“Homelessness Crisis” discourse can generally be broken down into two distinct trends, depending on how one interprets the terms involved: On one side, there are those who believe the crisis in question is that there are human beings living without shelter and the central conflict is a lack of available homes and care for the people who need them; on the other side, there are those who think the crisis is that there are too many homeless people in public spaces who, by virtue of existing, are “hurting business” and generally undermining the “quality of life” of “taxpayers.”  These two groups almost always talk past each other, often deliberately so. Sometimes their goals can overlap, but on certain fundamental issues there is simply no common ground. more often than not, their goals, sympathies, and convictions are in direct opposition to one another. 

This logical end of this Just Get Them Out of My Sight approach, internment camps, is increasingly becoming a mainstream position.

Politicians, for their part, will do their best to pander to both camps, often speaking in terms that deliberately obscure which interpretation of the crisis (and how to address it) they’re trafficking in. But when it comes down to concrete policy, there is no way to avoid the tension between these two interpretations. 

More and more, those who fall into the latter camp—the Simply Remove Visible Poverty Camp—are dispensing with the pretense of indulging the former, or having humanitarian concerns of any kind, and are becoming more overt about “getting tough” on the homeless people themselves. 

This logical end of this Just Get Them Out of My Sight approach, internment camps, is increasingly becoming a mainstream position. 

Last June, the Miami city commission approved a plan to ship their homeless population to Virginia Key island. The plan was later put on ice after pushback (which had less to do with the moral catastrophe of the situation than the fact that wealthy residents of the island didn’t want the homeless people in their backyards). Former gubernatorial candidate Michael Shellenberger called for National Guard- and FEMA-run camps to warehouse California’s homeless population—camps where they would be forced to seek “services” under the threat of arrest and jail. Former Los Angeles mayoral candidate Rick Caruso flirted with a similar idea, insisting his “emergency” homeless plan would be based on the ICE emergency detention centers for migrant children set up by the Trump administration. Then there was this op-ed published last week in the Times of San Diego, in which “businessman” George Mullen and NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton remove all the liberal euphemism and explicitly call for San Diego’s homeless population to be rounded up and put in an internment camp (“ranch”) in the middle of nowhere Southern California. (The dehumanizing, barely readable prose refers to unhoused people as “walking-zombies” and “out-of-control substance abusers about to attack us.”) 

When our formerly lovable hippie NBA legends start sounding like foaming commenters on Breitbart, something ominous is happening in our discourse.

When our formerly lovable hippie NBA legends start sounding like foaming commenters on Breitbart, something ominous is happening in our discourse.  

All of the above proposals for what amount to homeless internment camps are at least savvy enough to note that the homeless people “relocated” to these camps “may come and go as they please.” But this, to anyone reading the fine print, is clearly untrue. All of these proposals are paired with a parallel demand that camping throughout the city or relevant jurisdiction be categorically banned on pain of prison. Thus, camping outside the “federal emergency homeless help zone” would be criminalized and result in arrest and jail. When someone cannot afford housing and the only place they can legally sleep outside is a designated government-run camp, that government-run camp becomes somewhere they are, by definition, forced to be. They are “allowed to leave” only in the most superficial sense; that is, they are only “allowed to leave” on their way to another jurisdiction or prison. If police are going to harass and arrest any person experiencing homelessness who is not in the “federal emergency homeless help zone,” then the “federal emergency homeless help zone” becomes, ipso facto, an internment camp. 

There’s a general ethos that Something Must Be Done about the homelessness crisis in the United States today. One hears this rhetorical posture all the time: “We must DO SOMETHING.” Press conferences are called, mayors are flanked by Serious Looking Officials, city council members, and, of course, cops. “Task forces” are created, “states of emergency” are “declared.” Every elected official in the US is conspicuously Taking The Homelessness Crisis Seriously and assuring constituents that they are, in fact, doing something. If that “something” involved building more affordable and free housing, that would certainly be progress—but that is rarely the policy embraced. Any robust social welfare solution “post-pandemic,” in this time of austerity, is simply off the table.

Without the will or ability to actually solve the crisis by taking the necessary concrete steps—like, for instance, investing tens of billions of dollars in constructing robust, safe housing—local officials, various arms of capital, and wealthy homeowners are taking matters into their own hands, attempting to simply remove the problem from sight rather than solve it in any meaningful sense.

When it comes to these discussions, the elephant in the room is the fact that the United States is more than rich enough to “solve homelessness” in a matter of months, but that doing so would radically alter our social and economic system. Indeed, well-intentioned people—even those who don’t consider themselves “on the left”—routinely point out that, on paper, it’s “cheaper” to house people than to imprison them or spend millions paying cops to harass them. While this is technically true, it’s looking at the wrong metric. 

