The National Coalition for the Homeless has always opposed sweeps of those who stay outside and have embraced a housing first model of help.
Many communities in the United States are dealing with a large number of people sleeping outside, despite their best efforts to provide shelter and permanent supportive housing. Due to the pandemic and continued increases in the cost of housing, US society has become even more destabilized. Many former home owners and previously stable tenants have decided that congregate shelters are not safe against the spread of infectious disease and have instead found it safer to stay outside.
Now more than ever, investment in affordable housing is needed to help people get off the streets. Every city needs to adopt protections against evictions that lead to homelessness. In keeping with CDC recommendations, NCH strongly opposes sweeps and displacement during a pandemic. We support utilization of the hotel program as an alternative to expanding shelter or segregating homeless people into a section of town not of their choice.
One troubling trend is that cities are offering the panacea of additional resources for “outreach” or the development of more shelter beds in exchange for forcibly evicting people living in a tent. Local municipal governments have proposed “sanctioned encampments” in exchange for expanded ticketing or arresting those who stay outside. NCH always opposes sweeps, and no amount of additional funding can offset the harm caused by an agent of the municipal government ticketing houseless individuals, stealing their last possessions, and then throwing them in the garbage.
A real plan does not involve sweeps of those without housing; it does not force people into unsafe shelters; and it does not create a parking lot program or other places not suitable for human habitation as a response. By moving people out of sight, NCH believes a local government is only exacerbating the problem, and we believe history has shown that these criminalization policies will only increase in the population of unhoused residents. We have already published our statement on “sanctioned encampments”, which we oppose. Neither “sanctioned encampments” nor congregate living shelters are substitutes for affordable housing. By violently disrupting people’s lives through encampment sweeps that evict them from their tents and communities, the local government is only prolonging a person’s homelessness, because they are repeatedly having to start over.
While administrative citations may seem trivial, taxes assessed in the form of fines and penalties serve as one more obstacle to survival among many, punishing people experiencing homelessness simply for not having a house. This is cruel and unconscionable. Why punish people for simply trying to survive? In addition to penalizing unhoused persons, these local ordinances lead to a cycle of evictions for people experiencing homelessness as the municipal government sweeps encampments. Imagine being forced to pack up all your belongings over and over again or risk everything you own being thrown away.
Sweeps don’t solve the problem of homelessness; they only serve to push people out of “desirable” or popular areas in the local community. Rather than help connect people to housing and outreach services, sweeps are an attempt to make the problem of homelessness invisible. If taxpayers don’t see people experiencing homelessness, it is much easier to ignore their existence. Additionally, as unhoused persons are repeatedly evicted, they often lose trust in services providers, their local government, or become increasingly difficult for outreach teams to locate and help.
Many elected officials are claiming that they are conducting sweeps in order to provide for the health and safety of those living outside. They proclaim that it is unsafe to stay outside and anyone who advocates for “leaving people outside” is dooming those individuals to death. This is a short-sighted response and does not take into account the needs of those who forgo shelter.
No advocate wants any human to stay outside! We want private, safe, secure places to stay for everyone residing in the United States!
People in shelters often face violence, stolen belongings, and poor living conditions. This is not to mention the serious risks during the coronavirus pandemic where shelters can put peoples’ health in jeopardy and increase the spread of COVID due to large numbers of people sharing space indoors. If a city is only offering shelter or staying on the streets, it is understandable that many find the streets the safest option.
NCH offers these alternatives to sweeping those who live outside. No matter how much outreach or support services offered, a city cannot and should not try to criminalize its way out of homelessness by banning camping. Instead, the local municipal government should invest in affordable housing and outreach that can connect people to necessary housing with wrap around services. Cities have the opportunity to put people into motels and hotels with the federal government picking up 100% of the costs. The local community should also work to prevent any evictions that lead to homelessness.
Real leaders must not sweep encampments to “clean” the streets; rather they should provide services such as public toilets, showers, and trash receptacles to address hygiene issues without evicting people and throwing away all their possessions. Finally, they should listen to those struggling with housing about their needs, and not just to the home owners who want to hide the problem.