First they came for the homeless . . .

No matter what metrics you examine, the national housing crisis gets only more dire with each passing month–yet the prevailing social response has been to make it ever harder for people to find a place they can call home. The predictable result: more people living on the streets, more rattletrap RVs heading for public lands and growing tension between those who own a home (or can afford rent) and those who don’t.

On the supply side, the latest news is that the average home price in the U.S. popped above $375,000 in March, a 15% increase over the past 12 months. This development came against a backdrop of mortgage rates nearly doubling in the same period, prompting headline writers to coo that an overwrought real estate market might finally be poised to cool down, as if that’s somehow meaningful. But unless they’re predicting an actual real estate downturn (they’re not), what the headline writers are saying is that housing prices will remain lodged at levels far higher than most working people can afford.

On the demand side, there simply isn’t enough affordable housing to go around, and the consequences are truly inhumane. Thomas Fuller, writing last week for the New York Times out of its San Francisco bureau, reported that Los Angeles last year averaged five homeless deaths a day, including 287 who “took their last breath on the sidewalk.” Overall, he added, “the epidemic of deaths on the streets of American cities has accelerated, as the homeless population has aged and the cumulative toll of living and sleeping outdoors has shortened lives.”

Austin, Denver, Indianapolis, Nashville and Salt Lake City are among the cities Fuller cited where officials and homeless advocates have been alarmed by the rising number of deaths–yet the public response to homelessness in these and other cities has been increasingly punitive. The Los Angeles City Council, for example, recently decided that starting May 15 it will again enforce parking restrictions for “vehicle dwellings,” which essentially means that derelict RVs will get towed away. There undoubtedly are numerous legitimate reasons for doing this–not least among them a marked upswing in RVs going up in flames on city streets–but without an offsetting effort to provide low-cost housing, this simply means the city will be pushing homeless people back onto the sidewalk.

Sidewalk living, however, is increasingly criminalized. Austin, once an affordable city, has become the national leader in rising housing costs, with rents soaring 40% over the twelve months through February. Its residents nonetheless voted last year to reinstate criminal penalties against public camping, and the Texas legislature piled on a few weeks later by banning homeless encampments statewide and fining offenders $500. That’s called “squeezing blood from a stone,” but other states–including Florida and New Hampshire–have followed suit with similarly draconian bans.

Remarkably enough, some few landowners have tried to do what their public representatives apparently can’t, opening their private property to homeless campers. Unremarkably, mostly what they get is community pushback and official slap-downs. When one such private project, Camp Haven Sanctuary, became home to 19 otherwise homeless people outside Austin, local neighbors blasted the effort in online posts that were so vitriolic they had to be taken down. A similar encampment on private land in Akron, Ohio, was shut down by city officials who said it violated zoning restrictions–as were encampments in Salt Lake City, Morganton, WV, and elsewhere.

The housing squeeze is getting worse in other ways as well. Mobile home parks, frequently cited as America’s cheapest non-subsidized housing, increasingly are being sold either to developers who want the land for other uses, or to speculators intent on raising the rents. On those rare occasions when state legislators try to enact some kind of relief–as is happening currently in Colorado, where a House bill would cap annual rent increases–the real estate industry responds with cries about “rent control” and accusations of government overreach. Those may or may not be valid points, but they’re never followed by alternative approaches for dealing with a growing human tragedy.

Elsewhere, Tennessee earlier this month enacted a law straight out of a Dickens novel, requiring renters who want to appeal an eviction to first produce a year’s worth of rent. To break that down: if you’re a renter in Tennessee and can’t afford a rent hike, your landlord can evict you–and you’ll need to show a judge $15,000 or so before you can even file an appeal. Since for many people that’s even less likely than homeless people having $500 to pay a fine in Texas, the inevitable result will be even more people on the street.

Tennessee, to be sure, may be on the kook fringe. This is the state, after all, that made national headlines this past week when it also hopped onto the criminalization bandwagon, passing legislation that makes it a felony to camp or sleep in parks or other public property. Sen. Frank Niceley (see? another Dickensian touch, if rather sardonically so) backed the bill by telling his colleagues that in 1910 Adolf Hitler “decided” to be homeless. “So for two years, Hitler lived on the streets and practiced his oratory and his body language and how to connect with the masses and then went on to lead a life that got him in the history books,” Niceley recounted.

“So a lot of these people, it’s not a dead-end,” Niceley concluded, in the ultimate perversion of a let’s-make-lemonade-out-of-lemons sermon. “They can come out of this, these homeless camps and have a productive life — or in Hitler’s case a very unproductive life.”

Hard to know just what Niceley intended with that unfortunate digression, but one reasonable interpretation is that our treatment of the homeless is breeding thousands of potential Adolf Hitlers. Maybe that suggests we should get serious about finding alternative responses. Until that happens, however, we can expect more homeless people occupying state and federal land, and more of a jaundiced attitude toward RVers and campers in general.

Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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