Cities experiment with sanctioned encampments
The stopgap measures may discourage long-term change
Kelley Jura-Myrick parked her gray Toyota on the curb of a frontage road just off a busy highway in downtown Austin, Texas. She pointed to tents that make up one of the city’s large homeless encampments, clustered in the woods beyond a chain-link fence. Jura-Myrick is the mobile and shelter services program manager for Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center. The ministry, affiliated with Sunrise Community Church, helps homeless individuals find city housing, apply for food stamps, fill out Social Security card applications, and connect with case managers.
Jura-Myrick pulled a blue wagon loaded with water and snacks through the encampment. Flies buzzed around piles of trash and belongings. Smoke from a makeshift wood fire hung in the air. A woman who identified herself only as Rose poked her head out of a dark blue tent and asked for socks. Clinging to her gray-striped cat, she described her life in the encampment of about 30 men and women as “being alone in a group.” “Nobody really sees you,” she said. “It’s hard because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Back at Sunrise Community Church, Jaylen Griffin, 27, who has been homeless for about a year, said she often comes to the church for a warm meal and other services. Sitting to the side of the sanctuary in a heavy maroon sweatshirt, she told me she prefers staying close to nice public restrooms and water fountains and usually stays away from encampments. “I'm afraid that someone would try to hurt me, to turn on me or steal my stuff,” she said. “A lot of people are on drugs.”
Austin voters banned public camping in 2021, but the ordinance has not solved underlying problems, like a lack of shelter space and treatment plans for individuals struggling with addiction. Police often shuffle people from place to place.“It’s just making it impossible for people to have anywhere to go,” said Jura-Myrick. “They keep sweeping camps and throwing away their things, throwing away their tents. They have to start all over.”
Amid ongoing legal battles over how and when local officials can ban public camping, cities are experimenting with sanctioned spaces where people can stay in tents or rudimentary shelters. The supervised encampments allow local officials to move people off the street quickly and provide a safer alternative for homeless individuals wary of congregate shelters or sober living arrangements. But critics worry the measures don’t promote long-term change and foster a harmful environment little different from life on the street.
Los Angeles, which has the largest homeless population of any U.S. city, has contracted the nonprofit Urban Alchemy to run two licensed tent villages. Residents receive military-grade tents and three meals a day in the encampment supervised by security guards. Rules are minimal. Individuals cannot use drugs in public spaces, but staff don’t screen for drugs or enforce a curfew. City officials intend for the site to help people transition to more permanent shelter, but since February 2022, only about 2 percent of residents have moved into long-term housing.
Urban Alchemy will also supervise at least one of six planned city-sanctioned campsites in Portland, Ore. The city council approved a plan last year to create the 250-person safe sleep sites and ban street camping by 2024. Homeless individuals began moving into the first site in July. Ian Clark-Johnson, an Urban Alchemy staffer, told Oregon Public Broadcasting that staff will address violence and crime using trauma-informed approaches and de-escalation techniques instead of calling the police.
“We’re trying to create a non–law enforcement approach to incentivize people into the services they need,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler told Oregon Public Broadcasting. The encampments are expected to only stay open for three years since the city intends to move residents into permanent housing.
In June, the city of San Diego’s Safe Sleeping Program opened a legal camping site in a parking lot for people who declined to move into a congregate shelter or industrial-sized tent. Officials said they would provide showers and restrooms on site, though some individuals have complained they still don’t have shower access. Couples may stay together, and residents can keep their pets, but onsite drug use is prohibited. Residents can’t miss curfew more than three times.
Housing advocates accused San Diego of rushing to open the site so it can enforce a new camping ban, and one site resident said the city is turning a blind eye to drug use. City officials only have authorization to operate the site until Dec. 28 with the goal of enrolling residents into shelters.
Salt Lake City will open its first sanctioned homeless encampment this winter, housing up to 50 people in 150-square-foot insulated pods built with a dividing wall so that they can fit two people. In Athens, Ga., 50 gray, military-style tents constitute First Step, which the Athens–Clarke County Commission authorized for one year in hopes of buying time while it explores more permanent options.
Back in Austin, business owners near a sanctioned encampment in the southeasernt part of the city raised concerns about crime and disorder at the site.
City officials also recently turned part of a vacant, 70,000-square-foot warehouse into another large shelter, but a representative of the nonprofit operating the shelter told me it is not allowing media tours.
Cleo Petricek, co-leader of the political action committee Save Austin Now, which is suing the city for not enforcing the camping ban, is skeptical about the shelter’s long-term purpose. Earlier this year, a site supervisor at another city shelter filed a whistleblower complaint, claiming that drug use, prostitution, and assaults were rampant. “My concern is that we don’t have the right accountability measures once they’re placed in a shelter,” she said.
Save Austin Now is pushing back against the federally endorsed Housing First model that prioritizes rapid rehousing without mandating case management or rehabilitation services. “We’re just going around in circles with housing,” said Petricek. “Providing treatment is way more effective in the long-term recovery of someone, in keeping them off the streets.”
Effective solutions to homeless encampments must address the reason they form in the first place, said Troy Vaughn, a pastor and the CEO of Los Angeles Mission. God created people to gather together and contribute to a community, he said. But encampments create a “false sense” of community and often become hotbeds of crime and drug use. “What we have to do is instill in them the value of what Christian community looks like,” he said. “It’s important that we create those environments.”
To that end, Vaughn isn’t opposed to creating safe places for people to sleep outside, though he encourages all mission guests to join their rehabilitation and transition programs. The mission allows homeless people to sleep in its courtyard and other parts of the facility.
But Jack Briggs, president and CEO of Springs Rescue Mission in Colorado Springs, Colo., believes sanctioned encampments perpetuate the culture of life on the street. “They become unregulated very quickly,” he said, describing the model as a form of “toxic empathy” that consigns people to living conditions little better than the ones they left in the woods or under an overpass. Briggs compared the licensed encampments to safe injection sites that may keep people alive, but do little to empower individuals to overcome their addiction.
At Springs Rescue Mission, homeless clients can stay temporarily in their low-barrier shelter, which means individuals don’t need to be sober before they arrive or participate in programming. Drug use is prohibited on campus. Small incentives such as earning an egg-and-bacon breakfast instead of the usual oatmeal encourage clients to participate in programming. It’s one way they “empower them to understand that they have a choice, and they can make good choices,” said Briggs.
Staff urge clients to participate in one of the mission’s faith-based programs and take steps to change their lives and get settled in permanent housing. They ask individuals to set goals beyond day-to-day survival. Briggs doesn’t believe sanctioned encampments are the place to do that.
“We need to come up with places for people to sleep, I get that,” he said. “But they need to go to a place where their individual issues can be addressed.”
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