Using public property to address homelessness: Discourses of waste-avoidance and serving the public good in US federal homeless assistance policy

Authors: Christine Jocoy*, California State University - Long Beach
Topics: Urban Geography, Land Use, Legal Geography
Keywords: homelessness, law, public property, United States
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Calvert Room, Omni, East
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

When homelessness emerged in the United States in the 1980s as a public concern worthy of government intervention, advocates for homeless assistance forced President Reagan to act by using his own rhetoric about the wastefulness of big government against him. They did so by pointing out the ways in which unused and underutilized government-owned property was going to waste when it could be used to help the nation’s neediest. This discourse of waste-avoidance appeared in multiple arenas: faith-based organizations, city government efforts to deal with tax-delinquent properties, views of people close to Reagan’s Cabinet, and the Department of Defense. Within these venues, debates about the appropriate use of public property created the conditions necessary for the passage of federal legislation to reuse surplus public property for homeless assistance. Through an analysis of the US Congressional Record, this paper explicates the discourses justifying the use of public property to address homelessness that became precedent for the passage of Title V of the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act in 1987, which enabled advocates to claim surplus federal property for homeless use. Homeless advocates’ application of this law is one way they countered the influence of private property owners and the trend to manage public space as if it were private property. This study has implications for understanding recent legal cases in which municipal and county governments in California, as part of settlements, are agreeing to use public property to shelter homeless people removed from the streets by anti-camping and loitering laws.

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