Advocates Alarmed Over New USICH Encampment Guide 

McPherson Park sweeps and impact of Encampment guide

The USICH’s new 19-point guide aimed at addressing homeless encampments faces criticism from advocates, fearing its potential misinterpretation leading to increased homeless sweeps.


Concerns Arise Over New Encampment Guide Amid Planned Sweeps: Advocates Fear Punitive Approach to Homelessness

The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) recently released a 19-point guide. This guide is intended to assist local governments in addressing homeless encampments in a humane manner. However, advocates are concerned that the guide could be misinterpreted or misused, potentially leading to more homeless sweeps when no housing or shelter is available. 

Advocates are pointing out a stark contradiction. The National Parks Service is planning a sweep of about 70 unhoused people in Washington D.C.’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood today through May 20, despite USICH’s call to “ensure encampments are closed humanely” and that residents have access to available low-barrier shelter or other short-term housing. 

The District plans to open a new non-congregate shelter for adult families and chronically ill individuals in Foggy Bottom called The Aston in August 2024. Advocates are calling on Mayor Muriel Bowser to stop the forcible removal of the encampment and instead place the people living at the camp in the shelter once it opens.

“This guide is going to make it easier for cities who want to punish people using things like jails and fines,” Jesse Rabinowitz, campaign and communications director for the National Homelessness Law Center, told Invisible People. “They’re going to focus on clearing encampments and not on actually doing the hard work that needs to be done to solve homelessness, which is building a social safety net and building housing.” 

Advocates Highlight Inconsistencies and Consequences

This isn’t the first time advocates have criticized USICH’s encampment engagement guide. In 2022, advocates criticized the agency’s plan for being inconsistent. For instance, Aaron Howe, co-founder of the D.C. mutual aid organization Remora House, said the document contained “loopholes that different cities could use to say they’re following these progressive guidelines and are clearing camps,” according to Street Sense Media. These inconsistencies, he argued, allowed cities to continue their punitive approach to homelessness, rather than focusing on long-term solutions.

Advocates say this loophole is one reason why NPS officials cleared a more than 70-person encampment at McPherson Square in Washington, D.C., in February 2023. Mayor Bowser said the District cleared the encampment because it was becoming “increasingly dangerous,” and her administration believed more people were likely to access services because of the enforcement, DCist reported. 

“Forcibly removing people experiencing homelessness violates best practices and proven solutions to ending homelessness and only makes it more difficult for individuals to be connected to homes and services,” the National Low Income Housing Coalition said in a memo to its supporters. 

Advocates also noted another inconsistency in the 2022 plan: the presence of law enforcement as a “supporting partner” for encampment engagements. Advocates said this framing contradicts other guidance because the presence of law enforcement can escalate conflicts. 

Rabinowitz added that the new encampment guide is still rife with contradictions, including the ones mentioned above. For instance, he pointed to carve-outs that allow encampment removals for public health reasons because cities routinely abuse this criterion to throw away people’s possessions during sweeps. Rabinowitz said he attended one sweep where an individual lost their tent because it had paint in it, and city workers determined it was a biohazard. 

“They’re basically playing human Whack-a-Mole, and that’s really harmful,” he added.

Criminalizing Homeless People Won’t End Homelessness

USICH released its new encampment guide as the Supreme Court considers arguments in the Johnson v. Grants Pass case. It could determine whether cities can fine or arrest people experiencing homelessness for sleeping outside when no shelter is available.  

According to the National Homelessness Law Center, 48 states have laws on their books that criminalize aspects of homelessness, such as sitting, covering oneself with a blanket, or sharing food. Punishments for these crimes can range from a fee as low as $50 to a 30-day stint in the local jail. 

“It’s really time for the [Biden-Harris] Administration to clarify the government’s stance and say, ‘Don’t evict encampments; focus on housing instead,'” Rabinowitz said. 

How You Can Help

The pandemic proved that we need to rethink housing in the U.S. It also showed that we need to increase the supply of affordable housing. Experts agree that building housing is the best way to end homelessness once and for all.

Demand your representatives support keeping many of the pandemic-related aid programs in place for future use. They have proven effective at keeping people housed, which is the first step to ending homelessness.


Robert Davis

Robert Davis

Robert is a freelance journalist based in Colorado who covers housing, police, and local government.

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