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 cannot 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 lawsuits 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, stopgap 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:
- Set an end date for closing the camp.
- Prepare a team of specialists — outreach workers, housing workers, clinicians, specialists in domestic and intimate partner violence, youth workers, etc. — whose sole job is to respond to the tent city. The goal is to get people housed, into shelter, into other living arrangements or away from the tent city.
- Only serve semi-permanent residents, people just passing through need to be told that they are not eligible for services.
- Know all semi-permanent people by name and get them into the coordinated entry system.
- Know the leadership structure within the tent city. They serve as messengers and internal advocates for change.
- Provide porta-potties and access to drinking water. Turn away groups coming to support the camp from the outside. Redirect people’s charitable desires to a better purpose, like fundraising for first and last month’s rent for people leaving the camp.
- Move in equipment for removal a few days before clearing the camp.
- Apply all appropriate enforcement — no fires, no drug use or sales, etc.
- Apply pressure to the other broken parts of the homeless service system. Usually each person’s arrival is the result of bad experiences with shelters, housing providers, or mental health treatment programs. How can this engagement be leveraged to improve the whole system?
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. 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.
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, Santa Barbara County 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, Santa Barbara County has developed a potential model for clearing other encampments in this region.
Listen to Chuck Flacks on the new Voices in Local Government podcast, as he dispels common myths of “homelessness”, explains the problems with encampments, shares ideas and proven methods for alternatives, and discusses the complex financial and political realities local governments must navigate to help every member of their communities. Stream on icma.org, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.