The crisis of homelessness, already disastrous before March 2020, has been aggravated by the widespread unemployment, evictions and shelter closures resulting from the pandemic. The COVID-19 recession dealt enormous damage to the most precarious layers of the working class, and the July 31 expiration of the federal eviction moratorium promises to inflict yet more destitution. According to some projections, COVID will eventually produce homelessness rates double those of 2008’s Great Recession — with disproportionate impacts on people of color. Compounding the issue are disasters like the fires attributed to climate change that have struck the West Coast, which can rapidly render large populations unhoused and destroy already sparse housing stock. Individual causes of homelessness vary, yet, in all cases, the catalyst of the crisis has been the severe nationwide deficit of affordable housing and social services.
These compounding breakdowns have compelled local governments to explore alternative means of addressing homelessness. Some have extended a measure of tolerance toward select street camps, tacitly accepting their presence, and, on occasion, supplying basic provisions and services. At the same time, authorities have warmed to the concept of “sanctioned encampments”: small-scale communities of tiny homes, fenced-in tent cities or other unconventional shelters that make services and infrastructure available to residents, usually administrated by a public agency or nonprofit.
It’s true that such projects and policies have offered genuine (if marginal) relief, but the sanctioned encampment model is founded on restrictions that can replicate the same shortcomings that limit the effectiveness of traditional shelters. Just as concerning, local governments have been able to point to sanctioned camps as proof of their benevolence, while, outside camp borders, they pursue the same punitive methods they have long favored. Criminalization, punishment and forcible displacement (a.k.a. “sweeps”) are many authorities’ preferred means of appeasing businesses and homeowning constituents who find unhoused people distasteful, a nuisance or a threat to profits. However, these practices can generate public controversy and organized resistance. Sanctioned encampments can represent a way to thread this needle: doing something to placate homeless advocates, while maintaining social control of unhoused people.
Sanctioned encampments might appear at first glance to represent a reasonably humane middle route between guaranteed housing and full-blown rugged individualism. They can house (though some would say “warehouse”) people with relative speed, at low cost. The intentions of those who institute and operate them can be sincere and beneficent. However, in some contexts, we may find more nuanced motivations behind local governments’ rapid embrace of the model.
Half-Measures and “Business as Usual”
In Martin v. Boise, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that an Idaho anti-street camping ordinance was unconstitutional, given that campers lacked any alternative for sheltering themselves. The decision, which is applicable to nine Western states, theoretically debars punishment for sleeping outdoors. Martin’s precedent might open up cities with similar criminalization measures to lawsuits — if they provide no alternative shelter. Some municipalities now find themselves in need of a way to mitigate the risk of legal action, without turning to costlier (though, to their credit, far and away the most effective) solutions: e.g., guaranteed or affordable housing, rent assistance and eviction protections, and integrated supportive social goods like mental health treatment.
Even putting aside their utility as legal cover, sanctioned encampments do not represent a truly viable alternative. A 2019 report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) Office of Policy Development and Research shows that unhoused people have valid reasons to prefer their own makeshift encampments to state-furnished shelters or city camps. Shelter restrictions may separate the unhoused from loved ones or pets. Entry and exit times and shelter locations may conflict with routines and work schedules. (In staggering contrast to prevailing stereotypes, between 40 and 60 percent of homeless people are employed.) Shelters may not allow the storage of belongings, or may require moving belongings in and out on a daily basis. There are often preclusive substance abuse policies or behavioral requirements. Discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals is rampant, particularly in facilities run by religious organizations like the Salvation Army. (Approximately 44 percent of transgender people experiencing homelessness reported mistreatment at a shelter, including harassment, assault or requirements to dress or present as the wrong gender.) Shelters can be perceived as “inhospitable, alienating [and] demeaning,” the HUD report points out. Another analysis of case studies by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty came to conclusions very similar to these.
This is not to denigrate these organizations categorically; there are plenty of compassionate, effective and well-meaning individuals working in shelters, as well as nonprofits and public agencies. Still, structural issues present themselves, exacerbated by the fact that shelters are chronically underfunded, especially those on the West Coast. More often than not, there are simply not enough beds to meet the mounting crisis. All of the concerns listed above can be true of brick-and-mortar shelters, sanctioned tent or tiny home encampments and other approaches like the provisioning of hotel rooms.
