Homeless residents face uncertainty as encampment sweeps gain steam

By: and - December 25, 2023 7:00 am

More than 653,000 Americans are experiencing homelessness, a 12% increase from last year, per federal statistics. (Getty images)

SAN DIEGO — Tracy Bennett has packed up and moved her tent and possessions so many times when the city periodically clears her sidewalk encampment, she jokes she could run her own moving company.

The black canopy that she’s wrapped in blue tarps and filled with blankets, food, a coloring book and the rest of her belongings, stood on a sidewalk on a Friday morning this month, a few blocks from the Gaslamp Quarter, a downtown San Diego nightlife hub. Her shelter had a bit of holiday flair: On the corner of her tent, near its entrance, sat a stuffed elf and two red stockings tied in green and red tinsel.

But a couple feet down from her small Christmas decoration, a city worker taped a neon green notice to her tent telling her and the rest of the homeless encampment that in 24 hours they would have to break camp and move, or their belongings would be impounded or thrown away.

The sidewalk encampment had around 30 mismatched orange, blue, gray and red tents, tarps tied to parking lot fences, packed carts and a community of people — some old, some young, some with a variety of physical disabilities or mental illnesses — sitting on curbs, bicycles or walkers. It ran along an intersection that had one portable toilet, a women’s shelter and several social workers assisting any way they could.

Bennett, 54, folded blankets outside her tent, one hand on the leash of Mamacita, a friendly pit bull wagging her tail at the activity.

She said she is used to these city-mandated cleanups; they’ve happened countless times in the three years she’s been on this corner and in the seven years she’s been without a home in what might be America’s most expensive city. Each time, she gathers her stuff and carries it across the street with the help of friends. When the city crew and police leave, she’s back, along with her unhoused neighbors.

“It’s redundant, stupid and a waste of taxpayers’ dollars,” she said. “It doesn’t do anything to fix the problem. It doesn’t even put a Band-Aid on a bullet hole.

“We’re not bad people. We’re just in a bad circumstance.”

New York City officials have been deploying more police officers in subway stations since January 2022 as a method of homelessness outreach. Sometimes that outreach can lead to people being removed from train stations or arrested. Robbie Sequeira/Stateline

The next morning, a frantic energy crackled through the encampment. Residents unsheathed tent poles and folded up blankets and tarps as a dozen city workers in white hazmat suits began to sweep up all the bottles, garbage, feces, needles and tents left behind, stuffing the refuse into the back of a white garbage truck.

Two police officers stood by, encouraging people to hustle before the cleaning crew reached them. People gathered their tents and belongings in carts, on bikes or in their arms, and left. Workers power-washed the sidewalk with water and disinfectant. Bennett stood by with two friends, watched the cleanup unfold and ate a bag of Cheez-Its as a garbage truck crunched tent polls in its rear-end compactor.

This scene plays out in cities across the country.

More than 653,000 Americans are experiencing homelessness, according to a count released this month by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a 12% increase from last year. Among the people experiencing homelessness, 64% are unsheltered.

As tent encampments continue to dot urban landscapes — strewn around parks, along sidewalks, lining highways or sometimes abutting schools — many cities have increased their sweeps, some governors have announced funding to clear encampments, and several states have outlawed the tent communities altogether.

Without significant investment and solutions coming from federal and state governments, local leaders are on their own to manage this crisis, said Samantha Batko, a principal research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

“Sweeps are a way to diminish the visibility in a specific area — not overall, but in a specific area — in the short term,” she said.

City leaders from Minneapolis to Las Vegas say the sweeps are intended to reduce health hazards for those living in the camps and for the surrounding community, while also connecting homeless people with case workers and shelters. A rise in complaints from homeowners who worry about their property values and safety have added political pressure to move the camps out of commercial and residential areas.

We’re not bad people. We’re just in a bad circumstance.

– Tracy Bennett, 54, as she was swept from a San Diego encampment

Housing experts and homeless advocates argue such sweeps are cruel, displace people from needed social services and community, risk the loss of their few possessions and don’t solve the root of the problem, which is the need for more affordable housing.

