The Homeless Camps' Disease Trifecta

The Portland, Oregon, area is currently experiencing an explosion of shigellosis, a highly infectious, often antibiotic-resistant intestinal disease caused by contact with human feces.

Activists help protect homeless from being displaced by street cleaning and power washing from the Los Angeles Sanitation service in Hollywood, Calif. on Feb. 8, 2021. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Most of the outbreak—at least 218 cases in 2023, 45 of them reported in December—has taken place in Old Town, a once-lively restaurant and shopping destination near downtown Portland that’s now the site of numerous homeless encampments whose residents often use sidewalks as restrooms.

The Portland City Council, alarmed at a surge in the area’s homeless population, now estimated at about 6,000, in June 2023 passed severe restrictions on camping in public places. Tents and campsites are now technically banned during daytime hours and limited to certain designated areas at night. But no one in famously progressive Portland tried to enforce the legislation until the fall, when this latest infestation of shigella bacteria (there had been a similar outbreak among the homeless in 2021) began to generate headlines.

No sooner did Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler announce that the city would begin limited enforcement of the camping ban on Nov. 13 than homeless advocates rushed to court and obtained a preliminary injunction that keeps the disease-infested tent cities in place pending a full trial that could take place years from now. Their lawyers had argued that the daytime camping ban was impossible to comply with and amounted to cruel and unusual punishment of people who couldn’t afford permanent housing.

So now, what’s Portland supposed to do about a nasty infection directly spread by the filthy and unsanitary conditions that prevail in homeless encampments?

Already, tourists and locals alike have been shunning Old Town over public drug use, aggressive panhandling, used needles, trash, and feces littering the sidewalks, and rampant street crime, including a spate of homicides. Now, it’s also a disease vector—a disease vector that Portland can do little to control.

Welcome to the homeless encampment disease trifecta: the unhygienic sidewalk camps themselves, the infectious illnesses they spawn and spread, and the rulings from liberal judges at the behest of homeless advocates that prevent local officials from taking basic steps to halt the diseases, such as getting rid of the camps and cleaning the sidewalks—all in the name of solicitude for the homeless themselves.

Portland is far from the only city to be cursed by the homeless disease trifecta. Minneapolis is another. On Dec. 7, the Minneapolis City Council unanimously passed a resolution declaring unsheltered homelessness to be a public health hazard. The resolution noted recent outbreaks of such “preventable” diseases as hepatitis A, typhus, tuberculosis, influenza, pneumonia, and diphtheria. Hepatitis A, a liver infection that spreads through fecal contamination, has afflicted Minneapolis’s homeless camps for years.

But when the city made repeated efforts to close down one of the most noxious of the tent cities, Camp Nenookaasi, as it was called, housing about 150 people without running water or sewage control, and plagued by alleged drug use, trafficking, and at least one fatal shooting as well as the death of a newborn infant, activists fought back. On Jan. 2, they filed a class action suit in federal court against Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey to block an eviction scheduled for Jan. 4.

This time, though, the judge, Eric Tostrud, declined to accept the activists’ argument that the residents of Camp Nenookaasi had been denied due process of law or subjected to cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the Constitution. The camp-clearing proceeded apace, although many of the residents simply moved to other encampments.

And then there’s San Francisco, whose downtown has become a homeless mecca abandoned by once-flourishing retailers and tech companies. In 2018, an infectious disease expert at the University of California–Berkeley deemed San Francisco’s filthy and needle-contaminated streets potentially worse health hazards than those of some of the world’s poorest Third World countries.

More recently, an October 2023 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine reported that homeless San Franciscans were 16 times more likely to die suddenly than their housed counterparts. Causes included infectious diseases as well as drug overdoses and cardiac arrest.

Yet city officials are mired in federal litigation over whether it can legally conduct sweeps that would clear out the tents and disinfect the sidewalks. In December 2022, a judge issued a preliminary injunction barring the clean-up efforts on the grounds that San Francisco’s ordinances barring lying and sitting on public streets conflicted with a 2018 ruling from the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that localities can’t criminalize street-camping unless they can offer sufficient shelter beds to the “involuntarily” homeless. (The Ninth Circuit encompasses the nine Western states, where 42 percent of the nation’s homeless live.)

Since then, San Francisco has struggled to work out a compromise with homeless advocates over whether “involuntarily” includes people who refuse shelter offers. It has joined about 50 other cities, including such liberal enclaves as Los Angeles and Seattle, in asking the Supreme Court to review a 2020 decision by a federal judge in Medford, Oregon, that a local anti-camping ordinance amounted to “criminalizing the underlying status of being homeless.” A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit upheld that ruling in 2022, and in July 2023, a full Ninth Circuit declined to reconsider.

Advocates for the homeless use such words as “cruel” and “barbaric” to describe municipalities’ efforts to demolish homeless encampments in urban public spaces. But who is actually being cruel and barbaric? Public health officials have described the crowded, unsanitary conditions in the tent clusters as a “crisis” marked by the return of such “medieval” diseases as typhus and bubonic plague, both spread by rats sharing living spaces with humans. These are diseases that abated in the West only during the 19th century, when cities became able to provide clean running water and sewage disposal.

When living quarters are allowed to turn into disease vectors, the chief victims aren’t tourists or even locals, who can usually avoid contaminated parks and sidewalks with relative ease. The chief victims are the homeless themselves, sick and dying. True compassion would recognize this. But instead we have the homeless disease trifecta. Its most deadly component is the courts that let this public health disaster continue.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Authored by Charlotte Allen via The Epoch Times (emphasis ours),

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