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.
*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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.