clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Homeless encampments — and the debate over what to do about them — explained

People living in tents has become one of the most urgent issues in American politics.

A woman sitting outside a tent eating soup with other tents in a homeless encampment in the background, and lit-up city buildings behind that.
A woman eats soup she cooked outside of her tent in McPherson Square in Washington, DC, on February 11, 2023, a few days before the encampment was cleared.
Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Rachel M. Cohen is a senior reporter for Vox covering social policy. She focuses on housing, schools, labor, criminal justice, and abortion rights, and has been reporting on these issues for more than a decade.

In mid-February, a block from the White House, agents with the National Park Service cleared the largest homeless encampment in Washington, DC. More than 70 people had pitched tents in the downtown federal park known as McPherson Square, and all were forced to leave, with 60 days to claim any belongings left behind.

The encampment was long scheduled to be cleared in April, when the people living there would no longer be in danger of hypothermia. But in January, local DC officials requested it be cleared early, and the federal government agreed, citing increased complaints about trash and debris, sex work, and harassment of visitors. Over the past six months, three people had died due to exposure or drug overdoses.

One day after the clearing, roughly two-thirds of those evicted from the park were still believed to be sleeping on the street.

DC is just one of many cities across the country grappling with the rise of tent encampments and associated political pressure to address them: encampments have increased in prevalence since the pandemic, even as homelessness in the city has gone down. Last year a Washington Post poll found 75 percent of local DC residents backed shutting encampments down.

The federal government’s role in the McPherson Square clearing made the challenges and contradictions of these encampments especially sharp. Local and national homeless advocates were outraged: they had called on the Biden administration to wait until the city had identified permanent shelters. They say their offer to help city officials find housing was rebuffed. The clearing, they argue, also stood in direct conflict with the Biden administration’s recently released national strategic plan on homelessness, which said that closing encampments without providing adequate support and housing was an “out of sight, out of mind” approach that provided other cities with cover to do the same.

“If they don’t stick to their federal strategic plan, how do we expect any other community to abide by it?” said Ann Oliva, the CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Unsheltered homelessness, meaning sleeping somewhere at night that’s not primarily designed for human residence — like a car, a park, an abandoned building, or a train station — has risen sharply over the last seven years, and at a faster rate than homelessness overall. The unsheltered homeless now account for 40 percent of all homeless people in the country, up from 31 percent in 2015.

While encampments are most common in big cities, on the West Coast, and in areas with high housing costs, tents have also sprung up in places where housing is broadly available and homelessness is going down — like Houston, which saw a 63 percent drop in homelessness since 2011 but still has hundreds of encampments throughout the region.

For decades, a promising strategy for dealing with homelessness has had bipartisan support: the “housing first” model, which prioritizes getting people into permanent housing without requiring them to first address mental health conditions or substance abuse. In recent years, the strategy has experienced unprecedented attacks and been blamed for exacerbating homelessness.

In Washington, Houston, and elsewhere, political leaders have argued that rising public discontent with encampments threatens their long-term ability to tackle homelessness. Due to a lack of affordable housing, and in some cities, available shelter beds, many homeless people have simply nowhere to go.

“Mayor [Sylvester] Turner believes addressing tent encampments is key to maintaining support for the housing-first model because the public didn’t believe with their own eyes that homelessness was actually decreasing in the city,” said Marc Eichenbaum, the special assistant to Houston’s mayor on homeless initiatives. In the past few years, Houston leaders have “decommissioned” 59 tent encampments, including the city’s largest last month. In Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser stressed that her support for encampment clearing was rooted in her commitment to the housing-first model.

“I could build half a million units of housing,” newly elected Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass told the Los Angeles Times, “and if there are still tents, people will not believe that you did anything except to steal their money.”

The McPherson Square clearing sat at the middle of a national tug-of-war over homeless encampments. On one side are homeless advocates who maintain that dismantling encampments without clear plans to move inhabitants into stable housing is both cruel and counterproductive. On the other side are conservatives calling to crack down on people sleeping outside, blasting what they describe as a too lenient approach to homelessness by Democrats. Liberals can’t use a lack of affordable housing as an excuse to avoid taking action on encampments, they say, given that it could take decades to build more housing units.