“The likelihood that any sanctioned camp, especially if it’s on government land or receives government funding, will come with barriers is quite high,” Marisa Zapata, the director of Portland State University’s Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative, told Truthout. “Barriers are especially problematic when people claim they want to support people with serious mental illness (where that includes substance use disorders). We know that these people need the fewest, if any, barriers.”
From the perspective of those living on the street, informal encampments can be comparatively appealing. As the HUD report notes, autonomy, connections and a sense of security draw many people to congregate in these communities. People who stay in encampments may see them as “offering greater safety and protection from police harassment and aggression.” Some camps are rather impressive: HUD also documented examples of democratic structures, weekly meetings and responsibilities, drug use prohibitions and cases wherein “residents have established around-the-clock security patrols and mutually enforced norms and standards for behavior.” It goes without saying that this is not true of every encampment. And of course, people with addictions are also driven to maintain access to drugs, to avoid withdrawal if nothing else. Yet were they to receive adequate treatment and social services to support their recovery, these incentives would diminish.
In light of these factors, which are largely overlooked in public discourse, a preference for informal encampments is in many cases entirely comprehensible. Unsanctioned encampments are not a long-term or ultimately desirable solution — but still, the realities of formal and informal camps are not what might be expected.
“Service-Resistant” Means Open to Punishment
Beyond the barriers to entry that decrease their effectiveness, sanctioned camps also serve as a foil to informal street communities and a point of leverage for state authorities, allowing institutions to label those who are hesitant to enter the sanctioned shelters or camps as “service-resistant.”
“The consequences of the label ‘service-resistant’ are profound. In public rhetoric, ‘service-resistant’ reinforces a personal fault narrative for why a person is experiencing homelessness,” Zapata said. “The thinking becomes: If this person would just behave or do what they are supposed to, they would have everything they need provided for them. It makes homelessness their own fault and based on their personal shortcomings.… Long-term, these narratives become reasons to cut funding or not support funding mechanisms for affordable housing and supportive services.” So not only does this conception fail to capture the real needs and problems of unhoused individuals, it also undermines effective confrontation of the crisis in the broader scheme.
The seriously unwell, those skeptical of shelters and the simply unlucky individuals whom shelters could not accommodate are forced to conduct their lives in public spaces, subject to authorities’ confrontational tactics. These often include violent displacement, punishment, citation, arrest and property seizure and/or disposal (including medicine, documents, and other items essential to helping the unhoused escape their circumstances). The human rights and best interests of unsheltered people are not the key determinant of city policies, which regularly defer to expensive, cruel and counterproductive encampment sweeps. Rather, as researchers at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty have highlighted, in defending forcible camp clearances and property seizures, governments and courts can adopt legal strategies and interpretations that circumvent unsheltered people’s constitutional protections. The power of the state is deployed to serve the interests of businesses, homeowners and privileged constituents.
These political incentives to dissuade encampments are expressed in legislation and policy. HUD found that, “More than one-third of US cities have adopted camping bans.… Researchers at the University of Denver identified more than 350 anti-homeless ordinances in Colorado’s largest cities. Other approaches [to discouraging camps] include physical modifications to the built or natural environment, such as securing vacant lots and buildings to restrict access, clear-cutting brush that could provide cover for encampments and installing sprinklers in areas where encampments might form.” When they do form, most are regularly “swept,” their residents banished to live somewhere else, likely nearby, where they remain homeless.
The evidence does not support the effectiveness of sweeps as a means of shuttling people into shelters, or even removing encampments, according to a report from the Center for Evidence-Based Solutions to Homelessness. During the pandemic, some city governments did find it within themselves to extend a modicum of compassion to those living on the street by pausing or reducing enforcement actions. (Though plenty still pressed ahead with sweeps, despite Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and extreme winter weather.) Now, it appears that the (partial) reprieve granted to unhoused people during the pandemic is being withdrawn, facilitated in part by the advent of sanctioned camps.
