The rise of encampments has moved homelessness to the top of the list for local leaders. According to a recent survey, the homelessness crisis is the No. 1 concern of mayors across the country, but they feel like they lack the guidance and tools to adequately address it.
A 2019 HUD study of four communities found that they spend significant resources on clearing and providing support to homeless encampments but struggle with comprehensive and lasting solutions. Some cities simply task police and public works departments with clearing encampments without providing support and without an overarching strategy.
Mayors and local leaders, homeless service organizations, advocates, and the public would all agree that encampment clearance with no strategy and no support is not a sustainable solution. It frustrates service providers because it disrupts their efforts to engage and build trust with people experiencing the trauma of homelessness. Police departments feel that their time and attention is stretched thin and taken away from tackling crime. And legal advocates decry the violations of constitutional rights that protect people from unlawful seizure of property, as well as cruel and unusual punishment.
As one mayor of a large city recently put it, “Mayors are caught between two opposing viewpoints. On the one hand are people who want us to criminalize homelessness and the other that want us to say that anything goes. Neither of these viewpoints is the right solution.”
The question is, what is the right solution?
One potential answer to this question may come from the city of Boston, where officials are employing what they refer to as a “public health response” to unsheltered homelessness.
In February, several HUD officials, including myself, went to Boston, where Mayor Michelle Wu is making measurable progress toward resolving encampments through connections to health care, treatment, interim shelter, and permanent homes—not law enforcement and bulldozers.
Read the full article about a public health approach by at United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.