Stand Together: Your Voice Matters in the Fight for the Rights of People Experiencing Homelessness

A Call to Unity in Johnson v. Grants Pass

In the face of ongoing challenges, the resilience of our community—particularly those with lived experience of homelessness—continues to inspire and drive change. One such pivotal moment of change is upon us, as the Supreme Court prepares to hear a case that could significantly impact the rights of homeless individuals across the nation: Johnson v. Grants Pass.

This landmark case centers on the rights of homeless individuals in Grants Pass, Oregon, challenging ordinances that penalize life-sustaining activities in public spaces. At its heart, Johnson v. Grants Pass isn’t just about one town; it’s a reflection of the broader struggle for dignity, respect, and the right to exist in public spaces without fear of harassment or punishment.

The Issue at Hand

For too long, our brothers and sisters without homes have faced legal and societal barriers that criminalize their existence. Sleeping, eating, and performing other necessary life activities in public spaces—their last resort—are met with penalties rather than support. Johnson v. Grants Pass brings these injustices to the forefront, challenging us all to reconsider how we treat the most vulnerable among us.

Your Voice is Your Power

This case is a rallying cry for all who believe in justice and human rights. It’s a reminder that together, we can challenge the status quo and advocate for policies that uplift rather than oppress. Your voice is critical in this fight.

Call to Action

Your involvement signifies more than just your support; it embodies hope, unity, and the unwavering belief that change is possible. Let’s stand together for justice, for dignity, and for the rights of all individuals to live freely and without fear.

Here’s how you can stand in solidarity:

  1. Sign the Petition: Add your name to the growing list of individuals calling for an end to the criminalization of homelessness. Each signature sends a strong message to policymakers about the public’s demand for compassionate and humane treatment of all individuals, regardless of their housing status.
  2. Join us for the Housing Not Handcuffs Rally on April 22, 2024, at the Supreme Court: Mark your calendars and make your presence felt. This rally isn’t just about making noise; it’s about showing the strength of our community and the depth of our commitment to change.
  3. Join with communities across the country in holding coordinated actions on April 22nd! Click here to let us know about your local event, or to learn more about what might be happening in your community. Check out our Organizing Skill Share guide for action inspiration and guidance. 

We know that laws are passed and enforced locally. Your City Council, Mayor, and police are the ones implementing anti-homeless policies (such as sweeps) now. So, local actions are really important, in addition to actions in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

A small group of people can have a BIG impact! Together, we can demonstrate the collective power of individuals united for a common cause.

The Journey Ahead

The path to justice is long and fraught with challenges, but it’s a journey worth taking. Johnson v. Grants Pass is more than a legal battle; it’s a moral one. It’s about affirming the right of every individual to live with dignity and without fear. As we stand on the brink of this historic moment, let’s come together to support those who have been marginalized and to show that humanity and compassion can prevail over indifference and injustice.

Together, We Can Make a Difference

To learn more about Johnson v. Grants Pass and stay informed on the latest developments, here are several avenues you can explore:

  • Official Johnson v Grants Pass Case site
  • NCH info on Criminalization
  • National Homelessness Law Center and the Housing Not Handcuffs Campaign
  • National Alliance to End Homelessness
  • Supreme Court’s Official Website: The United States Supreme Court’s official website offers access to court documents, including briefs, oral arguments, and opinions related to the case. This is a primary source for accurate and up-to-date information.
  • Congressional leaders have unveiled the FY24 THUD spending bill, earmarking significant funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) programs focused on affordable housing and homelessness. The bill allocates $70 billion to HUD, marking an $8.3 billion increase from the FY23 levels. This funding boost is seen as a major achievement for the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC)’s national HoUSed campaign, advocates nationwide, and congressional supporters such as Senators Brian Schatz and Cindy Hyde-Smith, along with Representatives Tom Cole and Mike Quigley.

Key Highlights of the FY24 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) Spending Bill (excerpted from the National Low Income Housing Coalition – Full link https://nlihc.org/resource/despite-tight-topline-funding-advocates-and-key-congressional-champions-secure-increased)

Noteworthy Funding Details:

– The Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program receives a substantial increase, funded at $32.4 billion, allowing for the renewal of all existing rental assistance contracts and expanding assistance to 3,000 additional households.

– Homeless Assistance Grants see a $418 million increase, totaling $4.05 billion.

– The Public Housing Capital and Operating Funds receive modest increases, with the Capital Fund at $3.41 billion and the Operating Fund at $5.5 billion.

– The Native American Housing Block Grant is boosted by $324 million, reaching $1.1 billion.

– Despite some programs facing cuts, such as the HOME Investment Partnerships Program and the Choice Neighborhoods, significant resources are allocated across various housing and homelessness initiatives.

 

Analysis of Specific Programs:

– Tenant-Based Rental Assistance is set at $32.4 billion, aiming to renew all existing contracts and expand support.

– Public Housing funding includes slight increases for capital and operating funds, with a total of $3.4 billion for the capital account.

– The bill also emphasizes homelessness programs, allocating $4.05 billion for Homeless Assistance Grants, indicating a focused effort to address the homelessness crisis.

Overall Impact:

The FY24 spending bill represents a significant step towards addressing affordable housing and homelessness challenges in the U.S. While it marks progress, NLIHC and its allies continue to advocate for sustained and comprehensive investment in housing assistance to meet the growing needs of Americans facing housing insecurity.

NLIHC Budget Chart FY2024

 

Written by: NCH Policy Lead, Michele Williams ; Edited by Kenia Mazariegos

Photo by Lara Jameson

I am entering my third year in my second tenure as Executive Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, and I have great optimism. 

My optimism is driven by the reality that the rest of the advocacy world and the federal agencies have finally caught up with NCH’s philosophy of involving people with lived experience at all levels. We have witnessed a transformation at all levels to an imperfect inclusiveness that holds great potential for a more efficient and effective service delivery system.

I am also profoundly moved by the advocacy in local communities to push back against a well-organized and well-funded group of lobbyists traveling the country spreading harmful misinformation using hedge fund dollars. The Cicero Institute is circulating model legislation to force people experiencing homelessness into jails and institutions. Study after study and voluminous research has disproved the theory that incarceration or forced institutionalization has any benefit for people experiencing homelessness. In fact, research on homelessness indicates that incarceration has multiple negative impacts.

Conversely, and as we experience a cold snap across the country, I am confronted with the harsh realities that people experiencing homelessness face daily. The headlines are nearly surreal. 

The headlines in my news feed tell of a serial killer targeting people forced to live outdoors due to unregulated housing increases in Los Angeles. I have visited Skid Row multiple times, leaving with sadness and urgency. 