While cities and the unhoused wait for that housing to emerge, elected leaders are trying to find ways to alleviate the uncomfortable visuals of countless rows of their constituents sheltered in tents. They are greenlighting more sweeps, going to the courts to expand their power to clear camps and adopting “safe” camping options such as city-designated camps.

Cities embrace sweeps

In California, home to nearly a third of the nation’s homeless population, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom last month announced $300 million in grants for local jurisdictions to help clear homeless encampments, building on the $415 million that his administration already has spent on sweeping camps and housing people.

Touting the 5,679 encampments the state has cleared since July 2021, Newsom said camps “are not safe for the people living in them, or for community members around them.”

Local leaders agree.

“It is completely inhumane to allow people to perish on the sidewalks in squalor,” San Diego Councilmember Stephen Whitburn said in an interview at his City Hall office. “We have an obligation to get people out of the encampments and to provide a better option for them.”

Whitburn, a Democrat, sees the problem every day, as homeless people congregate in the plaza behind City Hall and the adjoining sidewalks in downtown San Diego.

In June, he shepherded through an ordinance that bans camping within two blocks of schools and shelters, in parks and along waterways. It also prohibits camping on sidewalks if there are shelter beds available. The camping ban accompanies local initiatives that seek to add more shelter beds and affordable housing. Before the camping ban, the city used sidewalk encroachment laws to ticket and clear homeless encampments.

Camping bans have attracted interest in other cities, such as Portland, Oregon, where a ban went into effect last month. In cities such as Denver and Houston, homeless encampment sweeps come with an option to move indoors into hotels or other shelters.

San Diego city workers in hazmat suits clean up refuse left behind at a homeless encampment in December, including some tents. Matt Vasilogambros/Stateline

Since San Diego’s camping ban went into effect in July, there are 1,200 fewer unhoused people downtown — a 45% decline, according to the San Diego Downtown Partnership.

San Diego employees taped neon green notices at a homeless encampment in the East Village neighborhood, giving people 24 hours to vacate or risk the loss of their possessions. Matt Vasilogambros/Stateline

But the local homeless crisis is still acute; homelessness in San Diego County rose 22% last year, especially affecting women, older adults and veterans. For every 10 people who found housing and exited homelessness in San Diego over the past year, 16 became homeless, according to the Regional Task Force on Homelessness.

Local housing advocates have lambasted the camping ban. They say the city is criminalizing homelessness and displacing people from familiar communities.

People in homeless encampments often look after one another or keep an eye on someone’s possessions when they have to go to a doctor’s appointment, renew their food stamp cards, snag a bus pass or run to the grocery store, said Janis Wilds, a volunteer homeless advocate with Housing 4 the Homeless, a local nonprofit that runs a shelter for older people.

“It’s causing people to become mobile,” she said. “And though encampments are detrimental to the wealthy that have to see poverty, they’re actually helpful to the people who are in them. The police are just telling people, ‘Just go somewhere, just go somewhere else. Don’t be here.’ But there is absolutely nowhere for people to go.”

That mobile lifestyle may work for people who are young and don’t have a disability, she said; it doesn’t work for many others. Often, it puts at risk women who could add a lock to the zippers of their tents at night and prevent being sexually assaulted, said Wilds, who hands out food, hygiene supplies, tents and sleeping bags on the street twice a week.

But Whitburn doesn’t buy the argument by a “vocal minority” who say the city is somehow criminalizing people experiencing homelessness.

“Most people think that it is perfectly reasonable to say if we have a suitable bed or other option available for you, then you shouldn’t be allowed to just pitch a tent on the sidewalk,” he said. “The status quo is not acceptable.”

Ongoing legal fights to expand sweeps

The San Diego City Council voted to join cities from Milwaukee to Seattle to Honolulu that are coming together to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to give them more authority to conduct sweeps.

While a 2018 decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals says cities cannot enforce anti-camping ordinances if they do not have enough shelter capacity, it hasn’t stopped municipalities from pursuing camping bans.

Cities have raced to sign on to an amicus brief in favor of more city power to clear camps. Even Newsom, in California, has chimed in, writing that judges have “paralyzed” cities’ response to clearing encampments. The California State Association of Counties and the League of California Cities have filed their own brief asking the court to give counties and cities more power to conduct sweeps.

