Albert Martinez, who has lived for 20 years on the streets of Los Angeles, sits outside his tent on a sidewalk in Venice Beach, California on Aug. 12, 2021. (Photo by Apu GOMES / AFP) (Photo by APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images)

Cities across the country like Los Angeles, Boston, and Miami have been banning or removing houseless encampments, forcing houseless people to relocate under already stressful and unstable circumstances. Advocates say the bans are targeted scare tactics to drive houseless people away from business districts. If the bans are violated or houseless people refuse to leave, cities could inflict heavy fines or charge people with disorderly conduct or other misdemeanor charges. None of the cities that have implemented bans have offered additional resources to the people living in encampments, like alternative locations or other services. Houseless people and organizers say that relocation and offering shelters are only temporary solutions to an ongoing issue; what they are advocating for instead is permanent affordable housing. 

“The problem is that there are more people out on the streets than there are resources available to meet their needs,” says David Peery, the founder of Miami Coalition to Advance Racial Equality. “Shelters do not end homelessness, they don’t provide a path. Shelters are not permanent housing.”

Peery was houseless for 10 years after he was laid off from a job during the height of the economic recession in 2008 and was then subject to a false arrest in which he lost all of his possessions. He found himself penniless, without possessions, and living in between the streets of Miami and shelters for 10 years until he was eligible for federal assistance through Social Security and retirement.

In 2020, there were over 580,000 people experiencing houselessness in the U.S., with Pacific Islanders, Native Hawaiians, and BIPOC experiencing some of the highest rates of houselessness. Meanwhile, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, only 50% of houseless individuals had temporary beds available to them. 

In California, some houseless people have been moved into alternative housing through Hope of the Valley’s tiny homes that aim to house 900 people of the over 63,000 people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County. But in October, the Los Angeles City Council still voted to ban encampments in 54 locations across the city. 

In Boston, outgoing mayor Kim Janey recently wrote an executive order evicting houseless people from an area that has been deemed a public health crisis due to drug use and frequent calls to health officials of overdosing. Dozens of the tents and remaining personal belongings have already been removed, and Mayor-elect Michelle Wu announced last month that some of the houseless people who were receiving services in that area are now unaccounted for. Last year, 387 individuals stayed in transitional housing in Boston. Now, Wu is racing to find 200 transitional housing beds to house the individuals who have been evicted.

Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo, who sponsored the ordinance to ban encampments on public property and in entryways—seemingly sarcastically at first, and then officially—proposed an “adopt-a-homeless” program, in which residents would be paid to bring houseless people to their homes, at no cost to the city. Housing advocates, including Peery, were upset, calling it a distraction from the serious issue of houselessness in the city and intended to “make fun of activists.” The proposal was heard at a commission meeting in late October, and was passed by a 3-2 vote. The program will give financial aid to families who will house a homeless person.

Miami commissioners also ordered street cleanings three times a week in targeted houseless encampment areas, a move guaranteed to clear out any people living there or damage their belongings. One provision of Miami’s encampment ban is that a temporary encampment area alternative must be permitted. Carollo suggested Virginia Key, the historic Black beach, as a temporary “tent city.” The ordinance has been in effect since Nov. 28, but has yet to be enforced because city officials still haven’t designated an alternative permitted encampment space.

“We consider that to be unacceptable and offensive,” says Peery. “You don’t just deport people into some specific area, create a new homelessness ghetto, or a skid row that they have in Los Angeles. Nobody in any community is going to want that. That violates our rights as residents. We should have the freedom to reside in any place that we want to reside in.”

During one of the recent routine street cleanings, Peery says people’s valued possessions were destroyed, including medications, wheelchairs, walkers, and canes.

“They are traumatizing and scattering the people who are homeless,” says Peery. “There is no accountability from the city.”

Peery is working with lawyers to try and hold the city accountable in court for lost items, but due to the recent ban and forced scattering, potential plaintiffs are hard to track down.

“Once you’re homeless, it’s very difficult to get out because the minimum wage will keep you there,” says Peery. “[The politicians making these decisions] who are bigoted against the poor, who don’t have any compassion for individuals who are the victims of poverty, they are people who are burdened by myths that somehow people choose to be poor or choose to be homeless. They fail to see the systemic issues that cause homelessness and that cause poverty.” 

Peery is working with lawyers to gather information and advocate for more permanent solutions for people in Miami.

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...