The interest of Capital, in the long term, is to maintain a steady percentage of extreme poverty. This isn’t conjecture or abstract theory: it was well documented and made quite explicit throughout the debates around Enhanced Unemployment Insurance and COVID-related stimulus packages in late 2020 and early 2021. Creating a modestly higher floor for millions in response to the pandemic reduced poverty and increased wages and labor power across the board, which organs of capital openly insisted that, by not letting working people fall into an economic abyss, the government was setting a dangerous precedent that would allow workers’ wages to rise, thus “disincentivizing” them from taking low-paying, difficult, and abusive jobs— a “nut” those in power are “still trying to crack.” Sen. Lindsay Graham (SC-R) said as much in June 2021, telling reporters, “[people] are not going to work for $15 an hour and make $23 unemployed.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board articulated a similar sentiment when it opposed the move to extend unemployment benefits in April 2020, writing that “Employees say they’ll take the unemployment check for as long as they can make more money by not working. One internal Trump Administration analysis estimates that this work disincentive applies to millions of Americans.” The Chamber of Commerce also aggressively lobbied to end what was, in effect, a basic income for people on unemployment. Neil Bradley, the chamber’s executive vice president and chief policy officer, stated matter-of-factly in May 2021 that “the disappointing jobs report makes it clear that paying people not to work is dampening what should be a stronger jobs market.”

Put another way: If they are not coerced by a credible, ever-present fear of homelessness, or a lack of healthcare, or the specter of destitution more broadly, low-wage workers are more difficult to control, abuse, sexually harass, etc.—and they are, most importantly, less likely to accept lower wages. This isn’t how the likes of Graham, Bradley, and the WSJ editorial board phrase their “concerns,” of course, but it’s what they mean. Indeed, why would a worker put up with a low-paying, unpleasant job if they can quit and still have their basic needs met? After decades of neoliberal austerity, wage stagnation for workers, and rampant corporate pillage, the ad hoc welfare state that began to emerge during the pandemic existentially frightened Capital, which is why we got a year-and-a-half straight of “labor shortage” panic, baseless bromides about how “no one wants to work anymore,” and manufactured inflation pressure on Congress

This coercive reality of this dynamic defines people’s harried search for secure housing in a capitalist society as much as it defines their need to secure a basic income. If everyone was guaranteed a safe, secure house, labor power would radically increase overnight. A fixed percentage of extreme poverty is necessary to discipline the bottom rung of labor, whose fear of homelessness is one of their biggest—if not the single biggest—motivations for working a shitty, sweaty, abusive, low paying job. But lately, especially given the spiraling cost of housing, this fixed population of extremely poor people has gotten out of hand and caused PR problems for capitalism’s political arms, especially for Democrats who run large cities. Thus, the only solution is to arrest and harass said population back into invisibility. 

Meaningfully helping our fellow human beings who are living in destitution—by providing free housing, basic income, etc.—is simply not an option for the powers that be. Providing such tangible material support for struggling people would lead to increased labor power and higher wages, and our political class won’t let that happen again for at least several generations. The only “solution,” then, is to manage this surplus population, committing state resources to a draconian campaign to imprison people experiencing homelessness, to displace them, or to let them freeze to death until their existence ceases to be a PR problem for local electeds. With our options so limited by a political status quo premised on manufactured austerity, and with our ability to imagine societal alternatives so stunted by the hyper-atomization of our local polities, there’s no other way. 

This is why more overtly dystopian “solutions” to the “homelessness crisis” are growing more mainstream. Without the will or ability to actually solve the crisis by taking the necessary concrete steps—like, for instance, investing tens of billions of dollars in constructing robust, safe housing—local officials, various arms of capital, and wealthy homeowners are taking matters into their own hands, attempting to simply remove the problem from sight rather than solve it in any meaningful sense. To the average person, this approach can seem reasonable, even attractive. The idea of providing basic income and free, permanent housing to this country’s hundreds of thousands of homeless people must seem, on the surface, like asking for a perpetual motion machine or free energy: a pipe dream that’s so far out of the realm of political possibility it’s not even considered.  

Again, it’s important to recognize that these increasingly heartless sentiments, and the equally heartless policy solutions that result from them, are very much a bipartisan problem. Paralleling the trajectory of their conservative counterparts, liberal discourse has grown more carceral. Allegedly progressive outlets like The Young Turks let their millionaire owner/anchors call for greater criminalization of poverty to “deal with the problem.” Democratic mayors stand in front of “sweeps” praising police for “clearing camps,” all while making vague and manifestly bullshit promises that all the people removed by the raids got housing somewhere else. In a political system such as ours, at a political moment such as this, where cowardice, meanness, austerity, and atomization are the operating principles for maintaining order, there is no other option. 

The trueness of the old adage “socialism or barbarism” can be most acutely observed at the bottom rung of society—from the 30 million Americans without healthcare to the 2.3 million locked in prisons, to those caught in our school-to-prison pipeline, to the homeless. We can either address these social ills with robust social welfare or abject cruelty. Having foreclosed on the former, having given up on a meaningful, deficit-funded federal plan to house the country’s growing homeless population, all that’s left is barbarism. And the barbarism that’s the most intellectually honest, the unabashed barbarism that cuts out the bleeding-heart euphemisms and empty promises of “affordable housing,” the self-styled pragmatic barbarism that takes the framework of Simply Removing Visible Poverty to its logical end and openly calls for internment camps and imprisonment, will be the most viral and popular. Because, for all the cruelty it entails, it’s still the most clear-eyed, immediate, and attractive “solution” to a voting public that doesn’t like being worked over by mealy mouthed politicians who won’t just come out and say what they actually intend to do. They want their barbarism naked and clearly spelled out. It may still seem relatively fringe for now, but as the squeeze of another recession looms, “the homelessness crisis” will continue to become more pronounced, inequality will continue to balloon, and those providing the most honest version of barbarism will become more attractive to more people.

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Adam Johnson hosts the Citations Needed podcast and writes at The Column on Substack. Follow him @adamjohnsonCHI.