In Portland, Oregon, where the homelessness crisis is especially visible, officials have begun promising to build more sanctioned camps and shelters. Concurrently, authorities resumed their preferred sweep tactics in earnest, alluding to a more “assertive approach.” Sanctioned encampments can provide a kind of political capital for further punitive responses.
“If camps appear and people decline them or other types of shelter, police might suddenly start to make a lot of arrests for trespassing that they might previously overlook,” said Zapata. “In Portland, the impact scoring system for unsanctioned camps might be changed to make it easier to move or sweep people.”
Criminalization proceeds apace, while the city makes gestures of appeasement toward the city’s vocal homeless advocates, which include organizations like Stop the Sweeps PDX coalition and the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP). As Jade Arellano, organizing director at WRAP, told Truthout, “One thing that we’ve noticed at WRAP is that talk of city-sanctioned encampments usually coincides with talk of increased enforcement … these encampments are part of a larger strategy of getting around both legal requirements and public criticism about criminalization.”
In another example from Oregon, the city of Medford’s deputy attorney justified a recent criminalization measure banning “camping” by pointing out the existence of Rogue Retreat, a sanctioned “urban campground” that was established by a nonprofit in July 2020. Camping in greenway areas, by the city’s definition, could mean as little as sleeping on the ground with bedding of any kind. Under the pretense of fire safety, groups of housed citizens vocally backed the measure, which would upgrade camping outdoors from a violation to a Class C misdemeanor, “punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.” Campers in the area described the police’s “adversarial” stance toward those unhoused people who would not or could not find space in Rogue Retreat or similar sanctioned camps.
Los Angeles County has a vast unsheltered population: In January 2020, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) counted over 66,000 people experiencing homelessness in the region. (COVID precluded a population count for 2020-2021; the current number may very well be higher.) LAHSA’s 2021 Housing Inventory documented only around 24,000 shelter beds, almost all of them run by private nonprofits and religious organizations. Making matters worse, thousands of those beds sit empty each night, since, as a result of both underfunding and poor oversight, shelters are plagued with infestations, mold and other maintenance issues.
At the beginning of 2020, around 41,000 of the county’s total population could be found within Los Angeles proper, a 16.1 percent increase from January 2019. (Again, this has likely worsened.) The Los Angeles City Council’s response has been to impose citations for minor “quality-of-life” crimes like drinking in public, among other criminalization measures, forcing people with very few resources to navigate maddening bureaucracies. The Council’s most recent initiative, passed 12-3, will make it illegal to sit, sleep, camp or store property on many public streets and spaces. Attorney and homeless advocate Carol Sobel was quoted in The Los Angeles Times, saying, “If they found people safe places to live that didn’t warehouse them, then they wouldn’t need these ordinances. But they are so focused on making homelessness a criminal matter that they cannot think about positive ways to address this issue.”
As the latest criminalization ordinance moves forward, Los Angeles authorities are also sparring with Judge David O. Carter, who, acting rather boldly, ordered that the city house all residents of its infamous Skid Row by mid-October. The Ninth Circuit Court granted the city a temporary reprieve on appeal. Critics have called Carter’s order undemocratic and broad. Some might say that the decision by a dozen powerful councilmembers to consign tens of thousands of people to punishment and displacement for sleeping outside, mainly because they lack for feasible alternatives, is also rather undemocratic and broad.
Elsewhere in California, two (relatively) ambitious plans to provide another type of sanctioned shelter did not fulfill expectations. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Project Roomkey, part of the state’s COVID response, connected vulnerable people with a place to stay during the pandemic: empty motel rooms. The catch was that, ostensibly for quarantine purposes, participants were mostly forbidden from leaving the room. They were also regularly searched; some described the program as “prison-like.” It’s easy to see why some people might prefer the street. In any case, it was largely a failure, securing only 30 percent of the rooms planned. The more substantial Project Homekey, which gave grants to regional agencies to acquire vacant properties for use as shelter, was stridently opposed at the local level by NIMBYs (those repulsed by the thought of struggling people taking up residence near them). Project Homekey’s success varied across localities, housing about 8,300 people in total across the state. (At the end of 2020, HUD estimated that there were 161,000 unhoused people in California.)
