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Dirty Dozen Meanest Cities in the US

Written by admin on . Posted in White Paper

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. 

NCH Demands an End to the Cruel Policies of Making it Illegal to be Without Housing in the US.

Written by admin on . Posted in Blog

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.

Report on Austin Sweeps

Written by admin on . Posted in Blog

*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!!

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