The right’s war on ‘housing first’ lands in Middle America

Missouri in 2022 adopted legislation from the Cicero Institute that outlawed camping on state property, among other things. Cities felt the effects soon after.

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. - It was the last question Mandie Hicks threw to every newcomer pushing through the door at the Connecting Grounds’ outreach center. Six words that cut everything down to the basic problem.

“Where did you sleep last night?” Hicks, 41, asked a young man standing before her at the check-in desk.

It was a Saturday morning in November. The center had been open only 45 minutes. Already the storefront space was jammed to fire-marshal capacity with unsheltered people needing help with social service programs, medical attention, free snacks, housing voucher applications, socks or hand warmers, or just a few minutes out of the cold. Every half-hour the city bus groaned to a stop across the street. More men and women stepped off towing backpacks, grocery bags or yapping dogs before lining up at the center’s door.

“Didn’t,” the young man told Hicks. “I just walked around all night.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Hicks said, her tone friendly.

She could always spot the newcomers before they said a word. They all had a familiar look, unsure and nervous - a little lost. “If you want to take a seat in these chairs and wait for these guys to call your name,” she said, gesturing to two volunteers. “They will help you any way they can.”

More often the faces coming through the door, Hicks thought, were not only new to the Connecting Grounds, but also newly homeless. Last winter, if a hundred people stopped in on any given day, three might be homeless for the first time. Already today, she had checked in four new names. Nearly everyone - whether they were people Hicks knew from her own years on the streets, or whether today was their first day without shelter - had the same problem: There was nowhere to go.

A year-old Missouri law made it a crime “to use State-owned lands for unauthorized sleeping, camping, or long-term shelters,” while also threatening to defund municipalities that failed to enforce it. It also limited the use of government funds to build permanent supportive housing. The legislation - written by the Cicero Institute, a Texas think tank - is part of a conservative attack on “housing first,” an approach to combating homelessness that prioritizes a stable home before other services. Both cities and the federal government have embraced the approach for years.


Right after the Missouri law passed in July 2022, the Connecting Grounds staff noticed an uptick in trespassing tickets, arrests and encampment clearings. Many homeless people now spend their time aimlessly wandering the streets of this college town of 170,000, three hours west of St. Louis.

At the Connecting Grounds, three more new faces arrived in quick succession just after 9 a.m.: a quiet girl in her early 20s, who said she slept in her car; a guy in his 30s dressed in a leather jacket who said he stayed with friends; and a bearded middle-aged man who said he slept in a truck.

The information Hicks collected at the check-in desk went into a database that gave the Connecting Grounds a real-time snapshot of the streets. The nonprofit’s census of local homeless people has tripled since 2018 to more than 3,000.

Springfield’s increase tracks with the experience of many communities nationwide. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development determined that 650,000 people were homeless on a single night in January 2023, a record-setting 12 percent increase over 2022.

Experts attribute the spike to the end of $5 trillion in pandemic relief spending colliding with historic inflation and an affordable housing shortage. As emergency assistance ended, Republican legislators across the country pushed to cut social safety net programs. Conservative think tanks have supplied them with model legislation to shrink social spending and protections. In Iowa this year, Florida-based Opportunity Solutions Project successfully lobbied for a bill to restrict eligibility for food stamps. The same group was behind a 2023 Arkansas law to weaken child labor protections. Now, on the eve of a presidential election year, the appetite for harsher rollbacks has only intensified.

Republicans, including former president Donald Trump, have seized on homelessness as a rhetorical weapon against Democratic leaders. In an April 2023 campaign video, Trump complained, “Our once great cities have become unlivable, unsanitary nightmares surrendered to the homeless.” Trump has long backed aggressive strategies to combat homelessness, and the former president’s reported plans for a second term mirror Cicero’s proposals such as designated short-term encampments.

Cicero’s policy ideas are now playing out on the streets of Springfield and other cities in Missouri, which adopted the group’s legislation. Hicks sees their impact in the figures who shuffle up to her desk each morning. As the next person approached, she recognized that same lost look.

“Hi,” she said. “Have you ever been here before?”

“I’ve never been here,” the newcomer answered. “I don’t even now what this is.”

“That’s okay,” Hicks said, opening a blank form on her computer. “We’ve got lots of new people today. We love it. Now can I ask your name?”

A tech exec takes on ‘a broken world’

Housing first is based on the belief that many of the problems snaking through an unsheltered person’s life can be ameliorated by a secure place to live.

It was a flip of the traditional script: For decades, advocates dangled steady housing as the goal post after clients had addressed other problems such as drug addiction, mental illness or job insecurity. Housing first posited steady shelter as the starting line.


The approach is grounded in research conducted by a psychologist and New York City outreach worker named Sam Tsemberis beginning in the 1990s. Subsequent studies showed that housing-first programs can decrease rates of homelessness and the use of emergency services. Housing first has become the dominant theory driving homeless outreach, bolstered by billions annually in federal funding from both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations.