In the same news feed, a community in Phoenix applauds the raiding of an encampment of 800 people. All 800 had been removed from the community’s safety to only God knows where. In my experience, only a handful are housed at the end of the day, and most are pushed to parts unknown.  

People should be able to live in safe, stable housing, not parks, cars, or abandoned buildings.  

For decades, we have waited for the market to fix our severe lack of affordable housing to no avail. We have begged, pleaded, and educated elected officials to exhaustion. Our mission to end homelessness can sometimes appear intractable.

But homelessness in the United States is not inevitable, or intractable, or hopeless. I fundamentally believe that for a full restoration of justice for marginalized people, we must demand it.  

I believe the time is right for Direct Action. The homeless advocacy movement has been silent since the creation of McKinney Vento. People experiencing homelessness have relinquished leadership to providers, many of whom have compassion and good intentions but are beholden to funders, like HUD. People with lived experience have been exploited, tokenized, and devoid of any genuine voice in their own lives. 

We must organize a force led by people with lived experience that demands housing justice, economic justice, and civil and racial justice.

We often hear nothing for us without us. This is a clever statement but hollow without a demand for this direction. We demand to be creators and not evaluators, and our expertise will be compensated.

This kind of organizing is not new. It has changed the course of history multiple times in multiple places worldwide, from American chattel Slavery to the abolishment of apartheid in South Africa. The intractable has been possible and then invisible.  

I hope in reading this; you are overwhelmed with the fierce urgency of now that not one more person must die in the isolation of the sea of despair called homelessness. I know that many have moved on, not willing to relive the trauma of homelessness. However, we need your voice, your story, your triumph. 

We need people to understand that your situation was not your destiny and that even though life dealt you a bad hand, you were satisfied. We need you to join the Bring America Home Now Campaign. We cannot afford to wait; people are dying everywhere in the richest countries in the world.

Authored by Donald Whitehead, Executive Director of NCH (National Coalition for the Homeless).

 

The National Coalition For The Homeless is releasing a vital informative report called Design Against Humanity, highlighting the many ways that Hostile Architecture is used to prevent full use of public space, especially by certain members of our communities. 

We have witnessed many examples of hostile architecture in the five cities visited so far on the Local Power Tour – Los Angeles, Sacramento, Seattle, Miami and Atlanta. Most all the cities placed boulders throughout underpasses or in front of city buildings, have benches with bars in the middle, and/or use eco blocks to prevent RVs from stopping and parking.  

Seattle had the most aggressive usage of some of these methods. There were eco blocks in industrial areas installed by the local businesses to ensure no RVs or cars could park near or in front of their businesses. There were fenced off areas surrounding underpasses and anywhere people could possibly stop and rest.  

Los Angeles uses loud music in their metro stations and, after a recent sweep in Hollywood, planters of various sizes were installed to avoid the return of long term residents, their tents and belongings.  

Miami has double fencing surrounding their underpasses to prevent people from seeking shelter from the extreme heat and rainstorms. Atlanta has employed similar tactics installing boulders under the highways as well.  

The use of these forms of hostile architecture often result in forcing the unhoused to go into hiding and relocate, often far away from any social services.  It all reads like a slow migration to push the unhoused farther and farther out of site and further from permanent housing. But many of these efforts also make public spaces unwelcome to people who have disabilities, families, and older persons. 

Many people are not aware of, or do not notice, hostile architecture. Once we understand the examples, we start to see just how much our cities have made public space unwelcoming. This report will help educate and aid our communities and elected officials in understanding the struggles of the people displaced around their cities, where the architecture is often designed to work against them.  

  • Written by Mary Cellini, who leads an NCH Field Office from her organization Housing is Human Right, a project of the Aids Health Foundation. 

The National Coalition for the Homeless has been shocked by the number of cities engaged in raiding encampments of people who are otherwise unhoused, throwing away valuables (medications, food, personal or historical papers) of those without anywhere else to go.  

In response to the pandemic, and efforts to reduce COVID spread in crowded emergency shelters, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asked cities to hold off enforcing anti-camping ordinances. There continue to be so many of us who do not feel safe going to a congregate living facility. Unfortunately, most available shelter continues to be in large congregate settings, especially as emergency hotel rooms are closing. People who were or are becoming priced out of their housing are having to choose between crowded shelters or sleeping outdoors. 

Unfortunately, most cities disregarded the advice of the CDC and began arresting and moving people out of sight in late 2020. This escalated in 2021 and today NCH has documented at least 66 cities or counties sending police/sheriff deputies out to arrest and harass those who have no other viable housing options. 

NCH has studied many of these localities and has come up with a Dirty Dozen (click here to download this report), based also on discussions with advocates and people experiencing homelessness from around the country. Each one of the Dirty Dozen cities are regularly harassing those who stay outside and have been engaging in sweeps for over a year. Each one of these cities has a severe lack of affordable housing, including long waiting lists for subsidized housing, while rents and evictions are both on the rise. Every one of these cities has an inability to house everyone requesting assistance, even in emergency congregate facilities. 

In determining these Dirty Dozen cities, we also took into account levels of harassment and danger felt by people forced to live outdoors. Unfortunately, the cruelty of local police forces was a factor in developing our ranking system, and especially police-led harassment during extreme weather conditions. We also took into account the amount of violence reported against those on the streets, as well as the level of frustration by local advocates in trying to work with the elected officials to come to better solutions. A final factor taken into account when determining this list was reports from the field on how many people lost their lives while waiting for housing.   

The Dirty Dozen Meanest Cities in the United States is meant to highlight that neglect and hostility towards those without housing is leading to more people dying while homeless in one of the richest countries on the planet. 

Of note is that there are a few cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Santa Fe that have not engaged in sweeps during the pandemic, but rather have worked hard to house those living outside.  Unfortunately, we could not find enough cities to show a similar list of the “Dozen Nicest Cities for those who stay outside.” Our view is that an ideal community is one that does not allow anyone to live without safe, decent, accessible and affordable housing; and one that protects and promotes each resident’s civil and human rights. 

  1. Los Angeles CA: The scale is what puts LA as the meanest city in the US. Housing is so expensive in the city and many neighborhoods are forcing police actions against those who cannot afford the rents. Sweeps on Venice Beach in recent years have been especially brutal. Many gentrified neighborhoods in the city are demanding that law enforcement get people off the sidewalks. One of the first and largest sweeps in the LA region since the beginning of the pandemic took place in Echo Park. As a result of being displaced, a number of those who had formerly lived in the encampment community lost their lives, and only a few ever got into housing.

