Homeless encampment sweeps costly and of limited long-term effectiveness, according to federal research

(SMARTCITIESDIVE) Karen Kroll, February 21, 2023

“A sweep has a cost that day and can have longer-term cost in terms of [eliminating] whatever stability the people living in the encampments were able to attain,” said one homelessness policy expert.

The number of people experiencing “unsheltered homelessness,” or living in places not meant for human habitation, had risen to more than 200,000 as of 2021, according to a report by the U.S. departments of Housing and Urban Development and Health and Human Services. Encampments, which HUD describes as temporary structures or enclosed places that are not intended for long-term continuous occupancy, are one obvious sign of this increase. 

For the residents living in them, encampments may be the best of several bad alternatives. They often cannot find affordable housing and may be deterred by some shelter requirements. “A shelter space or shelter system’s requirements, such as sobriety requirements, separation from partners or pets, and/or strict entry and exit times, may not be [compatible] with an individual’s current circumstances,” said Lauren Lowery, director for housing and community development with the National League of Cities.

Conversely, residents in houses and apartments near encampments often worry about the encampments’ impact on their environment, health, and safety, while business and property owners worry about the encampments’ economic impact. Those concerns have prompted some cities to close camps and force those living in them to find alternative places to stay — what’s sometimes referred to as a sweep — often without providing the support that might help them achieve that. 

Sweeps are expensive and often of limited long-term effectiveness, HUD and HHS found. City spending on clearing encampments in 2019 ranged from $140,000 in Chicago to $4.9 million in San Jose, California. 

A sweep that doesn’t include services to help homeless individuals transition toward more permanent housing does little to address the underlying challenges that led to the encampment in the first place, say advocates for people who are homeless.

“A sweep has a cost that day and can have longer-term cost in terms of [eliminating] whatever stability the people living in the encampments were able to attain,” said Steve Berg, chief policy officer with the National Alliance to End Homelessness. A sweep can set back individuals who were moving toward housing stability and, perhaps, working with a caseworker who knows where to find them. “If an encampment is the best place to stay, having that disrupted can be a step backward,” he said.

At times, a sweep may be necessary to address immediate hazards. In 2017, a Hepatitis A outbreak in a San Diego homeless encampment led to 20 deaths, according to a news report. (The city then converted an empty, city-owned parking lot into another encampment with tents, showers and security.) 

In most cases, however, clearing encampments without providing support for the residents only moves the problem somewhere else, Berg said.

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