At the first hybrid City Council meeting on April 11, I heard numerous commenters describing my unhoused neighbors and urging the City Council to “clear the tents” or “enforce the laws.” But few of the commenters made explicit what this means, or maybe some of them just don’t realize what it means.
At best it means forced displacement. At worst it means locking people up for the crime of not being able to afford a place to live. Either way, it means tremendous harm to unhoused people.
It *doesn’t* mean getting these people into real housing. A few might get into shelters, if any beds are available (very few are). But all the research on the subject points to *permanent housing*, without preconditions or strings, as the only solution that works to reduce homelessness. But it takes a lot of time and effort just to get one person in permanent housing because it’s either tremendously expensive (in the case of market rate housing) or it’s in very short supply, in the case of permanent supportive housing restricted to be made available to unhoused people.
Permanent housing is the real solution, and it’s where money and efforts should be focused — much more than we’re currently spending is needed to make a dent. Again, this is backed up by research on the subject.
But homeless sweeps, which is exactly what is meant by asking to “clear the tents” or “enforce the laws,” simply don’t help. There isn’t a shred of evidence that they help break the cycle of homelessness for people on the street, or reduce homelessness overall.
Even if you don’t care about that, if all you care about is not having to see unhoused people on the streets, well, sweeps don’t help with that either — they just push people from one encampment to another, and the harm from sweeps can undo any progress these people have made towards getting off the streets.
There’s this idea that unhoused people have better options that they nonsensically prefer not to take. It’s absurd. The “help” that’s offered can mean leaving a community of people they know and feel safe with, for a shelter in another part of town, with people they don’t know, far from their place of work, and where there might be the very real threat of assault or robbery.
It might seem counterintuitive, but the street can be safer than a shelter. Accepting temporary shelter could mean leaving behind all their possessions, or accepting a curfew that is incompatible with later work hours (yes, many unhoused people are employed, though often informally and being paid less than minimum wage). All this for a shelter that is only temporary, and you still may be months or years from placement in permanent housing.
Consider what kind of conditions you would accept on your living situation! As an adult, would you accept being locked out if you come home a little late? Even if you struggle with substance abuse, is it right to be stripped of your home just because you had something to drink? Many shelters and temporary housing programs burden residents with these kinds of ineffective and onerous conditions.
Please give this thought. What do you think you’d accomplish by having the police clear the encampments? It only hurts the people and moves them from one street to another — it has never and will never reduce the overall homeless numbers.
Homelessness is associated with poor health. A policy approach aiming to end homelessness across Europe and North America, the ‘Housing First’ (HF) model, provides rapid housing, not conditional on abstinence from substance use. We aimed to systematically review the evidence from randomised controlled trials for the effects of HF on health and well-being.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30777888/
HF approaches successfully improve housing stability and may improve some aspects of health. Implementation of HF would likely reduce homelessness and non-routine health service use without an increase in problematic substance use. Impacts on long-term health outcomes require further investigation.