    Instead of learning from the Echo Park sweeps, Los Angeles City Council recently voted to prohibit lying, sleeping and storing property in public areas within 500 feet of schools and daycare centers, adding to the list of places where those who are unhoused cannot rest. From San Pedro to the West Valley to Hollywood and Downtown, the unhoused community is moved from neighborhood to neighborhood at a huge cost for the city, leaving less money for housing. Los Angeles is also home to the infamous Skid Row which is a symbol of neglect for the past 30 years. Every day, many of those ignored and forgotten by our society have identification, medicine, and blankets tossed into the trash by sanitation workers while being escorted away by police. The interviews that Invisible People (https://invisiblepeople.tv) conducts with those on the streets of LA are heartbreaking.  Many have to start over because all of their valuables are tossed every two weeks.  Los Angeles is the current Homeless Capital of the United States.
  1. San Diego, CA: San Diego has a division of police officers that spend most of their shift harassing, citing and sweeping homeless people in the remote areas of the city as well as on the downtown sidewalks. There is an all-out war on those who are struggling to survive on the streets because they can’t afford the rents. It is especially troubling to see the city’s frequent homeless encampment sweeps where perfectly good wheelchairs, bicycles, and tents are thrown away. San Diego also has a significant lack of affordable housing with prices for rent soaring out of control. Instead of working to provide housing and services, the main response from the city to homelessness has been law enforcement. San Diego also has one of the largest homeless veteran populations in the US and these individuals who served in the military are also being frequently harassed. 

    There is always an unnecessary amplification of hostility and tension when a person with a gun shows up at a tent to evict someone. San Diego has also regularly gone after people living in vehicles, especially RVs, and frequently tows this housing of last resort. There is ongoing litigation in the city around the towing of RVs. Cars, RVs and other vehicles may not be a permanent or ideal housing solution, but vehicles are often one last resort that many have to feel safe and be out of the elements after they lose their home. Given the city’s lack of caring and real solutions, it is no surprise that the San Diego region set a record by having almost 500 people die while homeless in 2021.
  1. Miami, FL: Miami makes its way to the top of the Meanest Cities list having been documented throwing away the ashes of loved ones along with many other valuables of those forced to sleep outside. The Miami city council was presented with horror stories from doctors who saw the level of need and suffering on the streets. Those elected officials ignored these pleas for help, instead voting to continue sending police out to harass people experiencing homelessness. Miami has been involved in numerous lawsuits regarding bad homeless policies, and now is attempting to ship their problem to an island outside of the city where sewage is processed. 

    It is extremely expensive to live in Miami, but it is also an extreme waste of money to chase people around the city for being unable to afford expensive housing. The city has a long history of attempting to make it illegal to be without housing and have tried to make it difficult to distribute food, provide care to those outside and to stay in contact with those outside. The city has a tourist-first policy and thus attempts to keep those without housing out of sight of visitors. Miami has shown repeatedly that they will put profits over people when it comes to social services and medical care.
  1. Austin, TX: Austin is the state capital of Texas so while state officials are sympathetic to the outrageous price of housing, there are also state and national forces working to criminalize people for not having permanent homes. The Governor and his funders are demanding harsh treatment of people experiencing homelessness, and have threatened to step in to enforce local zoning restrictions if the city does not act. 

    Out-of-control rents have been ignored in policy discussions for a decade in Austin, so the significant rise in homelessness did not just happen during the pandemic, but has became more visible over the last few years. Law and order advocates invested lots of money in a voter initiative which then passed to demand that the city enforce an anti-camping ban. Any opposition to the measure was successfully silenced with threats and intimidation. Everyone is afraid to speak up against these draconian policies and their horrible impact on those struggling to afford rent. Those who promote sweeps are often swayed by myths about people experiencing homelessness and distorted statistics that paint those without housing as safety risks. This is simply an attempt to hide the problems facing Austin and the lack of an effective response by local leaders as well as state lawmakers.
  1. Sacramento, CA: Sacramento is a city that often purports to have compassion but in reality is causing great harm to those struggling to afford housing. Most actions made by the city leadership only prolong a person’s homelessness. The city shelters are at capacity and turn people away, and the city has stopped helping those living outside. The city regularly throws away the valuables of those who live outside, erroneously thinking that giving a warning notice to those in tents is somehow more compassionate. They have decided that internment camps in an industrial section of the city is an effective response to homelessness. They seem to have given up on trying to reduce discharges from health care facilities to the streets, or on trying to bring down the high cost of rent.

    Sacramento is another state capital where state legislators come to all the wrong conclusions as they drive by those living in tents. The biggest concern of local leaders seems to be how to get around a federal court decision that prohibits cities from arresting anyone living outside if there is not enough shelter available. Sacramento has embraced combining law enforcement with social services going back on promises to provide safe, decent and voluntary places to exist in the city. In the last Great Depression, we built a safety net for seniors to be able to stay in housing after retirement and not end up on the streets.  That system is crumbling because rents are so high that many frail and elderly are dying on the streets of Sacramento. 
  1. Atlanta, GA: Atlanta is a city that seems to have been at war with its homeless population for the past 30 years. City resources were incredibly ill-prepared to deal with the huge rise in people living outside after COVID. As in many cities, vulnerable people have found that living outdoors is safer for avoiding contracting COVID. Atlanta was especially hard hit, because they had never really constructed a social safety net for those who cannot afford the ever increasing cost of rent. In addition, shelters have closed and the city of Atlanta has not embraced alternatives to shelter.  

    One of the best examples of how mean Atlanta has become to those without housing is the number of hostile architecture fixtures within the city. Spikes and huge boulders have been installed under bridges and public spaces to prevent humans from sitting or lying down to rest. Officials in Atlanta have even gone so far as to convince local and state governments to make camping illegal in every community in Georgia. Rents and evictions are skyrocketing, and the city has only offered more police to harass unhoused folks. Once you regularly use law enforcement in place of social workers, it is impossible to rebuild the trust of those forced to live outdoors. 
  1. Phoenix, AZ:  Because Pheonix is a city built in a desert, it is one of the most brutal cities to live in without housing. Every year that advocates have tracked homeless mortality rates, Phoenix always has a large numbers due to extreme weather deaths. As climate change continues to heat up temperatures, the dire need for indoor spaces, especially in very hot locations, will only increase. 

    However, instead of cooling centers or housing, city officials in Phoenix have only increased encounters between the police and those trying to survive outside. In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation against the City of Phoenix and their police department and specifically cited their ill-treatment of people who are homeless or who have a mental health condition. There was a proposal in the last state legislature session that would make it illegal for anyone to sleep on public property. Though the legislation did not pass it is expected to be reintroduced or revised during a special session.  

    Phoenix is another large city that does not have emergency shelter capabilities to serve all of its residents who are becoming displaced by the high cost of housing. The city did very little during the height of the COVID pandemic to meet the needs of those who were not able to safely use congregate shelters.  
  1. Washington, DC:  DC is another city that presents itself as compassionate, but advocates and people who live outside or in shelters will disagree. Every day, national lawmakers who have access to trillions of dollars drive by the large number of tents near Metro stops and in local parks. While our Federal legislators have failed to provide needed housing investment for the entire country, the District of Columbia local government is also lacking a compassionate and housing-focused response to homelessness. 

