New Research Proves Sweeps Are Poverty Profiteering at the Taxpayers’ Expense

San Francisco Homeless Encampment and sweeps

New research by investigative reporter Brian J. Barth reveals that private firms have earned over $100 million from homeless encampment sweeps in California, despite these actions failing to address the root causes of homelessness. These costly sweeps, often involving heavy police presence and resulting in the loss of personal belongings, profit private contractors at the expense of taxpayers and the unhoused community, exacerbating the problem rather than solving it.


Investigative Reporter Brian J. Barth Shares How Private Firms Have Garnered More Than $100 Million Deconstructing Homeless Encampments

Homeless encampment sweeps are a hot topic for good reason. These actions, which require a heavy police presence that takes a toll on the climate and the economy, do nothing to solve or even reduce homelessness. Yet hundreds of millions of tax dollars are funneled into such efforts. The question is why.

Investigative reporter Brian J. Barth believes the answer has a lot to do with the booming $100 million+ industry these sweeps have created.

In an investigative deep dive released by the Guardian featuring his research, the Bay Area journalist proved that while homeless encampment sweeps may be costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars while not accomplishing the task of solving homelessness, they are making some private organizations very rich.

We recently sat down with Brian to look into what sweeps really are – poverty profiteering.

Invisible People: 

In a recent article published by The Guardian, research conducted by you and Type 1 investigations shows that California has paid private firms at least $100 million to clear homeless encampments across the state. Here at Invisible People, we have long pointed out the fact that sweeps are extremely costly for taxpayers and not a real solution to homelessness. In fact, encampment sweeps are known to cause more homelessness in the long run as the problem is merely located from one street corner to the next, with short stints of imprisonment in between.

The general presumption was that the prison industrial complex profits from these actions at the expense of the taxpayers and the unsheltered community. Your research, however, presents a new revelation that shows private firms are also getting wealthy in the wake of human suffering. What do you think this research says about the overall concept of criminalization? 

Brian J. Barth:

Great question! Well, it is hand-in-hand with the concept of criminalization. The police virtually always accompany the private contractors. If people don’t voluntarily move, they’re rarely arrested because Martin v. Boise has made it so that cities know they can’t go around arresting homeless people in those situations. Still, the threat of arrest is always present. 

From what I observed, after spending many months watching sweeps very carefully and how they’re carried out, cities don’t want to cite people or arrest people because of Martin v Boise because it doesn’t hold up in court. So, they seem to have developed elaborate tactics to kind of slide through and around the loopholes and gray areas of the law to conduct their sweeps. They’re not usually throwing people in jail, but they do everything that they can short of putting you in jail. 

So, in a way, there’s no difference, right? Because the same thing is being accomplished despite Martin v. Boise. It’s just the intimidation of the police presence. And when it comes to the loss of belongings, which is the focus of that story, which is not a Martin v. Boise issue so much as, you know, other case law like Garcia v. Los Angeles, they’re very careful about how they treat the belongings.

First of all, they’re most careful if somebody’s watching. If advocates or journalists are watching, these police officers and cleanup crews are extraordinarily careful. But in general, they will say, “Hey, you! We’re coming in. You gotta move. You gotta move your stuff. You have until X day to move it. And if X day arrives and you haven’t moved it, they say, all right, well, we’re giving you 24 hours, and by this time tomorrow, you have got to be out.”

Then, if those hours pass and you’re not out, they’re backing up with the dump trucks and demanding you tell them what you want to keep and what you don’t want to keep. You have half an hour to sort your belongings into two piles: the keep pile and the throwaway pile. And it just goes on like that.

If you don’t have a vehicle to move your belongings, then, really, all of it ends up in the trash. Anything you can’t drag away ends up in the dump truck pile. This allows authorities to say, “So and so volunteered that this stuff is garbage to them.”

But it’s through a process in which people are forced into decisions about what they want to keep and don’t want to keep, which does not reflect their true desires about what is valuable to them. They have to whittle down to virtually nothing. Meanwhile, these encampment sweep officials operate within a gray area of the law so they can later claim that the material has been voluntarily surrendered.

I saw a lot of that behavior at the Crash Zone sweep in San Jose. This happened especially because so many people were watching that sweep, including myself. But I know for a fact that when no people are watching, it’s often much more aggressive. This has repeatedly been reported to me. 

Invisible People: 

How did you uncover the fact that private firms have received more than $100 million to clear homeless encampments in California? 

Brian J. Barth:

That was primarily through public records requests to see the actual value of the contracts. Most places don’t post that in a publicly accessible way, but it is public information, so if you request it, you can find it. It was extraordinarily difficult because, as you might know, public records requests aren’t perfect. They don’t necessarily give you all the records that you’re asking for. With Caltrans, for example, it took them over a year to fulfill my records request.

