Cities across the country, like Seattle, New York City, and Minneapolis, are sweeping houseless encampments in the midst of record heat waves. In New York City this year, across six weeks, city officials cleared 733 homeless encampments. In May, at least 20 encampments were swept in a matter of days. And in Sacramento, California, authorities are expected to displace thousands of people with more sweeps. Cities like Houston, Texas, have recently been praised for reducing houselessness by 63% in the last decade, but housing advocates say providing housing is not enough if criminalization and sweeps continue.
Advocates say sweeping and policing houseless communities is dehumanizing, and that the real solution begins with a community-wide and humane approach. They say the solution to houselessness must be multifaceted: permanent supportive housing, access to resources like counseling, a stoppage on sweeps and criminalization, and ultimately, a willingness to address racial and economic inequity as root causes of the problem.
“Connecting all of the parties of interest for a solution is the way to go,” said Donald Whitehead, the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “Community-wide effort is where we see progress.”
Whitehead lists Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Rockford, Illinois, as examples of cities that are making progress in addressing the issue. The connecting factor between these cities is that they are prioritizing funds towards shelter and resources as opposed to criminalization—which perpetuates harm for houseless people. Detroit also recently committed $63 million to address the issue through infrastructure dollars.
“Criminalization wastes the federal resources that are being provided to address homelessness and it also does nothing to address homelessness,” Whitehead said.
The pandemic prompted many cities to be creative in protecting their houseless populations. With a decrease in tourists, major cities like San Francisco and New York City placed thousands into temporary housing in empty hotels. But once the tourists returned a year later, houseless people were placed back into shelters. Cities like Portland, Oregon, however, have continued the program, which they call Project Turnkey, and have added nearly 900 units. Denver has announced they are trying to follow suit by purchasing a hotel and using it to house houseless people.
While Whitehead acknowledges that shelter is not the entire solution to houselessness, it does protect people from the elements. More than 21 people experiencing homelessness die every single day in the U.S.—in cars, abandoned houses, tents, shelters, and on sidewalks—and hundreds of those deaths are attributed to extreme weather.
Whitehead suggests organizations go a step further by connecting housing with non-traditional services. Cities like Rockford and Houston connect outreach homeless services with building code enforcement. Instead of people being criminalized, if they’re found in an abandoned building, an outreach worker is called, so there’s a continuity of care. In places like Prince George’s County, Maryland, there is a no discharge to homelessness policy (which seeks to ensure housing for patients upon discharge from a hospital or other medical care facility), establishing a relationship between the mental health, housing, and hospital communities.
Ana Rausch, the vice president of program operations for Houston’s Coalition for the Homeless, said the organization has a successful relationship with the city and mayor’s office, as well as the county justice office and the commissioner. According to Rausch, the Harris County Sheriff’s Department has a homeless outreach team embedded on their staff and officers are supposed to ride along with trained mental health professionals. Rausch added that the teams are supposed to know how to conduct housing assessments and how to look people up in the system to see if they have been referred to other services.
Just a year ago, a Harris County officer was filmed brutally attacking a houseless woman.
According to a source close to Brian Davis, a National Coalition for the Homeless organizer, officers are still doing sweeps in Houston.
“That really destroys the relationship between the city and those struggling,” Davis said. “There are still massive numbers of people on the streets, and the cost of housing is still rising. In fact, I have [Houston] in the top 10 of meanest cities toward homeless people in the U.S.”
According to Davis, the scale of the city is important. The five largest cities in the country, including Houston, have “dug themselves into a huge hole by neglecting housing for 30 years.” While Houston did reduce their houseless population by 63% since 2011, there are still 3,223 people experiencing houselessness at any given moment in the region.
“If the government can make it illegal to be homeless, then the violent, disturbed individuals in our society will see that as open season on this fragile population,” Davis said. “Most people are focusing on housing as an easily quantified response to homelessness, but sweeps and raids show how a city truly feels about its own citizens. Sending a cop out to harass homeless people is a much better marker for how a city is serving its lowest-income folks. If a mayor is willing to send the cops out to force the relocation of a tent, they are basically throwing their hands up and saying, ‘I give up. We are never going to solve this problem, and so I am going to use the only tool that I have available—my own armed paramilitary force—to solve a social service problem.’”
“Once a city turns its back on its citizens and arrests them for purely innocent behavior that in most cases they have no ability to control, it really sets the community back a decade or so.”-Brian Davis
In Houston, a 2017 ordinance banned encampments, but Rausch said shelters are not taken apart until housing is guaranteed for the people. Catherine Villareal, the director of communication for Coalition for the Homeless in Houston, added that they are struggling to find more apartment units to move people into. Now, she said they are the “victims of their own success” because they have used up a good amount of the affordable housing stock that they were able to find and are having to work that much harder to find affordable one-bedroom apartment units that will be willing to take their clients.
“I think the cities that never engaged in sweeps are much better examples for using all the resources at their disposal to put people in housing and keep them safe during COVID,” Davis said. “Once a city turns its back on its citizens and arrests them for purely innocent behavior that in most cases they have no ability to control, it really sets the community back a decade or so.”
Stigmatizing houseless people has led to hate crimes. While many share the misconception that houseless people are harmful to the community, most houseless people have crimes committed against them. A 2016 report by National Coalition for the Homeless found that over the last 17 years, at least 1,657 people experiencing homelessness have been the victims of violence perpetrated for the sole reason that they were unhoused at the time. In Miami, four plaintiffs have sued the city with help from Legal Services of Greater Miami after the city conducted a routine sweep of their encampment and destroyed their personal property. One of the plaintiffs even said her cat was killed or lost as a result of the sweep. Another plaintiff lost her mother’s ashes.
“A city can’t come along and take people’s stuff,” said Jeffrey M. Hearne, the director of litigation for Legal Services of Greater Miami.
Hearne said the city of Miami has a policy that says the property of homeless individuals must be stored away.
“They may have a written policy that says one thing but their actual practice and what they actually do is what happened to our clients,” Hearne said. “They go through and conduct these sweeps and remove people’s belongings with a big crane and just sweep it up and destroy it.”
Advocates like Whitehead say the narrative surrounding houseless people has to change, and that begins at a structural level.
“The fact that most people think homeless people have some moral deficiency, whether it’s substance abuse or our criminal justice involvement, it’s just not true,” Whitehead said. “We haven’t done what we need to do to prevent homelessness in the first place.”
Whitehead targets a lack of affordable housing, a racist injustice, and the housing system as key roots to the houselessness problem. In many cities, being houseless could lead to an arrest record, which could bar them from jobs and future housing opportunities.
“Until we pay people adequate wages, they will never be able to support themselves on their own,” Whitehead said.
According to Whitehead, community members should reach out to their elected officials and ask them to use some of the general resource dollars in their community to address houselessness, not just federal dollars. And most importantly, to stop using the resources of their police department to harass people experiencing homelessness.
“Not only is it a waste of those resources that are connected to law enforcement, it also undermines the resources that the federal government’s providing for outreach and case management and housing services directed to people experiencing homelessness,” Whitehead said. “So again, every time someone is rousted away from a location, whatever connections or whatever kind of trust that they developed, is completely impacted and the whole process has the start over.”