The U.S. Supreme Court could decide next month whether to take the case.

It is completely inhumane to allow people to perish on the sidewalks in squalor. We have an obligation to get people out of the encampments and to provide a better option for them.

– San Diego Councilmember Stephen Whitburn

At the same time, some states are trying to prohibit encampments. Over the past two years, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas have enacted laws banning public camping on public land. This year, Georgia lawmakers passed a law requiring cities and counties to enforce existing bans on public camping.

Earlier this week, the Missouri Supreme Court struck down the state’s law that banned sleeping on public land over a technical issue with how the law was written.

Arizona Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs vetoed a proposed public camping ban bill this year, writing in her veto letter that the legislation did not address root causes for homelessness or offer alternative paths.

Phoenix recently was ordered by a judge to clear one of the biggest encampment zones in the country. The zone had nearly 1,000 people camped there, according to news outlets. The city said 718 people were offered services and 585 of those accepted placement at an indoor location.

Anti-camping laws are about public safety, not criminalization, said Bryan Sunderland, executive director at the Cicero Institute, a conservative think tank that offers model policies for public camping bans.

“It’s a tragic situation for the people left on the streets,” he said. “Leaving people on the streets is not a compassionate situation. It is not a good thing. It’s not good for the community or those who are homeless.”

He suggested short-term shelters, where rehabilitation and treatment for substance use is prioritized.

As cities and states try to expand their sweeps policies, local American Civil Liberties Union chapters have filed lawsuits against Albuquerque, Honolulu, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Seattle. Chapters have sent warnings to city leaders elsewhere.

Lawyers for the ACLU argue these sweeps violate constitutional protections that prevent cruel and unusual punishment and the seizure of property by the government.

“They are displacing homeless folks, giving them no real alternatives of where they can be and at the same time destroying their belongings summarily without any form of due process,” said John Do, a senior staff attorney for the Racial and Economic Justice Program at the ACLU of Northern California, who is leading the lawsuit in San Francisco. That case is in the middle of discovery, and the trial is set to begin next October.

Darhonda Newbill stayed five nights at a San Diego-sanctioned “safe sleeping” campsite, but she doesn’t think she’ll ever go back, saying the site was too cold. Matt Vasilogambros/Stateline

‘By every measure, the homeless sweeps failed’

Across the country from San Diego, on a crowded Metropolitan Transportation Authority commuter train into downtown Manhattan, 54-year-old Geraldo Jones is trying to perfect his singing pitch. For the past two years on most mornings, Jones sings Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” to commuters in hopes of earning a few dollars.

It’s a subway hustle that can earn him a few meals for the week.

“My voice is all I have left,” said Jones, who has been experiencing chronic homelessness since 2015. “Sometimes, I’ll make enough to get a few burgers for the next few days.”

In August 2022, his home — a tentlike setup in Washington Square Park — was swept away by the New York Police Department as a part of encampment cleanups implemented by Democratic Mayor Eric Adams.

That was my home. My memories. All I had left. To others it may look like trash in their public space or mud in their tourist trap, but it was my home.

– Geraldo Jones, 54, who lost his camp and belongings in a New York City sweep

In addition to losing the home that had been his most consistent living space since 2021, Jones said his belongings, including photos of his deceased wife and contacts for the city’s homeless providers, were destroyed.

“That was my home. My memories. All I had left. To others it may look like trash in their public space or mud in their tourist trap, but it was my home,” said Jones. “Where do they want me to go? I’ve been moving from awning to awning, subway station to subway station.”

Jones can carry a tune. But few commuters drop a few dollars and cents into his “coin purse,” a 7-Eleven Big Gulp cup.

New York City’s encampment sweeps led to the forcible removal of 2,308 people from their outdoor spaces from March to November 2022, according to an audit from the New York City Comptroller’s Office. Of those, only 90 stayed in shelters for more than one day. As of January, 47 people remained in shelters, and just three people secured permanent housing.

“The evidence is clear: by every measure, the homeless sweeps failed,” said Comptroller Brad Lander in the report.

