Solving Encampments Requires Tougher Questions, Better Choices

Is homelessness difficult to solve because of a lack of money, or because of a lack of knowledge? I am not an expert on homelessness, but in 25 years of working on housing — as a practitioner and in policy — policy makers and the media seem to remain mystified by what the term homelessness means. The same is true even for the term “encampments,” the clusters of camps of people in public spaces. It’s time to better define the problem and ask ourselves tough questions rather than turn out our pockets looking for more money.

There are many definitions of homelessness but an official one, from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD), what the agency calls, “literally homeless” is a family or individual without “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” This includes living in a place “place not meant for human habitation,” a shelter, or “temporary living arrangements” which HUD describes as “congregate shelters, transitional housing, and hotels and motels paid for by charitable  organizations or by federal, state and local government programs.”

A literal interpretation of “literally homeless,” means a person could be homeless even if they are living in housing. There are three other categories that further refine this including people who are housed but “at risk” of losing housing and people fleeing domestic violence. The first part of the definition encompasses what most people would identify by sight as someone who is homeless. But the others? A person standing next to you in a line for coffee could fit the designation too.

Bloomberg News reported a similar lack of clarity about the definition of an “encampment” in a first of its kind study Department of Health and Human Services and HUD. According to Bloomberg, “The report reveals the lack of depth of understanding of the phenomenon: There is no shared or official definition for encampments, for example, a limitation that sometimes shows up in the ad hoc strategies for responding to encampments.”

The report itself, by a firm called Abt, is also problematic, and perhaps deeply flawed. The press release says that the firm talked with “a small number of encampment residents” but “studied and interviewed officials in nine cities currently responding to encampments.” What happens when a team spends most of it time “studying” people who are elected to office and their employees: they find that, surprise, the problem is lack of “affordable housing.” That always means, “we want more money.”

Are you sitting down, because the conclusion in the full Abt report is going to come as a complete shock: “permanent resolution of any given encampment (resolving homelessness for the people in the encampment, and preventing formation of a new encampment at that site) requires substantial investment.”

That’s right, more money.

And interestingly, that answer has satisfied almost nobody but the “officials” who Abt studied. People who defend encampments think they are part of the solution. Bloomberg correctly pointed this out, finding that for many, “tent cities serve as supportive communities for their occupants.”

Others, like a group that passed a measure favoring enforcement in Austin, Texas, disagree. They argued that “Homelessness is a vexing challenge. It involves thorny issues including mental health, drug and alcohol addiction, job training, and one other issue that is often ignored: noncompliance.”

I think the answer is we simply don’t know and I tend to agree with the defenders of camps and those calling for enforcement. I posted about this almost five years ago (City Of Seattle Should Cooperate With Residents Of The Jungle), and I started that post quoting Hayek’s seminal article The Use of Knowledge in Society. The encampments are an example of what Hayek called spontaneous order, also known as the “invisible hand.” People who live in encampments, generally, want to live there. Why? Because organized shelters have too many requirements ranging from segregation by sex (breaking up couples), to not allowing pets, and requiring sobriety and no drug use.

We have a choice, one is to accept that people living in encampments have spoken with their feet – and their tents: they don’t want organized housing with rules that trample their ability to live their lives as they choose, including refusing treatment for mental health and addiction. Handing them keys to a “unit” of housing will likely not be a solution, especially if those keys mandate limits many of us would not accept in our own housing.

A second choice would be to decide that a coercive government with an army of police and social workers is going to somehow force or entice changes in the decisions that human beings have made in their own rational self-interest and persuade or force them to finally give in and conform to the normative housing standards of the dominant society.

In the first case, we don’t enforce underlying law, and we subsidize this choice by residents of encampments with impacts to the public health, more crime, and premature death in the encampments or on the street. In the second case, we subsidize coercion that could result in changes that would allow people to be self-sustaining in, possibly, in “normal” housing. Failing that, we can put people in prison or high-security mental hospitals. Is it worth the cost of locking people up? Is it worth the certain mistakes courts, social workers, and policer are certain to make when using coercive measures?

There is another choice, which “officials” in their quest for more cash to funnel to service providers have largely refused, value capture. I’ve already posted about it. But if we aren’t willing to test the hypothesis that “homelessness,” however it is defined, is not an economic problem but a symptom of untreated mental illness and chemical dependency, then a solution is impossible. We also have to confront just how coercive we will be in forcing people to accept our normative standard of what real housing looks like.

The worst choice is to allow people to suffer – both residents of improvised housing and people who deal with its consequences – while ignoring real impacts and simply dumping more cash on a system that has failed, for decades, to ease homelessness or encampments.

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