Effective Community-Based Solutions to Encampments

Ending homelessness is about protecting and furthering human rights. Balancing health, safety, and community impact concerns created by encampments of people experiencing homelessness can be challenging, but there are solutions.

Across the country, many communities are wrestling with how to create solutions for people experiencing homelessness in encampments.  Depending on variables such as terrain, visibility, and accessibility, encampments can take multiple forms, including groups of tents or semi-permanent structures on public or private property. Oftentimes, encampments occur on land which has never been intended for any human habitation. Unfortunately, the first response to encampments often considered by communities and elected officials are ordinances that criminalize certain behaviors, such as panhandling, sitting and/or lying on public sidewalks, and camping.  However, criminalization measures are not real solutions. Real solutions result from strategies and responses that help people living in encampments achieve permanent housing.

As such, USICH believes that encampments also are not a solution to homelessness—as encampments do not provide permanent housing outcomes, nor do encampments best serve those who are experiencing homelessness. Encampments only offer a temporary and reactive response to homelessness. Encampments—regardless of whether or not they are officially sanctioned or publically or privately funded—can distract communities from focusing on the real solution of connecting people experiencing homelessness with safe, stable, permanent housing. Encampments also create risks for their inhabitants related to safety, health, and sanitation. The costs associated with trying to ensure the well-being of people living in encampments can be spent more strategically to create permanent housing and services options for people experiencing homelessness in encampments, which will decrease overall homelessness in a community. 

However, USICH firmly believes that prematurely dispersing people from encampments is not an effective approach to addressing the issue of encampments. Dispersing people from encampments is costly, contributes to distrust and conflict, and is a short-term intervention at best. Many people who live in encampments have nowhere else to go and may be experiencing chronic homelessness and/or be extremely vulnerable due to disability or illness. As described in USICH’s publication Searching out Solutions: Constructive Alternatives to the Criminalization of Homelessness, providing people who live in encampments with access to permanent housing is the solution to encampments.

To help support communities that are seeking to connect people living in encampments to permanent housing, USICH is documenting the strategies and best practices successfully implemented in communities to address the issue of encampments. Below is a sneak peek of the common themes and solutions that will be highlighted in a forthcoming publication, which will serve as guidance to communities working to end homelessness for people living in encampments.

Successful Strategies

Examples of strategies that communities can implement to address successfully the issue of encampments by connecting people to appropriate housing options include:

  • Preparation and Adequate Time for Planning and Implementation: Plans for creating solutions to encampments should ensure that there is adequate time for effective collaboration, outreach, engagement, and the identification of meaningful housing options to occur. Adequate time is essential to achieve the primary objective of meeting the needs of each person and assisting them to end their homelessness.
  • Collaboration: Any plan should include collaboration between a cross-section of public and private agencies, neighbors, and business owners. Any plan should feature strong relationships with a broad range of community service providers and the permanent housing resources that are being targeted to the effort in order to maximize efficiency, align resources, and address any system gaps.
  • Intensive and Persistent Outreach and Engagement: The agencies responsible for collaboratively implementing the plan should have strong outreach experience and demonstrated skills in engaging vulnerable and unsheltered people.
  • Low-Barrier Pathways to Permanent Housing: The plan should include clear, low-barrier pathways to attaining and sustaining permanent housing opportunities and should not include a focus on relocating people to other encampment settings.

Community Examples

Below are examples from three communities that have encountered the challenges that accompany homeless encampments and have responded with effective, people-centered strategies.

  • Between 2010 and 2012, St. Louis, Missouri (population 318,172) was faced with four adjacent riverfront encampments, in which approximately 60-70 people were living. As described in their detailed report Moving Forward: Policies, Plans & Strategies for Ending & Preventing Chronic Homelessness (2012), city partners made great strides in each of the four recommended strategies described above, resulting in housing solutions for all camp residents.
  • In Asheville, North Carolina (population 85,712), homeless service providers, police, and the Department of Transportation are currently working together to create solutions for several small encampments. Police, who participate in Crisis Intervention Training, are involved mostly in the initial stages of the outreach effort but work with other partners to avoid unnecessarily arresting camp residents. Asheville has seen an 82 percent reduction in chronic homelessness, which is largely contributed to the collaborative efforts of these engaged partnerships.
  • Members of the Colorado Springs, Colorado (population 431,834) Police Department collaborated with local service providers to become better informed about the needs of people experiencing homelessness. They worked to improve relationships with providers and their clients, and they became resources for outreach forming Homeless Outreach Teams (H.O.T).  Their model won the 2010 Herman Goldstein award for community policing and inspired the Wichita Police Department in Kansas to follow in their footsteps and devote full-time officers to work with service providers and people experiencing homelessness. (For more information, the USICH Blog piece by Officer Nathan Schwiethale of the Wichita Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team can be found here.)

These examples illustrate that a comprehensive approach to addressing encampments is the right solution for communities and for the people who experience homelessness in encampments.

For communities that are still struggling with this issue, please continue to share your lessons learned. USICH is eager to learn from communities that are planning, collaborating, and engaging with community stakeholders in order to connect people living in encampments with meaningful housing options.  As USICH prepares a publication on this topic for release later this year, we welcome input and suggestions, case studies, and examples of policies and materials that can help inform and strengthen this planned publication.

Please share your lessons learned with us; contact your USICH Regional Coordinator.