Governments don’t always execute the policy well. In some cities, including D.C., there have been complaints about how long it takes to house people and about problems some participants create for other residents.

A lack of affordable housing has also stymied the policy. “The equation that Cicero and others are deliberately making is that housing first is failing to end homelessness,” said Eric Tars, senior policy director at the National Homelessness Law Center. “But our housing system has failed to end homelessness. By misdirecting attention to housing first, it allows elected officials to shirk the blame for failing to actually fix this housing problem that they have been failing to fix for many years.”

Joe Lonsdale started Cicero in 2020, tax records show. The 41-year-old multimillionaire co-founded Palantir with onetime Trump backer Peter Thiel. The company creates data-based predictive tools that have controversially been used by both local and federal law enforcement, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In 2020, Lonsdale relocated to Austin, taking along both his venture capital investment firm, 8VC, and the policy organization he established, the Cicero Institute.

Cicero’s mission, according to its website, is “crafting and applying policies modeled on the most functional parts of American society” to “fix broken public systems that need urgent attention.”

Around the same time, right-aligned think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute, began putting out reports attacking housing first as ineffective and costly. Lonsdale went further. In 2021, he gave $40,000 to back a successful referendum to make camping in public areas and panhandling a crime in Austin. Weeks later, Texas legislators passed a similar statewide law. Cicero soon began lobbying legislators nationwide to adopt model legislation that expanded on the Texas law.


Judge Glock, then a senior fellow at Cicero, testified around the country before state legislators in support of it. Glock argued that the system’s tight focus on housing first had come at the cost of other ideas while creating a “cartel” of nonprofit providers too reliant on that funding to change focus.

“This sole focus on housing first or permanent supportive housing, even if you fully believe in it, at best, you are talking years, if not decades, for things to play out,” Glock said in an interview. “Thousands of people will be out on the street in the interim. The real question is what can we do now, this month, this year, to start to reduce the problem of unsheltered homelessness?”

Cicero wanted to re-flip the script, Glock said, by redirecting “funding from permanent housing to treatment services, which would ideally be pay-for-performance services that have metrics tied to performance bonuses for nonprofits that can meet those metrics.”

The model legislation outlawed “unauthorized sleeping, camping, or long-term shelters,” punishable with a fine up to $5,000 and up to a month in jail. The proposal also funnels funding away from the construction of permanent supportive housing and punishes cities that don’t enforce the bill. Glock said the law enforcement portion of the legislation was meant to be a “mechanism to encourage people to go to shelter alternatives.”

Those alternatives, according to Cicero, would include sanctioned campsites run by the state or a “designated operator,” the legislation said. Those sites will provide “access to basic utilities” including “water and electricity outlets” as well as bathrooms. Individuals at these camps must “complete mental health and substance use evaluations,” the legislation said.

“States should not fund Housing First — the policy of giving ‘free’ and permanent homes to the homeless without any mandate for treatment or sobriety,” Lonsdale wrote in an opinion piece from May 2023 promoting Cicero’s legislation in Georgia.


Lonsdale, who declined an interview request, went on in the piece to say that nonprofits working with homeless people should have their government funding tied to results. “In many cases, homeless ‘charities’ are politically involved activist organizations that bully leaders so they can mop up money via contracts,” Cicero’s founder wrote.

tracker established by the National Homelessness Law Center notes that Cicero has been active in nine states in recent years: Arizona, Utah, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Texas, Kansas, Tennessee, Georgia and Missouri. In some cases, legislators introduced full versions of the Cicero bill; others borrowed language or ideas. The law center has identified 12 states where legislators have passed or proposed anti-homelessness legislation. In a New York Post opinion piece this month, Lonsdale wrote that Cicero had scored legislative victories in five states with “many more in the pipeline.”

“To activists that make a living managing - but never solving - the homeless crisis, our reforms are a nightmare,” Lonsdale wrote. “We’ve tied their funding to metrics, putting dollars for ineffective, ideologically-driven groups on the chopping block.”

Outside of Texas, only Missouri has so far passed a full version of the Cicero legislation. Legislators introduced stand-alone versions of the measure in the state senate and house in early 2022. Both bills failed to clear committee hearings after stiff opposition from homeless advocates and nonprofits. The Missouri house bill received 12 public comments in opposition to the bill compared with two in favor.

In April, late in Missouri’s legislative session, state Sen. Holly Rehder (R-Scott City), the bill’s main sponsor, offered it as an amendment to an unrelated measure about county government financial statements. Before many homeless advocates knew what was happening, the amendment passed and was signed into law. Rehder did not respond to an email for comment.

“They grafted onto a separate bill, which had nothing to do with homelessness, this bill that could not pass on its own,” said Joel Ferber, an attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri who led a legal challenge against the Cicero law. The lawsuit alleged that the method used to pass the camping ban violates state law. While the state supreme court considered the lawsuit, Missouri’s homeless had to live inside its constraints.

