Municipal governments across the country are targeting vagrants for “misusing” public property. A couple of months ago, the City of Denver, Colorado cracked down on “Resurrection Village,” a homeless community built on public land. A month earlier, the City Council of Colorado Springs, Colorado, reduced the number of legal reasons for which people may sit and lie on downtown streets. The City Council of Tempe, Arizona, issued a similar proclamation in April, and the City Council of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, recently voted to prohibit people from panhandling within 50 feet of public transportation stops.
The Coalition for Compassion and Action, Denver Homeless Out Loud, the ACLU, and sundry homeless activists say that these ordinances violate civil rights. City officials maintain that they safeguard businesses, non-homeless pedestrians, and homeless people alike.
Who is wrong here? The state of course!
As Murray Rothbard explained, X may acquire an ownerless natural resource by mixing his labor with it. X may even acquire that resource by paying Y to cultivate it on X’s behalf. But if X robs Y in order to finance X’s cultivation of that resource, then X—because of his flagrant assault on Y—loses his moral claim to the resource and must immediately surrender it to Y, the true homesteader. If Y is for some reason unavailable to claim the property, then it becomes essentially ownerless again, and anyone other than X may homestead it.
According to these principles, it is clearly legitimate for peaceful vagrants to camp in untransformed forests and fields. Nobody has homesteaded these resources, so nobody— including the state— has a prior claim to them. The state’s only remotely justifiable imposition would be a “land-value tax” to compensate all citizens who would miss out on the use of these newly homesteaded resources, but even this “geo-libertarian” intervention would place a morally dubious burden on the homeless homesteaders in question. Surely we must not think of tolerating any government action more extensive than that, then.
Unlike the homeless homesteader, who does nothing improper by pitching a tent or unfurling a sleeping bag on ownerless land, the state routinely constructs sidewalks, benches, and lots at the expense of unwilling taxpayers. Unlike the homeless homesteader, then, the state has no right to “its” creations. These instead belong properly to the mulcted taxpayers, each in proportion to her (forced) contribution to the creation in question.
We reach a practical obstacle, of course, in determining how much money each taxpayer contributed and what exactly she wants to do with her share of each public item. We must therefore turn to the second-best solution, in which individuals other than the proven victims begin confiscating state-controlled property. The homeless can help facilitate this process by transforming public constructions into centers of recreation and exchange. Although this solution does not restore goods to their most rightful owners, it at least gives the loot to non-culpable people and reduces the allure of expropriation by demonstrating that nobody can get away with requisitioning private resources. In this way, the new homesteaders perform a valuable service on behalf of peaceful people everywhere.
As a brief aside, we should note that the new homesteaders do not have carte blanche to abuse these properties, for these goods are not totally ownerless. Whereas previously ownerless resources (such as untransformed fields) can be acquired fully by their homesteaders, public constructions ultimately belong to the people who paid for them—in this case, the taxpayers. Therefore, it would be objectionable for a pedestrian to destroy a public bench or to urinate on a public sidewalk, as that would diminish the quality of the public items in question and would thereby prevent the rightful owners from retrieving their property in its pristine form.
With that being said, there is no reason to believe that peaceful acts of panhandling, lounging on city streets, camping in public lots, and sleeping on downtown benches damage expropriated property. Indeed, these activities are usually quite benign, and if ever they turn violent, the perpetrators can be apprehended for violating other laws.
Surely this perspective will disturb many people. Even Rothbard, who at one point advocated mass homesteading of public property, asserted at the end of his career that police officers should “take back the streets” by removing “bums and vagrants” en masse. Others with a mind for liberty today may worry that homeless people on public property will deter pedestrians from patronizing nearby businesses. Still others may suspect that homeless people themselves will benefit if the state nudges them towards homeless shelters.
Though understandable, these sentiments are ultimately misguided. When it advances private market interests by removing homeless people from morally ownerless property, the taxpayer-funded government thereby becomes the enforcement hand of private businessmen who seek to control expropriated (“public”) property without ever homesteading it. Where is the justice in that? It is one thing for the state to protect the private property of a business, quite another for the state to regulate property that the business does not even own.
It is also irrelevant, whether or not it is true, that homeless people would be “better off” in homeless shelters. For our present purposes, all that should matter is that homeless people do not violate anybody’s rights by inhabiting and soliciting money on public property. Concerned citizens certainly may advocate the use of homeless shelters, but they have no right to employ coercive state power in order to effectuate their desired outcome.
We should be resolute, then: until taxpayers claim their individual shares of public sidewalks and lots, which may never happen, the homeless need not move an inch. The homeless are as capable as anyone of seizing the state’s morally tainted property and imprinting their personalities in the ownerless lands that they find. Prejudiced and paternalistic attempts to disrupt these commendable processes must not stand. Let the homeless stay!