    Local advocates have seen a sharp rise in violence against those who are without housing, which started when the local government began their pilot of “moving” encampments.  Along with assisting on sweeps the city has done very little to curb the gentrification of certain neighborhoods displacing long term residents for higher income households typically from outside the District. The DC government has done all it can to try to house as many as possible and had a decent response to COVID, but still insists on using law enforcement to address a social service problem. They do give warnings, but one week is hardly a comfort to the men and women trying to survive the heat and trauma of living in a tent. There are many more people sleeping outside compared to 5 years ago, and the cost of housing is out of control in the region. It is more and more difficult for the homeless service workers to afford to live in the region, much less anyone is the overall service industry. Even with one of the highest minimum wage rates in the country, housing is unattainable for anyone making less than $25 per hour. But the city continues to allow law enforcement to harass those forced to live outdoors.  
  1. San Francisco, CA: San Francisco is another city that hides behind a “compassionate” veneer. In reality, the city’s primary response to homelessness is and has been a police response. The holes in the social safety net have become more pronounced and more visible in the last two years as the city caters heavily to real estate and downtown interests. However, a report issued by the Board of Supervisors in February 2022 found that police were sent to address issues associated with those living outside between 9,000 and 10,000 times per month. 

    While strong community organizing has led the city to invest a good deal in solutions, it has fallen short of addressing the affordable housing crisis in any real way. Rents are extreme in San Francisco. A recent voter initiative demanded that the city tax wealthy corporation to provide a 25% increase in funding for housing and shelter. However, the city has also continued to invest heavily in strategies to disappear and displace poor people.   

    San Francisco is now at the forefront of employing private unregulated “security guards” to terrorize those who stay outside.  Business Improvement Districts are quasi-governmental sponsors of these “security guards,” who have no oversight and are not responsive to freedom of information disclosures or the other procedures of all the other public law enforcement personnel. 
  1. New York City, NY:  Again the scale of the issue is what puts New York City in the top ten meanest cities. NYC was once the capital of homelessness in America but was forced to make progress, as early as the 1980’s, through lawsuits and public pressure. But the current Mayor (who was formerly a member of law enforcement in the city) has moved the city backward with a huge increase in sweeps. This is despite the fact that New York City maintains the highest percentage of shelter beds per capita, and that the City did a tremendous amount at the start of the pandemic to put people who were homeless into hotel rooms. Unfortunately, this hotel-based COVID prevention program was prematurely ended right before the omicron surge.

    The new Mayor came into office and has approached homelessness as an issue to be addressed by law enforcement rather than social services.  While previous administrations have tried sweeps, Mayor Eric Adams has doubled down on a failed and cruel policy that has proven not to work. He has done nothing to improve the shelter conditions or control the escalating numbers of evictions.  He has sent the police out as a response to those who cannot afford housing and those who are improperly discharged to the streets by the medical facilities. His history of working in law enforcement makes it his first response to a social service problem. All the cities on this list have a higher than average rate of mortality among those who experience homelessness. New York City is no different,  with large number of unhoused folks who reportedly die as a result of chronic health conditions or untreated addiction needs.
  1. Seattle WA: Seattle is a human rights city that claims compassion, but in practice, people experiencing homelessness are being harassed and are dying from preventable conditions on a regular basis. Seattle has long used law enforcement to address homelessness, and has recently increased forcibly displacing people forced to live outdoors. Seattle advocates have worked tirelessly to oppose these draconian policies, offering data and other evidence to counter current policies, but to no avail. There has been very little done to adequately address the unreasonably high cost of housing, inflation, or the increases in eviction. An already strained medical system does not have the capacity to care for the high numbers of people in need. Those with life threatening and deadly illnesses are being discharged back to the streets. 

    While it is widely known that those experiencing homelessness are disproportionately victims of crime, officials still propagate the myth that homeless individuals attract crime.  Frequently, law enforcement is used to perpetuate the narrative that those who are homeless are criminals as well. Those who have lost their housing are punished with forcible displacement and potential criminal charges or must wander the city looking for a safe and quiet place to rest. The abuse of those experiencing homelessness is strategic. The City tries breaking up encampments and destabilizing relationships within these communities.

    While the city received federal housing vouchers and millions in emergency COVID relief to augment its homeless social services, it was not enough to bridge the income gap of lower income workers. With full knowledge that there is not the capacity to offer equitable or adequate shelter/housing/or emergency accommodations, Seattle quietly moves people around the city to protect tourists and the wealthy from having to see the cost of inaction and neglect of the affordable housing crisis.  
  1. Oakland, CA Rounding out the Dirty Dozen Meanest Cities is Oakland, California, which has regularly harassed people living outdoors, often shipping off to industrial sections of the city. Oakland makes the list because of utter neglect of the population of people who do not have a permanent home. There seems to be territorial disputes among state, local and transit officials about who needs to take responsibility, resulting in very little assistance, and lots of vitriol against folks forced to live outside. 

    While rents in Oakland have not risen to the levels seen across the bay in San Francisco, the lack of affordable places to live are a long standing problem. Many of those struggling to stay alive are refugees from San Francisco, but city officials have not done much to address the lack of affordable housing or safety for those struggling with finding emergency help during COVID. Further, Oakland has allowed the ongoing harassment and sweeping of outdoor encampment communities. Oakland is a city adrift without a plan for addressing the many thousands who cannot find a stable place to sleep.  

Dis-Honorable Mentions

State of Tennessee for making it a felony to camp outside. Some jurisdictions are not enforcing the law yet, but it is troubling trend that we anticipate seeing cities from Tennessee on the list soon. 

State of Missouri passed a horrible piece of legislation that attacks those living outside but almost every social service provider operating in the state.  It outlaws the federal priorities for addressing homelessness and will result in a decrease in state funding for many of the larger communities in the show me state or as it will soon be called the “Show-Me-What-Not-to-Do-State.” We anticipate St. Louis and Kansas City joining the above list as soon as this law begins to be implemented. 

Homes Not Sweeps Actions Continue September 6 – 11, 2022

The National Coalition for the Homeless is declaring the first week of September a Homes Not Sweeps Week of Action. We will host demonstrators, protests, and marches across the nation to call attention to the unjust “sweeping” of homeless encampments.

“This is exactly the wrong approach and will only make the problems associated with homelessness dramatically worse,” said Donald Whitehead, the Executive Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “Attacking people who are homeless for personal gain is the most despicable thuggery I can imagine, and we shouldn’t let it happen without a fight.”

