There are cities throughout the United States moving displaced citizens onto public land typically in tents calling these locations “sanctioned encampments.” It is the position of the National Coalition for the Homeless that housing is a human right which is defined as a safe, affordable, accessible place to call a home. The issue is that by identifying a “sanctioned encampment” cities by default are declaring that there are “unsanctioned” encampments. NCH does not believe that people who are experiencing a period of homelessness should become involved with law enforcement while trying to survive.
It should go without saying, but in the current divided society with words being distorted to become propaganda for those who want to make it illegal to be without housing, we must say that a tent is not a permanent solution to homelessness. Secure, safe, accessible and affordable housing should be available to every family or single individual who requests a place to live.
In a free society, a person should be able to congregate with others and peacefully assemble in groups of their choosing not forced to live where the municipal government decides with neighbors of their choosing.
No one should be forced by any authority or coerced to choose between a place with large numbers packed together or face criminalization for being homeless and living without shelter. Whether this is forcing someone into a congregate living facility that strips a person of their dignity or sending them to a government sanctioned site to pitch a tent, people living in the United States have always cherished the free will to not be told what neighborhood or municipality to reside in by government or government funded organizations.
Persons who refuse forced entry into any facility must not be categorized as “service resistant” and thereby face incarceration or exclusion from services. They should receive trauma informed care by trained professionals and be met with services they request not services forced on them.
In the current environment in which municipal governments have largely given up on affordable housing solutions to homelessness and instead resorted to using law enforcement as the primary point of contact for those without housing, we see a broader trend in which the mere offer of any kind of assistance or social service is enough for local governments and law enforcement to justify penalty, arrest or a threat to withdraw a person’s liberty for those who reject the help. We believe that sanctioned encampments will be used as permanent placements for local jurisdictions to avoid providing safe, affordable, accessible and permanent housing.
Sanctioned encampments are an inexpensive alternative to building housing or shelters that serve the needs of those individuals and families who are experiencing homelessness.
Local governments should not act as nannies for adults and force them to a segregated section of town to live under a set of rules developed by strangers under threat of arrest if the taxpayer strays from the sanctioned encampment.
By Zachary Bernstein, Summer 2021 NCH Civil Rights Intern
During our conversation, Loh asked me to imagine my family and I were victims of one of the wildfires currently ravaging the western part of the country. Imagine your documents—passports, birth certificates, etc.—were destroyed in the fire, Loh said, and you do not qualify for assistance based on your economic status. It takes a while to get those documents back, Loh pointed out, and meanwhile you have nothing, and no help—nothing more than people staying in shelters, or tents in the woods, or directly on the street. “This is how people fall into deep poverty,” Loh told me.
Cleveland is one of the most historic cities in the United States, Loh said, and yet they allow nearly half the children in the city (46.1% in 2019) to live below the poverty line. That means one of every two children does not have enough to eat and goes to bed hungry nearly every night in Cleveland. This is clearly not the fault of each individual person, Loh emphasized again and again, but a failure of the system to keep people from slipping into poverty.
Loh, a community activist in Cleveland, Ohio, works with the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, the Homeless Congress, and with the Poor People’s Campaign to amplify the voices of those struggling with housing. Loh has experienced homelessness for the past ten years. We spoke for just ninety minutes, but over the course of that time, Loh painted me a portrait of a system of shelters, service providers, and government bureaucracy that has failed its most vulnerable citizens at every level. Having dealt with activism and struggling as a person experiencing homelessness and as an activist, Loh understands the ins and outs of this system in great detail—Loh understands why it has allowed its citizens to live on the street, why it has allowed its shelters to fall into disrepair, and why it has repeatedly stonewalled efforts to help these people. But most importantly of all, Loh understands how to thwart that system.
To Loh, the most important principle of organizing for the homeless is that you cannot solely organize people experiencing homelessness. The reason people are homeless, Loh points out, is because they do not have resources, they are already overwhelmed with their own economic and personal issues. In addition, Loh observes, homeless people often do not want to go out of their way to let people know they are homeless. Loh believes that organizing for homeless advocacy must involve targeting those who are housed as well as those with resources and political will. A key is to target the powerful and those who have decision-making authority to enable the movement to thrive and achieve its goals.
In one story Loh told, a class at the Cleveland Institute of Art wanted to start an artistic outreach project for the homeless community, but had several eye-opening experiences attempting to gain access to people staying in shelters, realizing the extent of the systemic failure experienced by the homeless. Working with Loh and other members of the Homeless Congress, one student in the class changed his project to stage mock groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies that included testimonials from homeless people about their experiences in shelters. The project got publicity in newspapers, and Loh recalls how people were amazed at the stories that shelter residents had to tell. This is merely one example, but it demonstrates the power of pairing the knowledge of people who are experiencing or have experienced homelessness (such as Loh) with the power, time, and resources of those who are not. “You have to be able to organize people outside the system,” Loh emphasizes. Loh is a fixture at the County Council meetings railing against the lack of oversight of the shelters and services by the funders. By respecting the resources and points of view each other brings to the table, we can build activist movements which have power and influence and are also built around those with lived experience and knowledge of the system.