Meeting needs

The latest newcomer told Hicks his name was Jordan. It was the 41-year-old’s first experience with homelessness. He had just been released from the hospital after a methamphetamine binge.

“Up too long,” Jordan said by way of explanation for his hospital stay to a group of regular Connecting Grounds clients smoking outside the building. The drugs blasting through his system had shaken loose his sense of reality. “Shadow people started chasing me,” he said.


He had lost his middle management job, his housing and his cellphone. “Do you know how hard it is to find a telephone to use now?” he asked. “My mom’s the only number I remember anyway.”

“Call her?” a young man asked.

“Yeah,” Jordan said. “Poor thing. She’s crying. I don’t want to update her, but at the same time I want to update her, you know?”

“All you can say is, ‘Mom, I’m alive,’” the young guy next to him said.

“Yup, ‘Mom, I’m alive,’” Jordan repeated. “‘And it’s cold.’”

Jordan left the hospital with the sweatpants and T-shirt he was wearing when he arrived. The staff sent him to the Connecting Grounds. Since opening in 2018, the nonprofit’s drop-in center has been a regular stop for thousands. Founder Christie Love, a local pastor, relies solely on donations.

“For many years, there were very few times when we had to say ‘no,’” she said. “In the last six months, we said ‘no’ more than we say ‘yes.’ The needs are just huge, and we can’t keep up.”

Soon after the Cicero law passed, law enforcement cleared large encampments around town. But Love and other area service providers say this did not push homelessness out of sight. Instead, the opposite occurred.

Post-pandemic inflation had gobbled up wages for those with jobs; Springfield’s rental prices, buoyed by Missouri State University’s 23,300 students, have jumped in recent years by as much as 123 percent. Housing vouchers haven’t kept up demand.

Many of the unhoused began walking the city at all hours - crowding public libraries, hanging around downtown’s public square, asking to use the restroom at gas stations. Their visibility increased.

The Connecting Grounds adjusted to new needs. When people on the street said no to drug treatment because they had no place to keep their pets - often their only companions on the street - the group found foster families for their pets while their owners detoxed or went through 30-day drug treatment.

When Love saw that critical information for the homeless, such as where to get a hot meal or a shelter bed on a cold night, was not easily accessible, she worked with a developer to create a free smartphone app, Shelter SGF, to collect up-to-date information.

On Halloween, when it was 19 degrees outside but the city’s cold shelters were not open yet, Love found a local church willing to take in people. To avoid a fire department citation, the Connecting Grounds called it an all-night movie marathon. “We watched ‘Hocus Pocus’ one and two, then ‘Beetlejuice,’ then the first three Harry Potter movies,” she said. Around 100 people from the streets came.

“You have an ever-changing, fluid situation on the streets. But too often we’re trying to use fixed solutions that don’t adapt,” Love said.

This approach has worked for the dozens of volunteers rushing around the Connecting Grounds on a Saturday morning in November, including Hicks at the front desk. She had spent years on the street, struggling with methamphetamines. Most of the programs that offered help only gave patients a bed for 30 days.

“They call it ‘living in the pink cloud,’” Hicks said, referring to the monthly programs. “You feel protected and safe, and you are confident in your sobriety, until you are let back out onto the street and the real world happens again.”

The key for Hicks was stable housing. She entered the Connecting Grounds’ program and began living in one of the 11 units the group had created by turning Love’s church into permanent supportive apartments. She has been clean for months now. “There’s not a program out there that would fit who I am and what I need,” Hicks said.

Outside the center, Jordan was slowly absorbing advice from others. Don’t sleep where cops can see you from the street. Don’t pitch a tent - cops will see. Don’t get caught sleeping anywhere outside. At his feet were three plastic grocery bags the Connecting Grounds had given him with snack food, socks and blankets.

The Saturday open hours at the Connecting Grounds would end soon. Hicks looked at the clock hands swinging toward noon. The waiting room was still half full of people.

Some were waiting for showers. Others were still working on the hot meals the nonprofit got each day from the local hospital. But no one else was waiting at Hicks’s desk to check in. She had registered 76 people since 8 a.m., including 18 first-time clients.

In the coming weeks, Missouri’s state supreme court would knock down the new homeless legislation. The court ruled that the procedure used to pass the legislation was unconstitutional. It remains unclear whether lawmakers will try again to pass the legislation.

Cicero is pushing ahead in other states: In December, a version of the model homelessness legislation was introduced in Wisconsin.

Hicks and the other volunteers later went outside for a smoke break. They stood and watched the traffic blast past the storefront. Less than a block away, nestled against the chain fence of a shuttered auto parts yard, Jordan was sprawled out on the ground asleep. The plastic bags holding snacks, blankets and socks, gifts from his stop at the Connecting Grounds, propped up his head like a pillow.

An hour later he was gone.