Actions are being held to ask federal and city officials to stop criminalizing homelessness. We are urging our communities to respond to the needs of our unhoused neighbors with trauma-informed service and care. The social service needs of the community need immediate attention, and the local leaders need to start addressing the affordable housing crisis in our cities. Ordinances that criminalize people for sleeping outdoors only exacerbate the issues that cause homelessness.

The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), an advocacy organization committed to ending homelessness, will host the Washington, DC, premiere of the documentary “No Address: Atlanta” by filmmaker Caletta Harris. Following the free film screening at American University will be a panel discussion featuring civil rights activists and homeless policy experts discussing the negative effects of sweeps on a community and the setbacks it causes in the life of those living on the streets.

NCH is partnering with local coalitions in Phoenix, Los Angeles, Austin, and Miami to warn the community that local governments are bullying, harassing and in some cases arresting taxpayers for the crime of being without housing. DC law enforcement are also harassing and regularly moving people around the city.

Our DC event will be on September 8 at 7 p.m. at the American University Woods Amphitheater at 4400 Massachusetts Ave NW. in DC. We have the Battelle Atrium if there is rain on September 8.

The participants in the panel discussion include:

  • Filmmaker Caletta Harris, who also does a number of podcasts around poverty and homelessness.
  • NCH executive director Donald Whitehead, who has 25 years working in homeless organizations and got off the streets of Cincinnati in the late 1990s
  • Antonia Fasanelli, the executive director of the National Homelessness Law Center and a former activist in the Baltimore region will talk about their work stopping criminalization
  • Professor Dan Kerr of American University and author of Derelict Paradise which details the history of homelessness in Cleveland will join the discussion
  • Attorney and Georgetown Professor Joe Mead will talk about his history of work protecting the civil rights of those without housing in his career.

The event is free and will focus on the devastating impact criminalization has on the 66 cities currently endeavoring to “sweep” unhoused people out of sight.

Click for the Facebook event

Join the movement: Follow Home Not Sweeps on NCH’s official Facebook page, or visit the NCH website for more about Civil Rights issues.

*Publishing Note*
The below testimony was originally published on Facebook. We have added emphasis, and other readability edits. The Austin area activist who posted the testimony said about the writer,

“This young woman is exceptional, and has lived thru a darker hell than most could even imagine. I admire her strength and poise and intelligence and she is what I fight for everyday. These silenced voices, the woman who disappear, the men who become criminals with wounded hearts, the mentally ill and physically disabled, the youngest and oldest and most vulnerable are why I get up every day.  The second and now third generation unhoused community members here in one of the wealthiest most beautiful cities in America are the people I meet every day. Her voice should be heard. This was written by a young woman named Whitley from a small town Mississippi, who is experiencing homelessness here in Austin. 

By Whitley

After a season of suffering, I really wouldn’t ever wish [this] on anybody, I lived under this bridge between those pillars. I was blessed enough to be the only one who was able to secure transitional housing by sheer luck of the stars and God allowing the right people in my circle that cared.

Stop the Sweeps, Austin

A few weeks later the Prop B/HB1925 sweeps (Austin’s voter initiative to force enforcement of the anti-camping ban) took place from encampments from Great Hills all the way up to Lake Creek.

The folks in these encampments, my own people, [faced] panic, shock, defeat and total and complete loss as they were told [the news of a sweep] after being previously promised by officials [that] they would also be given rehousing in the HEAL Initiative hotels.  City of Austin Government [developed alternatives] for the sweeps (to which many were excited)… only to learn these sweeps were initiated by Office of the Governor Greg Abbott who were offering no less traumatic alternatives. 

There were no counselors or social workers [offered by the Governor]. There were no trauma informed police officers. There were no non profit organizations [sent to offer help]. There was only myself and two ride or die’s J Chain, and S R Love (Austin Mutual Aid) there to assist or offer any support at all whatsoever. I just happened to catch word of the sweeps around an hour after they began and ran into the [two outreach workers] myself on a bike. 

Photo published in the Texas Tribune

I watched my people weep, scream, protest, deflate into defeated hopelessness. [They] carried what they could carry of the only belongings they had left in this world to adjacent medians and [the] gas station parking lots. [Everything they owned were] in tents under overpasses to begin with because they had nowhere to go and no resources to resolve [their housing situation]. 

Some were elderly, some disabled, some were veterans of war, some were teens, some were developmentally disabled, some physically handicapped, and most experienced some sort if not many instances of severe trauma in their life [while living under the overpass]. ALL suffered from some form of mental ILLNESS. 

Photo published by Spectrum News

All of them watched as a trash compactor destroyed their very homes and most of [their worldly] belongings.

All of them were human beings, just like you reading this right now.

I called the Mayor’s Pro Tem Alison Alter/City Council (This is the District 10 City Council member in Austin and this is what she lists as her priorities: managing growth responsibly, protecting open and green spaces, addressing transportation challenges, promoting transparent and effective government, investing in our children, and fostering civic engagement) myself and spoke to a secretary demanding answers and accountability [while I was] in tears. She was kind, but essentially the [City Council] and HEAL initiative were clueless to the sweeps even taking place at all. There apparently is no form of communication or plans in place between the state and city regarding camping bans and their subsequent sweeps. 

[The outreach teams and I] picked up the City’s and the State’s slack where [we could by finding] storage space for belongings that could be packed up. We bought as many tents and camp gear and food and hygiene as we could.  We made sandwiches on the tailgate as 6pm and scoured the earth trying to track folks down [everyone displaced] to make sure they had another form of shelter. I went [back to] home to my hotel room, and I cried until my eyes were swollen shut.

Photo published by the Austin American-Statesman

Half a billion dollars in one city alone was allocated for none of these people to suffer and become re-traumatized by the city as well as the fellow constituents that failed them [by voting for this initiative.] They were already the most marginalized [in our community] and are at risk [every day by living outside]. This could have been avoided. There was ample space and resources allocated so that these people could have been GIVEN hope instead of robbed of it that day. 

Since that day when my friends were pushed into woods, tunnels and gutters away from the eye of the public, [I wonder if there are] organizations that still care enough to help? I’ve witnessed [the trauma] personally including helping to rescue over 6 overdoses. Not 1, not 2, but 3 people I shared life with and loved and cared about have died. And [none of them even] had no funeral. [These were] people who fed me and gave to me when I had NOTHING and nobody. All three are dead. 

Photo published by the Austonian

The next morning [after this sweep] on my bike ride I stopped by the pillar where my makeshift home once stood. [The place] where I was publicly heckled every day by passersby for my living in poverty and [facing insurmountable] loss.  [All this caused tremendous] trauma coupled with the nine months of sexual assault left me with utter rage over the inequality and injustice of it all. It caused me to write across the city’s sign “STOP WAR ON PO’ FOLKS”

I still pass this pillar and this sign every single day months later. 

