As America’s poverty and homelessness crisis continues to escalate, men, women, and children across the country have resorted to finding shelter for themselves in the form of homeless encampments, known colloquially as ‘tent cities.’ There’s currently a six-digit shortage of emergency beds for those defined as ‘literally homeless’ by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, meaning that for many homeless individuals and families, there is no other option when it comes to immediate shelter.
Most communities faced with the increasing dilemma of encampments in public and private spaces have, until very recently, reacted negatively toward their unhoused neighbors. Encampments in every part of the country where homelessness abounds have faced forced closures, often with little or no regard shown for the residents’ civil or property rights. However, a recent string of legal victories might be turning the tide on what has been described by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and other organizations as “policies which chase people from one place to another, without effectively answering the question: Where can people go?”
In January, the city of Honolulu agreed to refrain from disposing of personal property including tents, bicycles, clothing and household goods as a partial settlement of a federal lawsuit brought by the ACLU that alleged improper treatment of the homeless and others cleared from Oahu sidewalks.
In June, the L.A. City Council approved nearly $950,000 in settlement fees and attorney costs for a pair of lawsuits charging that the city violated the civil rights of homeless individuals by impounding their personal property without allowing adequate time for people to separate out their medication and medical supplies.
Earlier this month, Ponoma, California agreed to build 388 lockers for the property of homeless people and to stop enforcing three laws that prohibit tents, personal property and overnight sleeping on public property until sufficient accommodations exist, either in indoor shelters or open spaces designated for overnight stays.
Finally, just yesterday Akron, Ohio settled a federal lawsuit involving how it removes homeless citizens’ belongings from public and private property, agreeing to change its policies and pay $20,000 in damages and court costs after police unfairly seized and destroyed homeless citizens’ tents, documents and other personal property in a series of raids.
These and other legal victories are helping to change the conversation about homeless encampments from, “How fast can we get rid of them,” to “how can we better address encampments without ignoring the needs of homeless residents.” We still have a long way to go before the majority of the country recognizes the right of persons experiencing homelessness to exist in public spaces, but progress is being made. To learn more about the encampment closure crisis, read our report.