Commentary: Why Clearing Homeless Encampments Might Not Be a Good Solution

Photo Courtesy of Yolo DA

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – In 2021, the city of Davis along with Yolo County undertook a joint effort to clear out homeless encampments along F Street north of Covell Blvd.

At the time, local officials admitted they were not “entirely certain where all of them will end up.”  The city claimed it had pursued case management and other services at the city’s respite center, but acknowledged “at this point, we haven’t had much success.”

But remaining where they were was not considered an option and officials said, “conditions are incredibly hazardous and unsafe.”

Clearing the encampments of course didn’t solve the problem.  It has just relocated it.  Lately some have noticed a buildup of encampments along L Street as well as along the tracks on H Street.

People’s reaction to the homeless problem is often to get rid of the homeless people, relocate them, and the like—usually such strategies are not legal and overall none of it is helpful to the homeless.

This week, Smart Cities Dive ran an article on a new federal study which, not surprisingly, found “homeless encampment sweeps costly and of limited long-term effectiveness.”

“A sweep has a cost that day and can have longer-term cost in terms of [eliminating] whatever stability the people living in the encampments were able to attain,” said one homelessness policy expert.

As many experts have noted, “For the residents living in them, encampments may be the best of several bad alternatives. They often cannot find affordable housing and may be deterred by some shelter requirements.”

“A shelter space or shelter system’s requirements, such as sobriety requirements, separation from partners or pets, and/or strict entry and exit times, may not be [compatible] with an individual’s current circumstances,” said Lauren Lowery, director for housing and community development with the National League of Cities, as reported by Smart Cities Dive.

At the same time, “residents in houses and apartments near encampments often worry about the encampments’ impact on their environment, health, and safety, while business and property owners worry about the encampments’ economic impact.”

This has led to a policy of clearing encampments.

HUD and HHS found that such sweeps are both expensive and of limited long-term effectiveness.  Back in 2019, some of the more extensive sweeps ran into the millions of dollars.

Any sweep that does not then provide services to transition the unhoused to permanent supportive housing ultimately is shifting the deck chairs on a sinking ship—at great cost to both the community and the impacted people.

“A sweep has a cost that day and can have longer-term cost in terms of [eliminating] whatever stability the people living in the encampments were able to attain,” said Steve Berg, chief policy officer with the National Alliance to End Homelessness, Smart Cities Dive reported.

The sweep can actually set people back by disrupting their stability, moving them away from caseworkers and services who had been working with them.

“If an encampment is the best place to stay, having that disrupted can be a step backward,” Berg said.

Rather than focusing on clearing encampments, finding ways to transition people to permanent housing a far better solution.

Last fall, the Urban Institute published a study, “Policing Doesn’t End Homelessness. Supportive Housing Does.”

As the report notes, “Instead of addressing the issue’s root causes—a lack of housing and supportive services—many cities have leaned into punitive responses that criminalize homelessness, such as arresting people for sitting or sleeping in certain public places. But this approach is costly and ineffective. Police don’t solve homelessness, they only move it around—to other neighborhoods, jails, and emergency rooms—rather than connecting people with the housing and services they need.”

Instead the Urban Institute recommends a Housing First Approach.

They found “supportive housing significantly reduced people’s interactions with police and reduced the number of times they were arrested.”

When he ran for council, now Councilmember Bapu Vaitla noted, “We know what works. It’s to get people into permanent supportive housing.”

As Sharon McDonald noted in a blog post, “Housing First is an approach to homelessness that prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness quickly, thus ending their homelessness and serving as a platform from which they can pursue personal goals and improve their quality of life.”

Many counter that people experiencing homelessness also suffer from an array of other challenges including mental health and substance use disorder, and thus need to deal with those issues first.

Studies, however, show the opposite.  Housing allows people to achieve stability in housing first, which often serves as “a critical precursor to other improvements in their lives.  People with the foundation of a home are better positioned to take advantage of supportive services: they have the stability in which to engage in job search. They have the platform they need to provide care and continuity for their young children.”

Of course housing costs, as do services.  But experts will tell you there is a cost for not providing housing or services—and it might be a lot more.

“It’s incumbent to think about budgets holistically,” said Gary Painter, Homelessness Policy Research Institute director at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California. “If you think that providing housing is expensive, you have to think carefully about what not providing housing costs.”

According to Lowery, chronic homelessness costs the public roughly $30,000 to $50,000 per unhoused individual each year.

The Urban Institute and Smart Cities Dive noted a program in Colorado, where the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and the Mental Health Center of Denver partnered to provide supportive housing.

The article notes, “At the three-year mark, about 77% of participants in that program remained in stable housing. They were arrested about 40% less frequently and spent less time in jail than the control group.”

The article added: “As the Denver experiment revealed, providing services that connect individuals to permanent housing is more effective than just clearing homeless encampments, a senior HUD official said.”

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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4 Comments

  1. Sharla Cheney

    There is no way you can convince me that unregulated encampments with no access to toilets or water have a positive benefit. F Street was a hub of criminal activity, and polluted with human waste and trash. I think a guy even died there – his body found on the railroad tracks.  If left undisturbed, L Street and other locations will devolve in a similar manner.   If we want tent encampments- then plan it. Pick a location and move the respite center there.

    1. Richard_McCann

      The point of the study is that encampments just move. Yes, planning for encampments is probably a reasonable interim solution until we get Housing First in place.

  2. Don Shor

    Housing First is a great model. But you still have the people who

    “may be deterred by some shelter requirements.”

     

    “residents in houses and apartments near encampments often worry about the encampments’ impact on their environment, health, and safety, while business and property owners worry about the encampments’ economic impact.”

     

    This is insulting and stupid. Business and property owners worry about the safety of our staff, customers, and ourselves. I can relate personal anecdotes but won’t bother. You wouldn’t put up with it where you live, so I suggest you not advocate that we all put up with it where we work.

    Davis is now providing transitional housing with supportive services on a 24-hour basis. That 24 hour support is crucial. A respite center that is only open during business hours creates problems for the neighbors.

    Any homeless services need to be provided around the clock. Those who don’t choose to avail themselves of those services don’t have some right to become resident on public or private property elsewhere. If the demand exceeds the supply of housing, hotel vouchers can be provided. But people really need to be availing themselves of support services. Allowing encampments to become permanent creates a safety risk for the nearby residents and services, creates environmental hazards, and does those homeless residents no favors.

    There has to be some level of enforcement.

    1. Richard_McCann

      The current level of supportive services are inadequate and many individuals don’t have the wherewithal to access many of those services, even as we try to make them simpler and more accessible. Until those problems are solved, it is unreasonable to clear encampments which just shifts the problem somewhere else.

      And if the solution is to arrest and lock up those who don’t avail them of these services, that is  extremely expensive and ultimately ineffective as they will be back out on the street. We can’t be simply shifting the problem around.

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