Today someone added to it, and I wept. Thank you to whoever reminded me today that God who isn’t just of love but IS love, calls the poor heirs to the kingdom of heaven. And that our suffering here for a short while made us blessed for the kingdom to come. 

Praying that my God will bring leaders to this city that won’t overlook this and will do the actual kingdom work to be a TRUE “heal initiative”… or create that in me with the strength that comes with it. 

*RIP to Koi and Guerro, the best Mother’s Day with the most love to mama Sherry Anne who deserved better than she was given – we will make up all the celebrations with you plus tax when you come back home. You were not forgotten today and are so loved.


NCH is calling for a Sweepless Summer.

We all want the same thing: a safe place to sleep. Stop the displacement, and invest in Housing!!

Since our founding, NCH has opposed any measure that makes it a crime to be homeless in America. We oppose enforcing “no camping” initiatives when there is no other choice available to those who lose their housing. Shelters are full, we still have a Covid problem and there are no more motels available to keep people safe. What do you expect citizens of Missouri to do?

NCH urges the Governor to reject this callous effort to solve a social service issue by using law enforcement.

We oppose solving the affordable housing crisis for a select few in our community. We support a comprehensive solution that involves “housing for all” utilizing a “Housing First” strategy for every single person who loses their safe secure dwellings. The Missouri legislature passed HB 1606 that makes it illegal to be without housing.

  • Missouri legislators are focused on providing “tiny homes” as a solution to homelessness. While some may appreciate tiny homes as a transitional or even permanent living space, NCH advocates for a wide array of other permanent housing solutions.
  • The initiative does nothing to address or alleviate homelessness and goes back to old and tired enforcement laws that led to an increase in homelessness in the early 2000’s.
  • The initiative will simply move people from one side of the street to the other, or from one neighborhood to another, rather than providing real solutions. It’s the equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as it sits now at the bottom of the Atlantic.
  • HB 1606 says that people who “camp” will be given a warning and then charged with a misdemeanor if they do not relocate. This will only increase the costs on the criminal justice system with more incarcerations and judicial costs associated with enforcing this law.
  • Our unhoused community will be ticketed and prosecuted, leaving them with arrest records and high fines that will only make it even more difficult to secure housing.
  • HB 1606 instructs local communities to set up wartime-style internment camps or tent cities to place all those without housing in one part of town designated by the local community.
  • The initiative will send us back to the old way of doing things, with massive congregate shelter that has shown to be dangerous during a pandemic or other public health emergency. 
  • Any program provided public funds must have access to mental health/substance abuse assistance. While this sounds wonderful, it is pretty depressing sitting in a tent and watching a society of wealth and expensive vehicles pass you by while going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. The punitive measures harbored by most “treatment” programs will only alienate and exclude more people than they help.
  • HB 1606 uses false data from the Point in Time Count as some sort of Census of homeless people and demands reductions or communities will lose state funding.
  • HB 1606 uses Point in Time Count as some sort of scientific count of the homeless population. It does not take into account that communities get a bonus for having smaller numbers compared to the year before. What community is going to engage in a truthful count when they are rewarded for stopping the second they get to the number they counted the year before?
  • The numbers cited by the authors of HB 1606 are a ONE day count of the number of homeless people. Every day in Missouri people become homeless. This number vastly understates the actual number of people in Missouri needing housing assistance. In addition, the scope of mental illness among the homeless population is vastly over- estimated. It is no where near 75% of the population when you consider that the majority of the homeless population are families with children.
  • The authors of HB 1606 are mischaracterizing it as an incentive to do better, while it will in actuality punish the social service community, those without housing, and those who want to help. It will do nothing to create more opportunities for housing Missourians
  • The state will mandate extensive background checks for anyone participating in these programs including criminal checks and forcing those asking for help to disclose their history of hospitalizations.
  • HB 1606 says that if a city allows camping the Missouri Attorney General has the power to intercede and charge the local municipality to prosecute those who illegal camp within the state.
  • Also, no community can bar a law enforcement officer from enforcing this law. It is martial law light. In the past every citizen would have objected to any state usurping their power and meddling in local government operations.
  • It is highly likely that one year after this law is initiated communities such as St. Louis, Kansas City, Springfield, Jefferson City, Columbia and even Branson will be under threat to lose their state funding for housing/homelessness because they will not be able to show any progress on reducing the numbers of homeless people.
  • The initiative is a smoke and mirrors policy where the outcome will be to pour more money into enforcement instead of housing.  Neighborhoods will see an increase in homelessness with no permanent solutions, as the Show Me State shows the nation how to make homelessness worse.
  • The plan is purported to offer a “comprehensive plan” to end long term homelessness but offers no details or additional funding to address the affordable housing crisis.

For this and many other reasons, NCH opposes HB 1606 and we urge the Governor to veto this bill that will only criminalize the status of being without housing in Missouri.

Here is a letter that NCH sent to US Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Fudge:

Dear Secretary Fudge:
We contacted your office early in the administration to complain about the growing number of sweeps of encampments in the United States urging the Department of Housing and Urban Development to act to stop this horrible practice of making it illegal to be without housing.  We asked that HUD condemn these policies and act to restrict federal dollars going to criminalizing of those without housing. It is ridiculous that local jurisdictions would take in millions of dollars for homelessness in rescue dollars to house the population while turning around and issuing tickets and throwing away the valuables of those who fled the shelters to live outside.  We understand that you and others spoke out against sweeps especially when they fly in the face of Center for Disease Control recommendations. We saw governors in Texas and now Tennessee (TN SB 1610) pass legislation forcing local communities to enforce “anti-camping” ordinances and allows the state to intervene if the local jurisdiction is not criminalizing homelessness fast enough.   Unfortunately, Congress has not given HUD the ability to halt the proliferation of sweeps in the US since we now have 66 cities are regularly sweeping those who live outside.  
We contacted your office about Iowa legislation 252 passed into law in 2021 that is a direct attack on the Housing Choice Voucher program.  This piece of legislation strikes local laws in three communities that do not allow landlords to discriminate based on how a tenant will pay the rent.  NCH thought it was important to defend a federal housing program which helps lift a disproportionate number of minority members of our community out of homelessness.  We again thought it was a betrayal of the partnership established over the last 40 years for one state to attack a federal program that helps solve a housing crisis while also accepting millions in federal funding to build and develop affordable housing.  We have yet to hear any public comments condemning the state of Iowa for this horrible piece of legislation.  
We write to you today regarding a bill that passed the Missouri (HB 1606) that the Governor is contemplating signing that is a direct assault on HUD policies and programs.  We urge you to intervene and respectfully ask the Governor to veto this bill.  We ask that you let him know how this will impact HUD funding before June 30 or the bill will become law.  Please inform the Governor of Missouri that this new law is inconsistent with any of the Consolidated Plans approved by the state and nor can it ever be consistent with those plans since it conflicts with Congressionally approved HUD policies.  This new law will result in people living in places not fit for human habitation for an indeterminate amount of time.  Please inform the Governor that this potential law is extremely harmful to those without housing, the social service community and the local governments who could lose all state funding as a result of this law.  The National Coalition for the Homeless sees a sharp rise in homelessness in Missouri as a direct result of this law’s implementation. 
If this law goes into effect, we recommend that you present a time line for reversal of this law or declare that HUD funding would be in jeopardy.  This is a direct attack on housing first policies and the long tradition of working to get homeless people into safe, decent housing. It perverts the Point in Time count into a census that Missouri will measure the success of the local homeless service providers, and if they fail to reduce the numbers they will lose state funding.  This was never the intention of the Congressional mandate to provide a point-in-time count. It is also a direct assault on the 30 year history of partnership between the federal and state governments in addressing the affordable housing crisis.   We urge you to intervene to stop this assault on federal policies.  If this law is allowed to stand other states will adopt similar positions and HUD funding will be misused to force people into internment camps.  The time to act is now. 