Early in the pandemic, San Francisco Mayor London Breed also faced criticism for failing to utilize the large supply of newly unoccupied hotel rooms — enough, in fact, to shelter every unhoused person in the city. This was well within her already activated emergency powers, and would even be reimbursed up to 75 percent by Federal Emergency Management Agency grants. But it simply couldn’t be done, Breed lamented, citing a constrained budget: “I wish it were that easy to help people … I wish it were that easy to just provide a place for them to be.” As easy as she found it to claim to divert $120 million from the San Francisco Police Department to Black communities while actually increasing police budgets, one would hope. (Although Breed has, responding to pressure, recently proposed more funding for homelessness, whether that will come to fruition remains to be seen.)
These are only a few examples from the West Coast, where the repression can be especially glaring. There are many, many diverse and inventive cruelties throughout the country. In one particularly repellent example, police in Hawaii spent COVID relief funds to patrol a homeless encampment with a robotic dog. Mistreatment of unhoused people is commonplace, and arises in a wide variety of forms — but what all cases have in common is that, had people been housed, they likely would not have been exposed to such abuses.
Rights and Obligations
Some have advocated the institution of a universal “right to shelter” — which, it should be noted, is not the same thing as a right to housing. The latter is functionally nonexistent in the United States; Rep. Cori Bush, recognizing this, has just introduced an Unhoused Bill of Rights in Congress. While some cities have already declared housing a human right, it’s not operative beyond nominal declarations and symbolic gestures.
Though not completely unheard of, instances of even the less comprehensive “right to shelter” are rare and fraught. In Massachusetts, there’s been a “right to shelter” since 1983, but, perversely, it extends only to families — not homeless individuals. New York City actually has a decades-old right to emergency shelter, but it’s proven to be far from a solution, primarily incentivizing the construction of more shelters over permanent housing. Again, half-measures predominate. Still, thanks to tireless advocates, the concepts of meaningful shelter and housing rights are gaining some traction, foregrounded by the Martin decision.
This June, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg endorsed a recognition of both rights in a speech outlining a plan to make “our city [the] first to enact both a legal right to safe shelter and housing.” Sacramento will be able to temporarily hold up its end of the bargain by “organiz[ing] designated tent and tiny home encampments” while permanent housing is, hypothetically, constructed.
He was praised for declaring these intentions. But, as is so often the case in homelessness policy, there were serious caveats: Steinberg also insisted that there be “a parallel obligation for unsheltered people to accept that shelter and housing when it is offered.… Rights and obligations must go together.” He promised that he would open more sanctioned encampments. After that, camping anywhere else will be made illegal.
The Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee sent Steinberg a letter in opposition, saying that his proposal “falls far short of what is necessary … a sham, fundamentally dishonest and misleading.” The obligation to accept will brand those who refuse, no matter how valid their reasoning, as service-resistant — “provid[ing] the basis for coercion, police sweeps, displacement, loss of property and selective legal harassment.” Once more, the “service-resistant” designation enables a power structure to assuage at least some public outcry without altering the mechanisms of injustice.
Authorities’ hesitant half-measures skirt the fundamental, self-evident truth: that what unhoused people need are homes. Unfortunately, whatever their benefits or shortcomings, the resources poured into sanctioned encampments and the shelter system are resources devoted to treating what are ultimately only symptoms — symptoms of a crisis enabled by a miserably threadbare social safety net, and, more broadly, the stark conditions of inequality in the neoliberal era. The full implications of sanctioned camps remain to be seen; as one of the newer developments in homeless policy, there’s been little time for research into the emergent field.
Zapata expressed apprehension about how conditions might shift. “My concern is that as sanctioned camps come, what will city policies be about how to support people who do not or cannot go to a camp? Will sweeps increase? Will alternative shelter models be able to fulfill the needed beds to satisfy Martin v. Boise, and thus allow criminalization to increase? I think these are all open questions right now, and the possibilities of worse outcomes for people experiencing homelessness are real.”
The answer to homelessness is homes, and the proper funding to make them supportive and livable. If we can look past the political mystification, we may see that these are the true remedies to this crisis, and that they are demonstrably effective. Housing is a human right.