Left in the middle are city officials, struggling to balance their commitment to ending homelessness with the very visible signs of its continued existence — and so are the hundreds of thousands of people sleeping outside and in cars, whose lives will be deeply affected by their leaders’ decisions.

What we know about homeless tent encampments

Encampments refer to outdoor places people live for periods of time with built structures like tents, and personal belongings. They can be found in public areas and secluded corners of cities, and their populations range from just a handful of people to hundreds.

While most cities do not collect good data on encampments (they track instead the broader category of unsheltered homelessness) many have cited increases in the last several years. The federal government recently acknowledged gaps in its understanding of encampments, citing difficulties in collecting data on people who often “actively try to escape public notice.”

Still, experts broadly agree the problem is getting worse, and researchers say the primary cause is a lack of affordable housing, stemming from both a shortage of units, and from rents rising faster than wages. They say encampments have also increased because people can’t access shelter beds, or have objections to the requirements at local shelters, like the need to relinquish their pets and personal belongings. Other people see tent encampments as offering more opportunity for privacy and safety than shelters.

Some encampments have established governance procedures and residents take on day-to-day responsibilities, while others are more informal and more fractious. Though inhabitants have a diverse range of ages, races, and gender, research suggests most tend to be men with multiple barriers to housing like mental illness, a history of evictions, or a criminal record.

In recent years, court rulings have made it more difficult for cities, especially on the West Coast, to clear encampments. In 2018, the US Ninth Circuit Court found people experiencing homelessness can’t be punished for sleeping outside on public property if there are no adequate alternatives available.

The decision only formally applies across the West, in areas under the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction, but when the US Supreme Court declined to hear this case, Martin v. City of Boise, in 2019, cities nationally were left to debate how they can respond to encampments in ways that will avoid new constitutional challenges. Boise says that as long as sleeping indoors is not an option, “the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”

The impact of the Boise ruling is playing out every day. Just before Christmas, a district judge cited Boise when she ruled that San Francisco can no longer enforce encampment sweeps, since the city lacks enough shelter beds to move the homeless into. San Francisco Mayor London Breed decried the decision. “We already have too few tools to deal with the mental illness we see on our streets,” she said. “Now we are being told not to use another tool that helps bring people indoors and keeps our neighborhoods safe and clean for our residents.” The city appealed the ruling in January, arguing it’s “unnecessarily broad and has put the City in an impossible situation.”

In other cities, officials have concluded Boise means they can no longer enforce certain laws against people experiencing homelessness. In Phoenix, for example, citations for outdoor camping dropped dramatically since the ruling — from 283 in 2017 to just 9 in 2021. More than 1,000 people have moved to a downtown Phoenix encampment called “the Zone,” and local residents are currently suing officials for the situation. Meanwhile, a federal judge issued an injunction in December, barring Phoenix officials from conducting encampment sweeps if there are no shelter beds available.

Whether sanctioned outdoor camping sites would be legal under the Boise decision if a city lacked indoor shelter beds remains unclear, and some policy leaders are urging officials to test the legal boundaries and find out.

“The Boise reading was specifically against a city-wide [camping] ban, and it’s still open question on more specific parts,” said Stephen Eide, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a critic of housing-first. “These are all meaty questions that will probably have to be decided by the Supreme Court.”

How cities are responding to tent encampments so far

Because encampments at this scale are a relatively new problem for so many cities, elected officials and nonprofit partners have largely been experimenting on the fly with how to address them, balancing a mix of political, financial, and legal pressures, along with a practical shortage of affordable housing. Recommended practices continue to evolve as leaders pilot new models, as activists demand more compassionate standards, and as researchers study the consequences of past sweeps.

City responses have typically fallen into four broad categories, ranging from quickly “sweeping” the tents and providing no services to the unsheltered living there, to formally permitting people to camp out, and even providing bathrooms, areas to prepare food, and other social services. HUD research published in 2020 found the most common strategy cities have embraced was encampment “clearance and closure with support” — meaning deploying trained outreach workers to provide people with weeks of notice that their encampment would be shutting down, working to connect them with housing and services, and making longer-term storage of their belongings available.

