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A Palantir Co-Founder Is Pushing Laws to Criminalize Homeless Encampments Nationwide

This month, Kansas residents met at the statehouse to voice their thoughts on a bill that would ban “public camping,” one of many bills across the country in recent years designed to target people experiencing unsheltered homelessness by making it illegal to sleep outside. 

Specifically, the bill would make it a Class C misdemeanor to sleep in public, and would bar municipalities from blocking enforcement of the law, allowing the state attorney general to sue cities and counties if they try to pass a less hostile ordinance.  While most of the speakers had a connection to the state, one speaker, Judge Glock, who was the only speaker to endorse the bill according to one attendee, spoke on behalf of the Cicero Institute, an Austin, Texas-based think tank. Glock, also a member of the conservative Manhattan Institute who has written op-eds for The Wall Street Journal and National Review, serves as a senior fellow at Cicero. 

It might not be clear at first blush why a think tank based in Austin, Texas is invested in a camping ban being pushed in Topeka, Kansas. In fact, the Cicero Institute has spent the last few years pushing its own model anti-camping legislation in cities across the country in an attempt to criminalize homelessness and to divert funding away from permanent, supportive housing, which it has posited as too slow and costly to deal with public encampments. Cicero-authored bills have been passed statewide in Texas and in Missouri, and statewide bills are being considered in seven other states including California, Oregon and Arizona. 

“It’s just really terrifying how successful they’ve been”

Anti-camping bans are not new, but Cicero’s coordinated legislative push for increased criminalization is. “This used to be bad policy that emerged semi-organically at the local level,” says Eric Tars, The National Homeless Law Center’s legal director. “Everyone would say, oh there’s a lot of visible homelessness here, rather than addressing the underlying causes of homelessness, let’s criminalize it.”

“It’s no longer this organic emergence of bad policy, there’s a coordinated lobbying effort at the state level so it’s impacting a whole state’s worth of people, and they are overriding municipalities that might want to take a more evidence-based and rational approach,” Tars said.

Cicero was founded by Joe Lonsdale, a co-founder of Palantir, the surveillance tech company whose data analysis software is used by the Department of Defense, ICE, and several big city police departments. Lonsdale is also head of the venture capital firm 8VC, which has invested in dozens of companies, including Palantir, Hims, Oculus and The Boring Company. 8VC’s motto is “The world is broken, let’s fix it,” and Lonsdale has shared his thoughts on how he would fix the world in the past, including his idea to move people into private prisons and then use  market-based incentives to reduce recidivism. 

Palantir has been used by a wide range of city agencies, including ones handling homelessness. In 2015, it was hired by Santa Clara County to provide data analysis for a program meant to provide permanent supportive housing to the county’s chronically homeless population. But Lonsdale would go on to refute the evidence-based approaches involving permanent supportive housing through Cicero’s advocacy.

Since its founding, Cicero has churned out model legislation and research papers calling into question the need for permanent housing, instead advocating for criminalization of people sleeping outdoors. (In addition to influencing policy, Cicero uses its 501c3 status to act as a fiscal sponsor for Substack writer Bari Weiss’s unaccredited university, University of Austin.) The organization also has a lobbying arm called Cicero Action, a 501c4 that is legally permitted to advocate for legislation.

Lonsdale moved to Austin in 2020, taking Cicero with him, telling CNBC he moved there because of California’s high tax rate and because he didn’t want to give those taxes to the California state government. He also praised Austin’s culture to the Austin American Statesman, saying, “It’s pretty nice to live next to a bunch of hippies with a food and music culture. We actually really enjoy that.” 

But almost immediately he set about trying to change the city, and then the state’s public policy, at first by backing an Austin camping ban along with other tech entrepreneurs in 2021. Lonsdale contributed $40,000 to the Save Austin Now Super PAC, which put Proposition B on the ballot in 2021. The proposition reinstated a camping ban that had been modified in 2019, and passed with 57 percent of the vote. 

At the same time, Cicero had worked on a statewide camping ban that was signed into law by Governor Abbot in 2021. That seemed to galvanize the think tank and Lonsdale to push for a national strategy to upend best practices and clear visible street homelessness.  

Cicero then wrote model legislation that built on the Texas legislation but went even further, banning camping while restricting funds to permanent supportive housing and punishing municipalities that didn’t comply. Instead, the model legislation promotes funding short-term solutions like more shelter space. Cicero’s model would also allow for fines up to $5000 (Kansas’ bill only allows for up to $1).

While not identical, the Kansas bill shares language with model legislation pushed by Cicero’s model legislation, called the Reducing Street Homelessness Act. Both the Kansas bill and the model legislation call for public camping to be treated as a class C misdemeanor, banning the use of “state or local government-owned lands for unauthorized sleeping, camping or long-term shelters.” The legislation in Kansas is also similar to a bill currently being floated in Georgia which would also prohibit cities from overturning camping bans, making exceptions when people accept services. 