I know they didn’t give me all the records because I found additional records through other avenues, including, for example, one company that had posted the value of their contract online. This was a company I was familiar with. I was present at one of the sweeps they did in Oakland. From my observation and the company’s online information on their website, they did a massive multimillion-dollar sweep that should have been caught in that public records request, but it was not.

So, I had calculated a little bit over $100 million just from Caltrans’ records alone in terms of contracts. I don’t know how much more the real number is. It’s just impossible to know. It would take years of digging to get to the much higher actual number.

We were very conservative in printing that $100 million figure. We wanted to make sure that we only used contracts where it was 100% crystal clear that the total value went toward the forced relocation of unhoused people. We found all sorts of contracts, some of which were very large, that were, at least in part, to evict unhoused people. But they also covered other work by that contractor. We tended to exclude those because we wanted a solid number.

We know the figure is an undercount because we only queried about 30 municipalities and agencies across the state. I received contracts that were clearly for sweeps from about 14 of those. So, a little more than a third in total. However, there are over 400 municipalities, not to mention countless public agencies potentially involved in sweeps in California. 

All that is to say that the $100 million figure is super well backed up on paper, but it is a very, very low, conservative figure. The actual number is clearly many, many, many times that. However, due to constraints of time and human labor, that was the number that we were able to get to. And therefore, that was the number we published.

Invisible People:

Your article for The Guardian refers to these sweeps as a lucrative industry. Could you expand more on this concept for our readers?

Brian J. Barth:

I had the most kind of intimate contact with the firm in San Jose that does most of the sweeps for the city of San Jose and most of the sweeps in the Silicon Valley area. They were very candid with me about how their business had grown from when they started, which was less than ten years ago.

When you look at the scope of their work, sweeps were the bulk of their portfolio. I found other contracts with the city of San Jose for this construction company doing other types of work, doing actual construction work. But the value of those contracts was relatively small comparatively. I don’t have figures off the top of my head, but it suggested a picture in which homeless encampment sweeping was a main line of work for this company. 

Other evidence for this being a kind of lucrative and growing industry is the fact that companies are advertising these services on their websites. The companies doing that kind of advertisement are, for the most part, very large companies. Some of them, like the one I spoke about in San Jose, are smaller, but some environmental services firms working across the state have giant government contracts for all sorts of public works projects. 

If companies of that scope are going after contracts to sweep unhoused people, to me, that says there’s real money there. Right? Because these are not mom-and-pop companies. These are massive corporations. 

Invisible People: 

Here at Invisible People, we have implied that a large portion of the money allocated toward preventing homelessness is being misdirected toward homeless criminalization. Your article mentioned the utilization of COVID-19 funds being directed toward these so-called “encampment cleanups.” If the funding set aside to solve the homeless crisis is mainly being used to criminalize homeless people and destroy their belongings, would you consider that a counterproductive approach? 

Brian J. Barth:

100%. That was the main point that I hoped to make with the story. The California state government earmarked $800 million over several years for homeless encampment clearance. What I don’t know is exactly how much of that $800 million went to private contractors versus public agencies because public agencies certainly spend a lot of money on sweeps as well. But either way, that is a giant expenditure.

When you look at California’s budget for homelessness, that’s a big line item—$ 800 million. Sure, there are bigger line items for some programs. It costs a lot of money to build housing, for example. But that’s a very significant figure.

And in the end, it’s just incredibly counterproductive. When you’re forcibly removed from your home, and your belongings are taken from you under duress and thrown in a dump truck, and then you watch the bulldozers come through and crush and mow down the hand-built structure that you spent months creating for yourself and are proud of on some level because you built it with your own two hands. It’s meaningful to you for that reason. It is something that’s yours, and it’s an expression of you, and it has all your worldly possessions in it, and you have decorated it. You cook there. You sleep there. You have your friends and family there around you. It’s your home.

So, during a sweep, you are being forcibly evicted from your home after already being evicted from a more conventional home at some point in your life when you became homeless. That is so incredibly traumatizing. Homeless encampment sweeps perpetuate homelessness because they make it harder to get out of the predicament.

Regarding taxpayer spending, it’s been projected that the City of San Jose spent roughly $700,000 – $800,000, something like that, in one year on outreach, engagements, and services in the camps. We gathered that number through audits.

And it paled in comparison to how much was spent on destroying the camps! Ultimately, they just rebuild down the street, right? If there’s no housing for them to go to, it’s just a revolving door. Build a new camp, come in, and spend a hundred million dollars bulldozing again. That makes no sense. 

Invisible People:

comptroller audit conducted in 2023 found that out of 2,308 encampment residents involved in sweeps, only three of them secured permanent housing following their evictions, and 47 remained in shelters. This means more than 90% of them were back on the streets unsheltered in a matter of days or weeks. Why do you think these numbers go underreported in mainstream media, and how do you think city leaders can continue to conduct an approach to homelessness that presents such dismal results? 

