National data suggest that only 75% of the need for emergency shelter is being met. As a result, encampments of people experiencing homelessness have sprung up as homelessness has become more visible.
With everything from sleeping bags, tents and camp stoves to tiny homes, makeshift communities are attempting to fill important gaps in shelter, housing and other social services. Homeless encampments also serve as a point of access for outreach workers and others looking to engage those experiencing homelessness.
Unfortunately, these encampments have been met with varying levels of hostility by the wider communities in which they are located. The National Coalition for the Homeless’ new report, Swept Away: Reporting on the Encampment Closure Crisis, examines the disturbing trend of forced removal of outdoor sleepers by law enforcement, city workers, or even private contractors.
“We understand that municipal governments are trying to respond to a difficult situation,” says Megan Hustings, Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, “But further displacing people who have nowhere else indoors to go is an inhumane response.”
In cities where well-publicized events are being hosted, the sweeping of homeless encampments is particularly aggressive. In the run-up to San Diego’s recent Major League Baseball All-Star Game, camp residents across the city were threatened with fines and destruction of property if they did not relocate within 72 hours, an effort repeated during the popular Comic-Con international convention. San Diego has continued to disrupt encampments on a regular basis, seemingly copying a much criticized similar effort in Denver, Colorado.
In San Francisco, California, where current law already prohibits the building of encampments, a ballot initiative with the somewhat misleading title, “Housing Not Tents,” has been introduced with the intention of allowing authorities to remove encampments with as little as 24 hours written notice and the offer of a shelter bed or the acceptance of a bus ticket. The initiative would empower the city to seize residents’ personal property and dispose of it after a set period of time.
Despite efforts to the contrary, encampment residents regularly lose life-sustaining materials like tents and blankets, but also personal property, including valuables, identification, and medications. Swept Away looks more closely at the causes behind the rise of encampments, the way various communities have chosen to confront the issue, and recommendations for how our unhoused neighbors deserve to be treated in their own communities.
Proponents of measures aimed at facilitating the removal of encampments have suggested that allowing the existence of such camps somehow enables homelessness — a notion unsupported by the lack of affordable housing nationwide. Additionally, breaking up homeless communities can leave individuals more vulnerable to those who prey upon them, as outlined in our recent report, “No Safe Street: A Survey of Hate Crimes and Violence Committed Against Homeless People in 2014 & 2015.”
While dedicated to ending homelessness, the National Coalition for the Homeless also recognizes the need to protect the lives of those currently experiencing homelessness, especially during times when they cannot all be housed. Cities considering urban camping restrictions should follow the lead of a select few that have already passed more humane laws regarding encampment sweeps, such as Indianapolis. Encampment residents should be given ample warning prior to a sweep, and it is imperative that cities do not immediately discard the belongings of homeless residents. Most importantly, sweeps should not be conducted without available housing and supportive services for those who are displaced as a result.
At a time when those experiencing homelessness far outnumber the number of shelter beds allocated to them, we must find a better way to serve our unhoused neighbors without destroying the camps they so often call home.