A Stateline report found 9 pieces of model legislation across the country with nearly identical language to Cicero’s model legislation, including a previous version of the Georgia bill, which Judge Glock also testified in favor of. Glock even spoke in favor of a camping ban passed last year in Tennessee, even though the think tank did not have any direct hand in writing it. But another set of bills has been introduced in both Tennessee’s legislative chambers that closely resembles Cicero’s model legislation.

Cicero has railed against the “Housing First” approach, which puts forth that people experiencing homelessness need permanent, stable housing before they can address other underlying issues that may be exacerbating homelessness. Last year, it published a 20 minute documentary in partnership with the right-wing PragerU advocacy group claiming that Housing First neglects mental illness and drug addiction, a mischaracterization that assumes permanent housing is incompatible with social supports and that all homeless people experience addiction.

The research strongly supports that Housing First is, in fact, a good idea: a meta-analysis published in The Lancet in 2020 looked at 72 articles including data from 15 studies on permanent supportive housing and found that “74% of participants with high support needs who received permanent supportive housing with assertive community treatment were in stable housing at 24 months.” And while Cicero criticizes Housing First policies for being expensive, The Lancet analysis shows that the approach can save money in the long-run by reducing hospital visits, jail stays and shelter costs.

According to Tars, Cicero’s opposition to Housing First has not just led to harmful policies being passed but has warped the debate on homelessness across the country. Housing First approaches were first endorsed as federal policy by the George W. Bush administration and had some bipartisan support. Fiscal conservatives saw that it saved money in the long-run while reducing homelessness. But in recent years it has become a political third rail: Tucker Carlson complained about using anti-homelessness funds to provide homes to people, and Republican politicians are now hesitant to support permanent supportive housing. 

“Even folks on the Republican side who used to be supporters of Housing First are more reluctant to talk out in favor of it because the right wing media will tar and feather them,” Tars said.

Public records show that Cicero’s lobbying arm, Cicero Action, has a registered lobbyist in Tennessee named Alexanderia Honeycutt Gambrell. Advocates told Motherboard that Gambrell has recently been spotted at the state capitol.  

“The components of their model bill are very strategic”

India Pungarcher, advocacy and outreach specialist with the nonprofit Open Table Nashville says the group first became aware of Cicero when Glock spoke on behalf of an earlier version of the state’s anti-camping ban in 2021. 

Pungarcher says Open Table is cautiously watching the new bills based on Cicero’s model bills. Both of the state house and senate committees that will be reviewing the bill have members who voted for the camping ban passed in 2022.

“We know there’s multiple senators and representatives on the committees that do support this bill,” Pungarcher said.

She is frustrated that some legislators want to defund housing solutions and not address any of the economic drivers of homelessness. 

“We haven’t done things like expand Medicaid, we don’t have healthcare resources, we haven’t been making investments we need into other social goods like our education system and housing stock,” Pungarcher said. The state’s minimum wage is also $7.25 an hour, widely out of sync with cost of living.

“Something eye-opening for me is how successful Cicero has been,” Pungarcher said. “The components of their model bill are very strategic.” In particular, she notes the bill’s emphasis on shelter expansion, which she believes is likely an attempt to get around Martin Vs. Boise, a 2018 federal appeals court decision that barred governments from enforcing camping bans unless there’s sufficient shelter space.

Tars also believes the model legislation is intended to get around Martin Vs. Boise, but is skeptical that the way it’s written would serve that purpose. (Tars was one of the attorneys who worked on Martin V. Boise.) He points to a judge in Chico, California who ruled that the city’s attempt to count outdoor camping and airport runway spaces toward its shelter capacity was insufficient to justify anti-camping enforcement.

How is the anti-camping ban playing out in Lonsdale’s home of Austin? According to Austin’s homelessness tracker, since a camping ban was reinstated by Prop B in 2021, sheltered homelessness increased from 567 people to 818, and unsheltered homelessness increased from 2197 to 3838. Meanwhile, in Houston, a Housing First approach was credited with drastically reducing the city’s homeless population. (On Twitter, Glock disputed those findings, suggesting without evidence that the reduction in homelessness was a result of Houston’s own camping ban.)

This is no surprise; homelessness is primarily caused by a lack of affordable housing. For people with ongoing mental health or substance abuse issues that either led to homelessness or were exacerbated by homelessness, providing permanent housing with on-site social support can have a stabilizing effect so that people can address those problems.

And criminalization can lengthen homelessness, as it’s much more difficult to find housing with a criminal record, as the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness acknowledged in October.

Unsheltered homelessness increased 3.4 percent between 2020 and 2022, outpacing overall homelessness across the country, which inched up .3 percent over the course of the pandemic. (The smaller than expected increase in overall homelessness is likely  a result of eviction moratoria and pandemic rent relief.) The rise in unsheltered homelessness and public encampments has led to volatile political fights across the country as support for policing of homelessness increases. And with a wealthy tech investor pushing for the criminalization of homelessness and bans on long-term solutions, that fire is getting plenty of fuel. 

“Their media attacking Housing First is very crafty, they look very professional,” Pungarcher said of Cicero. “I don’t understand their obsession with saying housing doesn’t end homelessness…it’s just really terrifying how successful they’ve been.”

Cicero did not respond to a request for comment.

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