Study Documents Cities Struggling With Homeless Encampments

Denver doesn't have enough affordable housing.EXPAND
Denver doesn't have enough affordable housing.
Evan Semón
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A new study funded by the federal government highlights how cities across the country are struggling to deal with homeless encampments, a major concern here in Denver.

"People need housing, and there’s no affordable housing. In a lot of cases, outreach workers who are working with people in encampments have nowhere for people to move to," says Lauren Dunton, who oversaw "Exploring Homelessness Among People Living in Encampments and Associated Cost: City Approaches to Encampments and What They Cost."

In 2019, Dunton, along with colleagues from the Maryland-based consulting agency Abt Associates, which specializes in homelessness issues, visited four cities — Chicago, Houston, San Jose and Tacoma — to see how municipal officials were addressing homeless encampments. Their study was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which jointly published the findings this month.

"As of 2019, homeless encampments were appearing in numbers not seen in almost a century," the start of the study notes. "The growth of encampments mirrored the increase in unsheltered homelessness overall and seemed to reflect a complex set of societal factors, including a lack of affordable housing and the persistence of deep poverty and chronic homelessness. Encampments have implications for the health, safety and well-being of the people living in them, and can negatively affect the surrounding neighborhoods and businesses. Nationwide, communities are struggling to respond to public pressures to relocate encampment dwellers and prevent the formation of new encampments with only a weak knowledge base on which to structure that response."

Dunton and her team found that the four cities in their study all used a common strategy for responding to the most visible homeless encampments: "clearance and closure with support." In Denver, that's known as a "sweep."

In this scenario, city workers and service providers conduct "resource-intensive outreach to help connect encampment residents with needed services to try to ensure that every encampment resident has somewhere to go at the point of its closure," according to the study.

But the method can have a major limitation: "Outreach workers in at least one city highlight that this strategy exacerbates the challenges of moving residents to shelters or permanent housing, which research shows is the most cost-effective and humane strategy, long-term," the study reports.

"One of the critiques of the clearance is that it can really disrupt the trust and relationship that outreach workers build," explains Dunton.

The study also highlights how outreach to encampments can cost a city millions of dollars annually, as can clearing encampments. In fiscal year 2019, for example, San Jose spent almost $5 million on "clearance and closure," according to the report.

Early in his first term as Denver mayor, Michael Hancock signed into law a controversial urban camping ban passed by Denver City Council in 2012. In recent years, the administration has increased funding for homelessness and housing services, while also continuing to sweep encampments.

The Denver camping ban and other laws used to disperse homeless encampments have been the subject of multiple legal challenges, including a federal lawsuit filed in fall 2020 that resulted in an injunction requiring the city to give at least 48 hours' notice before dispersing an encampment, even when emergent public-health issues exist, and at least seven days' notice otherwise. The City of Denver is currently appealing that ruling in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

According to Denver service providers and advocates, when city authorities ask homeless individuals to move, they often don't give them a viable alternative. The study notes this dilemma, too.

"They may be able to put them in an emergency shelter, but a person may not be interested in that shelter," says Dunton, pointing to sobriety requirements and potential separation from a partner or pet as reasons for skipping shelters. Encampments can also provide a sense of community and "more security and more privacy than what you'd get in a shelter setting," she adds.

All of the research for the report — the first time the federal government has commissioned a study specifically focused on homeless encampments — took place before the pandemic. Over the past year, service providers have noticed higher rates of unsheltered homelessness. But because the traditional Point in Time Count was not conducted this January because of the threat of COVID-19 transmission, those observations are largely anecdotal.

"This study was conducted before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has likely worsened homelessness rates, while simultaneously increasing the urgency for finding safe housing for residents of encampments," Todd M. Richardson, a high-ranking HUD official, acknowledges in a letter attached to the start of the report. "At the same time, many homeless shelters have reduced capacity to abide by social distancing protocols, limiting options for those experiencing homelessness and potentially forcing more people into unsheltered homelessness and encampments."

Denver has taken note of the report's findings. According to Britta Fisher, executive director of the Denver Department of Housing Stability,  the city is "implementing many of the strategies identified and more, from crisis intervention teams and expanded outreach services to new shelters with on-site case managers and support for temporary managed campsites. Together with housing, shelter and services partners, we will utilize the study’s findings to help shape stronger strategies to further housing stability."

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