By Eva Lyons, NCH Intern Spring 2022

Similar to many other cities during the pandemic, Pittsburgh saw a large increase in the number who fled the shelters and could not find other housing so began living outside. Much of this trend is out of the cities hand, except for how they choose to react to this crisis or minimize it. Pittsburgh is the largest city within Allegheny County. Allegheny County prioritized those without housing to keep them safe during the pandemic. Other cities such as Cleveland, OH, and Santa Fe, NM, went down the same path, but most other cities adopted a law enforcement strategy to homelessness. Because unhoused individuals have many chronic health conditions they are at higher risks of getting COVID-19. There are far fewer places to isolate, which has caused an increasing number of people living on the streets in freezing temperatures.

Allegheny County took a more hands on approach and worked to keep everyone safe. They utilized every federal resource they could find, assembled unprecedented amounts of funding to get people inside. They adopted a prevention strategy, and tried connecting people to available services. In looking at models from the pandemic, we believe that Pittsburgh can serve as a template for other government entities to model in response to a health crisis as well as a better strategy for dealing with the emergency of homelessness.

Abigail Horn, Deputy Director of the Office of Community Services for Allegheny County, and Andy Halfhill, Administrator for Homeless Services for Allegheny County shared that the Health Department played an important and positive role in protecting their homeless population. The Health Department met regularly with homeless providers to determine best practices. They also sent staff to check out the shelters and determine next best steps following any health checks. Ms. Horn shared that they were very hands-on and active within the community.

Allegheny County tried to take advantage of every single resource they had available to help their homeless population during these troubling times of the pandemic. They worked to be very nimble and to meet any needs that came along. One of Allegheny County’s main successes was their focus on getting the Safe Haven Hotel running and available for isolation and quarantine spaces. Families and youth could utilize these spaces which also included single adults. This effort helped to deconcentrate people from congregate single shelters. Part of these spaces were designated to move people who were deemed “higher risk individuals” into a safer space. They also were able to utilize rooms in the winter for winter shelter overflow. These efforts started within the first year of the pandemic, showing where the county’s priorities rightfully laid.

Another great success from the county involves how they used the funding and resources they had hosted community discussions to figure out the priorities and then used the dollars coming in from the federal government to prioritize the needs. They decided to focus on their most vulnerable community members with chronic health conditions who had no where else to stay. They used their funding to provide hygiene centers and toilets to larger encampments. Furthermore, the county pushed to help get everyone vaccinated and tested. They sent medical professional out to the streets, and they offered a space to isolate and quarantine at the Safe Haven Hotel.

Outreach in Pittsburgh

Rather than clearing encampments and displacing individuals, they brought resources to those sleeping rough in Pittsburgh. County officials passed along essential resources and compassion that they hoped would build trust to bring people inside. Historically, Pittsburgh has been really respectful, working with outreach teams and educating their police on the best ways to interact with the diverse homeless population. Police are paired with street outreach who get to take the lead with issues or concerns facing homeless individuals. Furthermore, police defer to street outreach teams to help with clean up when residents request and to help pick up trash. This helps ensure that people’s belongings are not being thrown out.

The county’s funding was also used to help families with the technology barriers for online schooling. They provided additional resources, such as cellphones, laptops, and hotspot access to those in need. These resources also helped families and individuals access the internet and online services to contact doctors and other essential providers. Additionally, IPads were provided to the Safe Haven Hotel to help the people living there temporarily. Allegheny County has long- term efforts in place to serve their homeless sector, as this crisis was here before the pandemic and will be here afterwards until something major is done.

They keep their street outreach teams active throughout the year doing health checks and connecting people to housing and hygiene services. These outreach teams play a huge role in the county. They helped connect unhoused individuals to the Safe Haven Hotel as needed. Allegheny County has worked to get the emergency resources they were given on the streets as quickly as possible. During the pandemic, they worked to show that they were using the federal recovery dollars in a strategic and meaningful purpose.

Both state and national entities came through strongly to support the county’s efforts, enabling them to focus on supportive services that saved people’ lives. This includes an extremely robust eviction prevention program. This program kept the surge in homelessness that was seen across the nation to a minimum in Allegheny County. This program was essential because it provided more ways to keep people in their affordable housing and prevent them from joining the homeless population.

Ms. Horn shared that it was not the amount of funding that needs to increase if local communities are prioritizing their funding in a similar way to Allegheny County; instead, she shared what would help the most would be for government at all levels to provide more affordable housing. Ms. Horn shared, “It is hard for people to successfully leave the system because they cannot find safe, stable, and affordable housing when they leave, and I know that is the same across the nation.”

There are currently a lot of programs for veterans, youth, and families. This covers many of the subpopulations of homeless people, however, there are huge groups that fall through the cracks. Ms. Horn and Mr. Halfhill shared that the sub-population increasing the greatest are those with long term stays without housing and those with behavioral health issues. They would like to focus next on creating better connections between homeless individuals and behavioral health services. Allegheny County used the resources at their disposal to help keep their homeless population safe before, during, and after the pandemic. The models in Pittsburgh/Allegheny County can work in other cities to keep our homeless neighbors safe and while the appropriate housing is developed to lower the numbers.

Dear Mayor Adams:

The National Coalition for the Homeless is alarmed by the subway safety plan released by your administration on February 18, 2022, and are concerned that this will only escalate the issues facing those without stable housing in New York City.  Our concern is this “plan” was tried by the previous administration in New York City and has been tried by other mayors on a smaller scale in many other cities and every time it has failed because affordable housing is never attached to these plans.  NCH and every homeless organization mourns the loss of life in the subways and the escalating amount of violence, but it is misguided to blame these issues on the unhoused.  After 40 years if we have learned one thing it is that use of law enforcement to deal with a social service/housing issues will fail and will only extend the stay on the streets for many caught up in these sweeps.