Homeless encampment sweeps simply do not work, said Steve Berg, chief policy officer for the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

“The idea that you take people who are homeless and scatter them someplace else around whatever city they’re in, it just makes it harder for them to maintain whatever relationships they had with any sort of provider that was trying to help them,” he said.

While people of all backgrounds experience homelessness, advocacy groups such as the National Health Care for the Homeless Council have found that sweeps disproportionately impact non-white people and people with disabilities.

“Homelessness is also a racial equity issue,” said Etel Haxhiaj, the council’s senior policy manager. “One thing I want lawmakers to note is that the people who are being swept away in these sweeps are often people of color who already have a hurdle in accessing housing.”

Several academic papers have found that homeless encampment sweeps can lead to adverse mental and physical health effects for displaced people. On top of that, sweeps come with a high price tag.

A 2020 federal report examined sweeps from nine U.S. cities — Chicago; Fresno, California; Houston; Las Vegas; Minneapolis; Philadelphia; Portland, Oregon; San Jose, California; and Tacoma, Washington. The report found that those sweeps were expensive, costing cities between $1,672 and $6,208 per unsheltered individual per year.

Washington Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee recently warned that the state’s program that clears homeless encampments and helps put people into housing is running out of money.

Inslee is asking legislators to approve $140 million for homelessness programs, after allocating $143 million last year, as a part of recent budget proposal. Of the 1,034 people living in the encampments who accepted housing as part of this initiative, 816 are still in the housing offered by the state, according to a Department of Commerce database.

As the Urban Institute put it, homeless encampment sweeps are “draining” municipal budgets.

But seeing that outdoor living is one of the only options for a growing U.S. homeless population, some cities are looking to allow encampments on their own terms.

The ‘safe sleeping’ alternative

On the southern end of Balboa Park — San Diego’s 1,200-acre central park — and cushioned between the Naval Medical Center and Interstate 5, 136 red ice-fishing tents sit on each of three flattened sections of a rusty dirt hill. Across the street, another 136 tents have been erected in a city operations parking lot.

San Diego, nicknamed “America’s Finest City,” now offers what it’s calling “safe sleeping” campsites on publicly owned land. Up to 750 people can stay here each night.

The sites have become a beacon for people who don’t like shelters, want a modicum of privacy and have sought some assistance and access to social services, said Teresa Smith, CEO of Dreams for Change, one of the nonprofits that are helping to operate the sites.

“They can live their lives in an environment that provides the things that we’re looking for around dignity, privacy and, in many ways, client empowerment,” she said.

Sacramento, California, has operated a similar site for the past two years, holding 60 tents. Smith said she had phone conversations with that site’s organizers before the San Diego site opened.

In Utah, Salt Lake City opened the state’s first sanctioned homeless encampment, offering pods in the shape of tiny houses that can hold two unhoused people and that are searched regularly for drugs and alcohol.

The San Diego site uses ice-fishing tents, which lack a bottom tarp layer because they’re traditionally staked by anglers atop the frozen lakes of northern states. The tents, instead, rest on 4-inch wooden platforms off the ground.

They can hold two people, and they come with sleeping bags. Residents receive breakfast and dinner and have access to showers, laundry facilities and power outlets to charge their phones. There’s also a shuttle that can take people downtown or to public transportation hubs.

The sites are home to a revolving door of social service providers offering medical help, general case management and mental health and harm reduction assistance. Site officials are trying to keep existing encampments together at the new city-designated sites to help foster community.

Darhonda Newbill, an Illinois native who has been without housing off-and-on for nine years, spent five nights at one of the safe camping locations. But she said she is not sure whether she’ll come back.

“It’s just very cold at night,” said Newbill, 36. “It has a big opening at the bottom. That’s more ventilation.”

Standing with Bennett and another friend as city workers cleared the homeless encampment in downtown San Diego earlier this month, Newbill said she felt like she’s being made a criminal because she lives on the street.

“We just don’t really have any choices,” she said.

(Sequeira reported from New York.)

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Matt Vasilogambros
Matt Vasilogambros

Matt Vasilogambros covers voting rights, gun laws and Western climate policy for Stateline. He lives in San Diego, California.

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Robbie Sequeira
Robbie Sequeira

Robbie Sequeira is a staff writer covering housing and social services for Stateline.

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