(Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

Ending Homelessness Together #6 — What Should We Do About Encampments?

They are in nearly every California city. If you drive down major freeways, or take the Amtrak, you see them alongside the road and tracks: tents. Like a Steinbeck dystopia or grainy black and white photos of Hoovervilles from high school History class, thousands of Californians are living in tents in our cities. You’re not imagining, they are worse. Between a broken housing market, the COVID-19-caused economic crisis, and loss of revenues to state and local government, homelessness is rising fast.

What is relatively new is public response to the tent cities. Historically, as recently as a couple of years ago, most cities used law enforcement, code enforcement, and other public officials to clear encampments and disperse the residents. But, given a nationwide housing and shelter crisis the Supreme Court ruled in Boise in 2019 that homeless people can not be forcibly removed from public land unless there is a place for them to go. For many jurisdictions, they now feel their hands are tied, they have to let the tent cities be (and grow). Some cities continue to be punitive and risk law suits and potential action by federal law enforcement.

Some cities like Oakland, San Francisco, and Portland have decided to create areas for safe encampments. These controversial decisions are seen as short-term stop-gap measures that will humanely allow people a place to sleep during the time of multiple crises. They may be, but they require HUGE organizational efforts to keep them from becoming permanent tent cities. The effort involves services. Iain De Jong, one of the leading gurus on ending homelessness, writes that jurisdictions need to:

De Jong’s whole focus is that homeless services should ensure that homelessness is brief and that all agencies should be working together to get people housed. (See my other blog posts for discussions on these issues). This is an ideal focus; but, in many communities, homeless services are insufficient, housing is nearly impossible to find at ALL income levels, and options are very limited. Without a clear destination for people, where can they go?

It is my opinion that large encampments are the result of failed outreach and coordination efforts to find alternatives for people. These investments should be the first line of defense against their formation. Encampments require leadership and resources, so knowing the leaders (as De Jong recommends) is a critical strategy.

RAFAEL MALDONADO/NEWS-PRESS PHOTOS

In Isla Vista, the community around the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, the steps De Jong outlines are being followed with an additional resource — tiny, transitional shelters. Built and delivered by Pallet, the County of Santa Barbara worked with a local shelter and homeless service provider, Good Samaritan to provide a safe, COVID-free environment for people to work on their next steps. They are a shelter near the Tent City site in a much safer, highly organized place.

The challenges will continue. Good Samaritan will have to convince people to come to a place where drug use is not allowed, and eventually get them permanently housed. However, during COVID-19, and given limited resources, the County of Santa Barbara has developed a potential model for clearing other encampments in this region.

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Chuck Flacks

Community development specialist — housing, employment, ending homelessness