January 27, 2023

Emergent Threats: State Level Criminalization

For years, politicians have been passing laws that punish our neighbors who can’t afford a place to live and have to sleep, shelter, and conduct other life-sustaining activities in public. We have mostly seen those laws at the local level when city councils and mayors come up with ineffective—and plain bad—ideas to deal with homelessness. What’s new is a well-funded, coordinated push for those laws at the state level, while at the same time reducing funding for evidence-based approaches to ending homelessness.  This map tracks current threats, and below you can find more background and resources.  

*This map tracks only current state level bills, as well as ones from recent legislative sessions. The full extent of criminalization at the state and local level is much larger. Please also note that a state may have bills currently introduced as well as bills that have already passed, in these cases we default to the highest current threat level color


Criminalization of homelessness has existed at the state level for centuries, with some laws tied back to Victorian-era “vagrancy laws” and others to Jim Crow laws to push formerly enslaved people back into forced labor. But a new threat emerged in the 2020-21 legislative session, with template legislation from the Cicero Institute,  a well-funded extremist “think tank” that promotes short-term punitive and paternalistic measures to address the visible symptoms of street homelessness at the expense of than long-term housing solutions that address the underlying causes of homelessness. Other bills, not directly connected to Cicero have emerged as well. Given our country’s historical racialization of criminalization and institutionalization, these policies will have deep disparate impacts on Black, Indigenous, and people of color, persons with disabilities and LBGTQ+ persons. 

Cicero Institute Background

The Cicero Institute was founded in 2016 in Austin, Texas, by Joe Lonsdale, a tech billionaire and venture capitalist with investments in private prisons who has made controversial statements around racial and gender equity. Following the Austin City Council’s roll-back of ordinances banning camping, panhandling, and sitting and lying in public in 2019, the Institute successfully pushed Texas Governor Abbot and the state legislature to pass a statewide camping ban to override the local decriminalization efforts (and potentially push more people into his prisons). 

Based on the success of this state override strategy, the Cicero Institute turned the Texas bill into a template for state legislation with four primary elements:  

  • A statewide camping ban, with penalties of up to $5,000 and one month in jail, and funding penalties to any jurisdiction that refuses to enforce the ban;
  • A diversion of all federal and state funding for homeless services from evidence-based       housing and services (the “Housing First” approach) to short-term state-run encampments and emergency shelters, with short time limits and paternalistic programming requirements, subject to immediate removal for failure to comply, and a grant of immunity for liability to operators of encampments for all but grossly negligent conduct;
  • Lowering of due process protections to involuntarily commit people experiencing homelessness to state psychiatric institutions, paired with threat of jail or $5,000 fines for non-compliance with out-patient treatment; and
  • Creation of “homeless outreach teams” funded by homelessness dollars, which require law enforcement to force unhoused people into state-run encampments under threat of arrest.

In 2021-22, Cicero lobbyists actively courted legislators to get bills introduced in Arizona, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin, ultimately passing (illegally) in Missouri. Cicero also supported a bill (not based on their template) making camping a felony in Tennessee 

In 2023, legislators in Arizona reintroduced their template bill, HB 2844. 

Other State Bills

While not explicitly based on the Cicero template, other bills of concern have emerged as well:

  • California 
    • CARE Court– this law set up an alternative court system which could reduce barriers to involuntary treatment for people experiencing homelessness in California. Passed in 2022. 
    • SB 31 – SB 31 would make it a crime to sit, lie, sleep, or store, use, maintain, or place personal property upon any street, sidewalk, or other public right-of-way within 1000 feet of a so-called “sensitive area”, including schools, daycare centers, parks, or libraries. Introduced in 2023. 
    • AB 257 – AB 257 would prohibit a person from sitting, lying, sleeping, or storing, using, maintaining, or placing personal property in any street, sidewalk, or other public property within 500 feet of a school, daycare center, park, or library. The bill would also make willfully resisting, delaying, or obstructing a peace officer, public officer, or public employee in the discharge or attempt to discharge any duty to enforce the prohibition a misdemeanor.
  • Tennessee Felony Camping Statute – this law expanded a prior state law into a statewide ban on camping on state land, with punishment of up to six years in jail and permanent disenfranchisement. Passed in 2022. 
  • Oklahoma – requires camps to be inspected for housing codes, and if they do not pass, then be “abolished”