What uses of public property do government properly allow and restrict? That’s a question of general importance and one brought to the fore in the Denver mayoral race. Specifically, should government allow use of public sidewalks, greenways, and other spaces for unauthorized “camping,” known in the olden days as squatting, or does government have a responsibility to preserve those public areas for public use?
You might guess, given how I’ve set up the issue, that I think squatting often interferes with public use and so government should restrict it. That’s right, but the issue is more complicated than that. How government restricts squatting matters a great deal. No decent person thinks government should lock nonviolent homeless people in cages or steal their stuff. Moreover, how “public” property gets used is an inherently thorny issue, so any seemingly simple answer probably is wrong.
I’ll open with an anecdote. I have not been to the Arvada Library in many months because, last time I went, a homeless gathering led up to the front door. One of the rough-looking men there—they were all men—seemed to be playing a funny game of “keep away” as he held a young child away from the parents. Hilarious!
I resolved at that point not to return to that library with my child, even though Jefferson County forces my family to help finance the facility. I was not at all surprised to hear that the library shut down in late January because of the “presence of methamphetamine residue.” Some people suggested online that there was no connection between the methamphetamine inside the library and the homeless gatherings immediately outside it. Sure.
As the media release reporting the closure points out, “health risks from casual secondary exposure to meth residue (surfaces/smoke) in public places is very low.” And some commentators have mocked people online for worrying about this. But my concern is not that my kid will get methamphetamine poisoning in the library. My concern is that my kid will walk into the restroom while a drug addict, possibly one with other mental health issues, is consuming methamphetamine there. Libraries are supposed to be family-friendly, and the Arvada Library plainly is not.
Public spaces have rules
Government sets all kinds of rules for public spaces. In the library, you can’t smoke meth (or anything else) in the restroom. You can’t reserve a study room for an orgy. You have to wear clothes. You can’t walk through the library shouting.
We all accept the necessity for such rules. I can’t put up a storage shed in the public street. I can’t build a log cabin in the city open space in my neighborhood, even though the views would be amazing. We all know what would happen if I tried to build that cabin. Government agents would tell me to stop. If I didn’t stop, eventually armed agents would physically remove me and the cabin. If I forcibly resisted, they would arrest me and charge me with a crime. This is not news to anyone.
Yet some people would have us believe that a homeless person has an absolute right to set up camp in any public space, regardless of how that affects public use and public safety. If I go to a state park to camp, I have to reserve and pay for a space in advance. But if I go to the streets of Denver or some other city and want to pitch a tent along a sidewalk or in front of a library or other public building, no one should stop me, some claim.
What are Denver mayoral candidates saying? Lisa Calderón Tweeted, “You can’t be for the camping ban and against sweeps. The sweeps are the enforcement mechanism for the ban—anything less than opposing both will harm unhoused people. We can’t incarcerate people for the simple act of being poor!”
Kyle Clark Tweeted, “Denver mayoral candidate [Leslie Herod] says she believes 90% of the city’s unsheltered homeless will accept offers of shelter but, unlike some others in the race, Herod says she will not arrest those who refuse.”
Meanwhile, “Kelly Brough and four other candidates for Denver mayor are vowing to involuntarily commit or arrest people living on the streets if they won’t go to a sanctioned location or treatment center,” Axios reports.
The presumption on “both” sides is that the city is setting up some sort of authorized place to stay. That’s reasonable. If a person literally has nowhere else to go, forcing them out of one public area just means pushing them into another. That is both pointless and mean. So the question is, given someone has a place to go that is about as good or better then their current spot—such as another, more suitable, authorized public space—is it reasonable to ask them to move out of a public space in order to preserve public use of that space, and to force them to move if necessary? The uncomfortable but correct answer is yes.
The problems of “public” properties are well-known to libertarian types. These spaces are at once owned by everyone and no one. Government controls them, which means that politicians and bureaucrats control them, which means that, indirectly, voters control them. Arguably various public spaces should be sold to private parties. But we need not resolve the thorny philosophic problems with public (government-owned) property to recognize, at least, that the people who pay to maintain that property should be able to use it in reasonable ways.
No homeless exception to trespass
Homeless encampments that interfere with people’s normal use of sidewalks, parks, libraries, and other public spaces violate the rights of those people and constitute a form of trespass. Similarly, if I tried to camp in a state park without paying or build a log cabin in city open space, that would be a sort of trespass.
I trust that, in other contexts, Calderón, Herod, and others recognize the legitimacy of government acting against trespass. I doubt either would allow a random stranger to take up residence in their living rooms. I suspect that, if a random stranger tried to do that, both Calderón and Herod would call the police to have the intruder forcibly removed. The context shifts when we’re talking about a public sidewalk or park, but still it seems obvious that certain individual uses harm many others’ ability to use that space and so constitute a form of trespass.
This does not mean we should tolerate cops terrorizing homeless people. Forcible removal should be the last resort, not the default. The aim should be to help get people back on their feet, not to keep knocking them down. There’s no point in incarcerating people who pose no substantial threat to themselves or others. The standard approach should involve offering people a better and safer place to stay, putting them in contact with organizations that can help them, and getting them into mental health treatment if they need and want it. A compassionate approach is compatible with managing public spaces for public use. Government policy properly is compassionate both to people suffering homelessness and to people who fund the maintenance of public spaces.
I again point out that the problem of homelessness is, in part, a problem of government artificially limiting the supply of housing through myriad restrictions. As Aaron Carr points out, “Homelessness is primarily a housing problem.” I have called for a genuinely free market in housing, which would boost supply, lower costs, and help alleviate homelessness. Instead, the so-called “progressives” in the legislature are busy wrapping the housing market in more red tape, which will limit supply and increase costs.
The issue of homelessness is hard. But, whatever is the right approach, it cannot involve forcing people to finance public spaces that they then cannot safely use because those areas have been converted to unauthorized personal encampments. The people paying the bills have rights too.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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