Cities search for compassionate solutions to homeless camps
Unrestricted outdoor living creates problems for campers and neighbors
Los Angeles sanitation workers and park rangers arrived in late March to clear a massive homeless encampment along scenic Echo Park Lake. Mayor Eric Garcetti told KTLA-TV that conditions had become dangerous.
“Four people died in this park,” he said. “Women were being abused, sexually exploited.” The city, planning to renovate then reopen the park, sent outreach workers beforehand to offer the campers hotel rooms through California’s Project Roomkey program, but protesters still gathered to demand the city let people stay. After two nights of protests that led to more than 180 arrests, workers completed the sweep. On March 26, chain-link fences surrounded the park, and police guarded sanitation workers in neon vests as they put used needles and left-behind items into black trash bags. Councilman Joe Buscaino released a statement saying the “approach of intensive outreach followed by a ‘choice date’ must become the standard if we are going to move people living on our streets into a better situation.”
City leaders like Garcetti and Buscaino are trying to do right by people experiencing homelessness while maintaining the safety of public spaces—a costly challenge fraught with disagreement. A 2020 report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gave a snapshot of the money American cities spend dealing with homeless encampments: $3.6 million for Chicago in 2019 and $8.6 million for San Jose, Calif. The costs include outreach workers to offer camp residents services, sanitation workers to pick up trash, and police to shut down the camp. Clearing homeless encampments produces limited results because residents can simply relocate to other parts of the city or return after the sweeps.
City leaders are often caught between activist pressure and neighbors’ complaints. When city shelters are full, activists say pushing the homeless out of encampments is unethical. Some argue for allowing people to choose camping instead of shelter—which comes with restrictions and sometimes its own dangers.
Neighbors living near encampments suffer, too. Jeff Giles lives in a condo across the street from Echo Park Lake. He told KCRW why he stopped going to the park: “There is glass and needles on the sidewalks, there’s feces on the sidewalks. There’s the smell of urine as you walk through certain areas. And the general feeling is one of unsafety and very unsanitary living conditions.”
HUD studied how several cities handled encampments and described four basic approaches: Clearing camps and providing support for residents, clearing the camps with no support, unspoken acceptance of camps, and officially sanctioning camps.
In 2019, the Austin, Texas, City Council voted to rescind a camping ban and let homeless people pitch tents on public property. Tents proliferated, along with fires and public nuisance complaints. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, opposed the move and sent the Texas Department of Transportation to clear encampments. Abbott also designated a plot of state-owned land in south Austin as a sanctioned homeless camp, where about 150 homeless people and some service providers have relocated.
Earlier this year, city leaders approved an initiative to do something similar to what LA did in March: Select four homeless camps, connect residents with housing options, then clear them out. Then on May 1, Austin residents voted to reinstate the camping ban after petitioners collected the signatures needed for a ballot initiative. Two bills in the Texas legislature would restrict funds from cities that allow the homeless to camp on public property.
Michele Steeb, a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, wrote that restricting public encampments should be part of an overall solution that addresses causes of homelessness like mental illness and addiction while honoring everyone’s human dignity. “The allowance of camping does nothing to help Austin’s homeless heal and does nothing to help our community prosper,” she said. “Rather, it allows Austin’s elected officials to continue to avoid making the tough policy changes necessary to turn this crisis around while appearing to be virtuous.”
On April 20, LA leaders voted to take a more voluntary approach to encampment sweeps. Instead of sending police to force people out, a new sanitation schedule will provide services such as bathrooms, trash cans, regular cleanups, and hiring homeless people to keep the area clean.
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