Brian J. Barth:

Those are really good questions. I’m writing a book and making a film on this topic. I’m very interested in why my fellow journalists don’t get the issue. And that has been a hard nut to crack. I think it has to do with deeply ingrained assumptions and biases on the part of the individuals and their editors who control what information gets out there. 

I think a lot of the journalists doing on-the-ground reporting must understand it because it’s hard to spend too much time in camps and not understand. Certainly, all the unhoused residents will be telling those journalists that if they spend time in the camps.

In terms of editorials, I’ve pitched several stories—and I won’t name names of the publications, but I will say that one particular publication is arguably the most esteemed media outlet in the United States—and they wanted me to do a major story on homelessness. And twice, that story fizzled out.

They had all sorts of excuses about why. In one such instance, I had an actual contract that this was a fully commissioned story, and then my editor’s bosses killed it. Another time, I had a verbal commitment from the same publication, and it just never happened. I think it’s because when you present these alternative narratives that are more grounded in reality, at least from my perspective and from the perspective of anyone who is seriously engaged with unhoused communities, it’s like people can hardly believe it.

By people, I mean the editors, their bosses, the writers, staff members, and readers, the people who haven’t been in the camps. They’re sort of in disbelief. They’re thinking, “What is this guy saying? I don’t think that can be true.”

But it is true. So, it’s a very mysterious thing how far from reality people are willing to go to not accept the fact that clearing these camps is counterproductive.

Furthermore, as I present in my book and my film, the camps actually have value to their residents—value that we’re destroying when we clear them—that these camps are a testimony to the fact that they are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps through the development of their camps. These communities are vibrant and represent a real social movement, I would say, and an unknown, unreported social movement among unhoused communities to take care of themselves and find their own solutions.

When you present that narrative to a person or to the public, who can only imagine that a camp is just a horrible thing that needs to be gone, that’s the attitude. No matter what that looks like or means in reality, they just can’t stand to see it, and they are willing to behave very irrationally in the process of getting rid of it just to have it gone. 

If you present the other idea that no, these camps have value and they are serving a purpose, even though they are, yes, messy and imperfect, then if we took that to heart, we would design policies that allowed camps to exist and helped their residents to manage them as the place where people can live until they can return to permanent housing.

Invisible People:

Could you tell us a bit about these firms that are profiting from sweeping homeless encampments?

Brian J. Barth:

Sure. Well, as I said, it’s a mix of several midsized, locally based construction firms, along with very large corporations. I’ve found some landscaping companies getting involved. Trucking services are often involved because they need trucking companies to haul off the stuff. Also, some companies are involved in demolition work because that’s basically what you’re doing: demolishing a place.

But the biggest category, interestingly enough, seems to be what are called environmental services companies, which is an odd name. I think the general public doesn’t know much about these companies because they function as environmental service companies, which makes it sound like they’re doing something good for the environment. Outside of encampment sweeps, a lot of these companies respond to things like chemical spills and whatnot. They have hazmat suits and equipment to clean up things like that.

But then they do all sorts of things that are more in line with the construction industry, I would say. The reason that they gravitated to the sweep industry is that cities stipulate in their contracts that the company doing the work needs to have experience dealing with hazardous materials like feces and hypodermic needles and things like that. Because those can be found in camps, even though that’s not a major part of a camp, items like that might be present.

That means it often falls to these companies because they have special certifications that allow them to handle hazardous material, and they have the equipment to do so. And so, apparently, that’s why these companies often do it, even though a lot of the work has nothing to do with environmental service. 

Invisible People:

Beyond just taxes and the general mismanagement of homeless prevention funding, do you feel that there is an environmental toll coming from the mass destruction of hundreds of encampments wherein law enforcement officials often toss away bulk items that would’ve otherwise not wound up in these landfills?

Brian J. Barth:

That’s a good question. Some of my unhoused friends talk about how much they divert from landfills because they scavenge in dumpsters and take stuff put out on the side of the road. That’s where most of the furnishings in the camps come from. It’s stuff that other people have thrown away; at least, the vast majority of it is scavenged. It is diverted from the landfill and given a second life in an encampment.

I have a quote in my forthcoming book of an unhoused guy saying, “It’s not more trash. It’s the same trash. It’s your trash. It’s just in a different place.”

Talk to Your Local Legislators About Spending Homeless Prevention Funding on Ending Homelessness

All studies indicate that homeless encampment sweeps are ineffective in ending homelessness. Many investigations suggest that these brutal actions increase and perpetuate the problem.

Now, we are learning that sweeping homeless encampments is becoming a booming business, which leaves little incentive to allocate those funds toward actions that could solve the crisis, such as creating affordable housing for all. Talk to your legislators about spending homeless funding more responsibly. It is their responsibility to do so, after all.


Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith

     

Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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