This has worked fairly well in some communities, but caseworkers and housing are often unavailable, and new units or shelter beds cannot simply be erected quickly.

Earlier studies have suggested that clearance with no support, or a so-called “tough love” approach, does little to drive people to shelters or mitigate the broader problem of encampments. Typically the homeless often just pick up and relocate somewhere else nearby. “Clearance with little or no support may actually reduce the likelihood that people will seek shelter because it erodes trust and creates an adversarial relationship between people experiencing homelessness and law enforcement or outreach workers,” a HUD report published in 2019 concluded.

Individuals forced out of encampments often report losing their medication, walkers, and other items that affect their physical and mental health. Critics of sweeps point to the risks they pose to individuals’ health, as well as the cost to local city budgets. (Federal homeless dollars cannot be used on tent encampments.)

Amid growing community frustration, some leaders have started to pursue tougher measures on encampments, including ramping up criminal penalties on people pitching tents on public land. In at least half a dozen states, lawmakers have pushed bills based on templates from the Cicero Institute, an Austin-based think tank opposed to housing-first. The bills propose to permanently ban tent encampments and penalize cities that permit them.

Texas became the first state to pass a version of Cicero’s template legislation in 2021, and lawmakers say it was a direct response to Austin’s city council lifting its homeless encampment ban in 2019. (Austin’s encampment ban returned in 2021, after 57 percent of Austin residents voted for its reinstatement.)

In 2022, Tennessee became the first state to pass a bill that would make camping on local public land — like parks — a felony. Missouri likewise passed a Cicero-inspired law last year, that would criminalize sleeping on state-owned land. Missouri’s law allows the state’s attorney general to sue local governments that don’t enforce the ban.

This year lawmakers in Georgia and Arizona are debating passage of similar bills. Arizona’s was written by attorneys at the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank that has also filed a brief in support of the plaintiffs suing Phoenix officials for “the Zone” encampment.

While Republican lawmakers are advancing these bills on the state level, leaders in more liberal cities have also started to look for new tent-clearing solutions, including ones they previously would not have entertained.

In Portland, Oregon, for example, lawmakers voted in November to create several large sanctioned campsites for homeless individuals, and ban the more than 700 other encampments spread across the city. Sixty-eight percent of Portland voters support the idea, according to a poll commissioned by the Portland Business Alliance. In Sacramento, leaders recently approved new penalties for camping on sidewalks, and banned encampments near schools and daycares.

In San Francisco, leaders pioneered a model known as “navigation centers” — places unhoused people can go with fewer barriers to entry than traditional shelters. At the indoor navigation centers, individuals can connect with intensive case management and receive help with finding permanent housing. These centers have been deemed relatively successful even though the city hasn’t been able to stop the flow of more people into homelessness.

More than a dozen other liberal cities have since adopted San Francisco’s navigation center model, including Seattle and Houston. Supporters of these low-barrier spaces see them as very different from the sanctioned camping sites backed by the Cicero Institute, and a more welcoming option for many people wary of traditional shelters.

On her first day in office in December, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass declared a city emergency over homelessness, announcing a new plan to tackle encampments. The plan essentially consists of creating navigation centers to close encampments and connect homeless individuals with services and housing. But the challenge will be actually finding enough housing. Last year LA had nearly 42,000 people living on the streets, mixed with a growing housing affordability crisis.

Practically speaking, city officials recognize they are also fighting for their own careers. Homelessness, and how to handle it, has become one of the most salient political issues in recent elections in liberal cities like Portland, San Diego, Seattle, and Austin. Republicans have cast Democrats as incompetent and feckless when it comes to addressing the crisis. The public, across the political spectrum, wants elected officials to take some sort of action.

Marc Eichenbaum, the special assistant to Houston’s mayor on homeless initiatives, said when his city received its federal pandemic aid, they knew they wanted to launch a more proactive response to tent encampments. “We’re interested in solving it, not managing it,” he said. “There is an opportunity for homeless systems and providers to demonstrate to the public that housing-first is the answer to encampments.”

Correction, March 8, 12:50 pm ET: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of encampments Houston leaders have closed in the past few years. It is 59.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.