While we understand that the safety of every rider of the New York subway system (including those without housing) is paramount, our concern is that this plan will only exacerbate the violence.  It also diverts law enforcement resources from solving real crimes to being reduced to crossing guards or curfew violation security officers.  We have seen a number of videos over the last two weeks of encounters between law enforcement and those without housing and it seems as though these encounters are only agitating those who utilize the subway for shelter.  The law enforcement or transit official asks the unhoused individual to move their stuff out of the subway, which typically involves three or four trips down the escalator, and each time the person is more and more frustrated.  We are worried that this subway plan is just going to lead to more and more volatile interactions and eventually people backed into a corner lash out.

What is missing from this plan is where do these individuals go if they are not in the subway?  And based on the videos, shelters are not an option to many of these individuals utilizing the subway.  They clearly describe unsafe, unsupervised and overcrowded conditions that make the streets a more attractive alternative.  We had written to City of New York officials in 2021 about our concern over the shelter conditions and lack of oversight.  Unless you find safe spaces for those you are removing they will continue to utilize the subway, doorways, and bridges to stay alive.  There are so many failed systems that led to people sleeping in the subway and you are entirely focused on the victim of these system failures instead of attacking the causes. 

The National Coalition for the Homeless has many ideas for how local communities can better address the crisis within the behavioral health system and the inability for the market to meet the housing needs of the service based economy we have created, but none of our proposals involve the use of law enforcement to be transformed into social workers. The individuals that you roust from the subways will still use the public transit system, but will be even more suspicious of law enforcement, transit officials, and outreach teams.  Housing First, safe havens, hotel rooms, low barrier facilities all work and are proven to keep people from living on the streets.  We understand the scale of the problem in New York City, but neglecting the population or utilizing police to shuffle people around the city is not going to encourage people to go inside in any capacity. 

The behavioral health system that keeps individuals on a 24 hour hold and then sends them back to the streets; the housing system that takes years to process paperwork and complete inspections, the inability for doctors to prescribe housing as part of the treatment for their patient’s recovery plan; the pharmaceutical industry getting individuals hooked on opioid and keeping the price of other life sustaining medicine too high for many in our society; the vacant and abandoned housing sitting idle while so many sleep outside, and we could go on for 8 pages to describe all the other holes in the social safety net.  But the bottom line is that there is nowhere for these individuals to go and therefore they seek safety in the subways. Until you answer the question where do all these people go, you are just constructing a massive game of hide and seek as part of this security theater for the media. 

Please, for the safety of those who are struggling with their housing and the passengers of the New York transit system, we urge reconsideration of your plan with the publication of a new plan that answers the basic question: where do all these individuals go to stay safe? 

California has been facing a homelessness crisis for years now, but that crisis is reaching new  heights in nearly every major city. As of January 2020, 72% of those without housing in  California are unsheltered. Now more than ever, investment in affordable housing is needed to  help people get off the streets. Instead Kern County has released a “comprehensive plan” that  makes it illegal to be without housing and neglects to provide safe, secure and private places to  re-establish stability while we move out of the pandemic. A “sanctioned encampment” or a  congregate living shelter is not a substitute for affordable housing. By violently disrupting  people’s lives through encampment sweeps that evict them from their tents and communities,  you are only prolonging a person’s homelessness because they are repeatedly starting over. In  keeping with CDC recommendations, the National Coalition for the Homeless 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. 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, you are only  exacerbating the problem and you will find that homelessness will only increase within Kern  County. 

On November 9, 2021, Kern County will hold a public hearing to discuss and potentially adopt  an anti-camping ordinance. This ordinance would outlaw camping on public land and make it  illegal to store belongings in public areas. By passing this ordinance, Kern County would  criminalize homelessness through fines and citations. While administrative citations may seem  trivial, fines 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 fine people  for simply trying to survive? In addition to penalizing unhoused persons, this ordinance would  lead to a cycle of evictions for people experiencing homelessness as the county sweeps  encampments. Imagine being forced to pack up all your belongings over and over again or risk  everything you own being thrown away. These sweeps violently disrupt people’s lives and leave  them worse than before. People have lost their tents, beds, ID, medication, important documents,  and more as a result of street sweeps. This theft and destruction of people’s property alienates an already marginalized community and makes it that much harder to live. Rather than helping  those without housing, sweeps will actively harm them.  

Sweeps don’t solve the problem of homelessness; they only serve to push people out of  “desirable” or popular areas in the county. Rather than help connect people to housing and  outreach services, sweeps are an attempt to make the problem of homelessness invisible. If you can’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 or become increasingly difficult for outreach teams to locate and help.  

Where do you expect people to go when you outlaw camping? No one forced your other  taxpayers where to live or in what section of town they were allowed to reside, but this is the  proposed policy to those who lost their housing. And while it may appear logical to expect  people experiencing homelessness to just go into shelters if they want to avoid fines, this ignores  the many reasons why people camp instead – people don’t choose to live outdoors on a whim.  People in shelters often face violence, stolen belongings, and poor living conditions. Not to  mention the serious risks during the coronavirus pandemic where shelters can put people’s health  in jeopardy and increase the spread of the virus due to large numbers of people sharing space  indoors.  

While this anti-camping ordinance would have terrible consequences if passed, the county has  also announced they will invest $8.3 million to create outreach teams for the homeless, with a  particular focus on mental health. This commitment is crucial for helping people experiencing  homelessness and deserves recognition. However, tying this funding to the anti-camping ordinance risks destroying the program’s positive impacts and harming the very community the  county is trying to help. 

So what can Kern County do to end homelessness? First, it cannot and should not try to  criminalize its way out of homelessness by banning camping. Instead, the county should invest in  affordable housing and outreach that can connect people to necessary housing with wrap around  services. The County should work to prevent any evictions that lead to homelessness. The county  must not sweep encampments to “clean” the streets, rather they should provide services such as  public toilets, showers, and trash receptacles to address cleanliness 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 the home owners who want to hide the problem.  

Passing this anti-camping ordinance will not reduce the number of homeless people in Kern County. If the county wants to truly end homelessness, they must vote against adopting this ordinance and instead listen to people with lived experience of homelessness to identify alternative solutions. Have you thought about sitting down with those who stay outside and ask  what they need to move inside? The county’s investment into building affordable housing,  improving access to mental health professionals, and substance abuse treatment will help save lives. Don’t undermine this work by criminalizing and punishing the homeless community for trying to survive.