In speaking about the importance of a systemic understanding, Loh emphasized that it is not enough to merely understand that the police do bad things to the homeless community, or that the justice system is broken, it is necessary to grasp the wider scope of the problem, to understand how systems interlock with one another to produce the problem. This is especially important, Loh says, because homeless people do not have the time or energy to think about why the system does not work. Several of Loh’s stories from the field have demonstrated how the system has failed the homeless community. The story of the art class attempting to reach out to the homeless community is especially demonstrative—at every step, Loh related, the government and service providers would delay or divert their attempts to reach out. When they wanted to create a sculpture for a shelter, they were told that the sculpture had to be metal because, a director told them, the people in the shelter were crazy, angry, stupid, and violent, and would destroy the sculpture in a short time. The reduction and mischaracterization of an entire community based on a dangerous stereotype is just one example of the pervasive and ingrained misunderstanding of the issue of homelessness.
Loh has extensively documented the mistreatment and horrible conditions at shelters with some amount of creatively particularly in the use of photography and poetry. The shelter Loh stays at, which Loh refers to as “The HELL”. In a series of photos and captions, Loh shows insects on the floor of the only area the homeless people are allowed to eat, mold growing on the showers, and broken toilet stall doors. In a poem, Loh describes the inadequate facilities at the shelter which were originally built as two business buildings, and now involves lots of stairs, heavy doors to navigate. Loh characterizes her experiences as painful due to the injuries sustained from the unsafe environment of the shelter. Loh views these problems as a direct result of systemic failure, a system which causes Loh and thousands of others physical pain because of their lack of care. Loh described to me the network of service providers and government agencies in a dizzying flurry of acronyms. These agencies, which purport themselves to be non-profits, have no real intention of helping homeless people, Loh told me, they simply play politics to make more money. “Society produces homeless people,” Loh often says, because there is simply a lack of care and effort put into solving the problem, and these seemingly impenetrable systems of bureaucracy and capital foreclose any attempt at undermining it.
But that does not mean that there are no ways of doing so—in fact, Loh has successfully staged resistance from the inside. On one occasion, Loh was offered housing in response to complaints about the quality of the shelter. When they offered it, Loh asked if they could give 200 units because there are other people with problems like Loh’s—but they refused. Loh observed how demonstrative this experience was of the systemic failure: “You claim you are an organization to help homeless people and especially those with mental health struggles, but you have no real intention to help them.” But Loh also shows us how the system can be undermined—Loh’s request of 200 housing units is a perfect example of a way in which we can take a stand in spite of the failure of the system. Loh’s tireless dedication to solving the problem of homelessness for all and keen focus on understanding the very roots of that problem can inspire us to think in new ways about homelessness and the systems that perpetuate it. After all, if we can understand what causes the problem, we are one step closer to finding its solution.
On May 1, 2021 a political action committee convinced voters to pass an ordinance forcing the City of Austin to ticket people who violate the ‘no camping ordinance’ within the city limits. This was contrary to guidelines by the Center for Disease Control which recommended that communities leave people alone to shelter in place until the pandemic is passed, or take advantage of the FEMA and other recovery programs to pay for hotel rooms for the population. NCH has documented 40 of the 100 largest cities has also undertaken sweeps over the last year contrary to CDC guidelines. The City began warning people to leave their tents in June and then began ticketing people in July.
Proposition B was passed in a special election with only 20% of the voters actually bothering to show up. The dubiously named “Save Austin Now” PAC spent $1.9 million to convince Austin voters to be afraid of people who are unhoused. The legislation also demanded a crackdown on panhandling, despite sweeping judicial protection of the right panhandle. So, a deeply flawed law which violates the constitution and basic humanity for those struggling during a pandemic passed by voters and implemented by local law enforcement began to make criminals out of those who lost their housing in one of the most expensive places to live in the South.
A number of Austin-based groups led by people who have experienced homelessness reached out and asked for help from the National Coalition for the Homeless. We worked with local groups to draft this national sign-on letter, asking for the Austin city officials to act in favor of humanity and refuse to further criminalize people for having nowhere to go. Please sign below to show your Local, State or National Organization’s support for people experiencing homelessness in Austin. We are not taking individual endorsements at this time. If you have questions, please e-mail them to email@example.com
As we are circulating this letter, there is news that the Orwellian-sounding Save Austin Now, along with four local businesses, were filing suit against the City of Austin for not enforcing Proposition B against enough unhoused people. The City has denied the charges stating that 18 tickets were issued over the last month. The City of Austin has attempted to place more of the unhoused into hotels, but has not used much of their HUD emergency assistance to give housing relief to those struggling because of the pandemic. In an attempt to pile on, the state also passed HB 1925 which prevents local government from not enforcing anti-camping ordinances.
The millions that have been spent in this effort to criminalize people for being poor by the Texas government and governor, as well as “Save Austin Now” political action committee could have been much better used in ensuring safe, accessible housing for Austin residents!!