neighbors,” sanctioned encampments are proving disastrous—and some cities are now pushing back. Throughout Oakland, residents have complained about drugs, trash, violence, crime, and prostitution. The 77th Avenue Rangers’ encampment, hailed as a model, collapsed after three people died of exposure and a “criminal element” took over the camp’s governance. Mayor Libby Schaaf, who initially supported sanctioned encampments, quickly reversed course. Sanctioned encampments had “ended in fires, unhealthy conditions for residents, let alone the surrounding community,” Schaaf told reporters. “From my experience, we have tried it and it has failed.” Following this change in strategy, the city has embarked on a “homeless encampment crackdown,” bulldozing a 30-person site under the subway tracks and shutting down a 74-person camp in the parking lot of a Home Depot.

Elsewhere, the progressive-socialist coalition shows no sign of having second thoughts. In Seattle, Socialist Alternative councilwoman Kshama Sawant recently sponsored an ordinance, since passed, to create 40 sanctioned encampments throughout the city. The legislation exempts the homeless sites from land-use permitting, allows unlimited one-year renewals, and legalizes construction of new encampments within residential neighborhoods. This means that the city could soon move up to 4,000 unsheltered homeless—75 percent of whom have substance-abuse and mental health disorders—into “low-barrier” tent encampments that allow open alcohol and drug use. 

Even by the standards of the most aggressive homeless advocates, this is a surprising move. Two years ago, when Seattle opened a “low-barrier” encampment in the Licton Springs neighborhood, it unleashed chaos and caused a 220 percent increase in crime. After months of citizen complaints, public officials finally disbanded it. If one such site didn’t work in the past, why open 40 now? Progressive political leaders have used the juxtaposition of wealthy high-rises and homeless encampments in major cities to tout a message about “capitalism’s failure.” Activist groups have secured multimillion-dollar contracts to manage sanctioned encampments, where they sometimes require residents to earn “participation credits” by protesting for favored legislation at City Hall.

How far can this go? Evidence suggests that public tolerance is limited. Even in super-progressive California, 64 percent of voters believe that the government should “restrict sleeping and tent encampments on sidewalks, in public parks, and in other public areas,” and 56 percent believe “it’s not compassionate to enable the brutal life found in tent cities” and that “sometimes you have to force people to make a change.”

For now, though, progressives hold monopoly political power on the West Coast. Cities including BerkeleyRichmondWoodlandOlympia, and Tacoma all have plans to expand sanctioned encampments. In the wake of Covid-19, perhaps these cities will reconsider their plans. If not, they will inevitably encounter all the same problems, in addition to a potential new one—serving as vectors for another outbreak of the virus.

Christopher Rufo

Director, Center on Wealth, Poverty & Morality
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.