Successful Solutions that Do Not Criminalize Homelessness

homeless encampment where officials criminalize homelessness

Homeless Sweeps on the Rise Part 3

In parts one and two of this in-depth series on sweeps, we explained the rise of homeless criminalization and that homeless encampment cleanups, also known as sweeps, are incentivized by billion-dollar organizations with shady motives.

We spoke on the horrors of involuntary displacement and the struggle to educate voters on the actual costs of criminalizing homelessness. Be sure to read the first two parts of this series to fully understand these subjects.

Politicians have shifted their legislation away from the housing first model (a proven model with a positive track record of reducing homelessness) and toward homeless criminalization.

This is not a coincidence or an innovative new approach to homelessness. It is a sneaky move to try and sway voters into supporting what Decriminalization Director for the National Homelessness Law Center Will Knight called “poverty profiteering.”

Under the guise of cleaning up the streets, politicians force unsheltered homeless people into inhumane for-profit internment camps that punish the people they pretend to help.

In this third and final section of the series, we will discuss successful alternatives to homeless criminalization and models that have worked thus far.

The Dilemma: Unsheltered Homelessness is Increasing, and Tent Cities Line the Streets of Our Nation

In an eloquent quote published by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, one unnamed city leader concisely explained the situation:

“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.”

In an ideal world, not a single soul would be forced to live in a roadside tent, barely scraping by. While evicting people from homeless encampments and forcibly relocating them to prison cells or the recently constructed pallet shelter internment camps is expensive and unfathomably cruel, leaving them to rot in isolation and misery is equally heartless.

Fortunately, a few strategies featuring non-punitive approaches could serve as alternatives to sweeps and criminalization. Better still, these strategies are already in motion and producing excellent results in some popular cities. Here’s a brief overview of some of those successful models.

Boston Clears an Encampment in Just Two Months without Enlisting Bulldozers or Police

Advocates familiar with encampment clearings associate them with noisy construction equipment and armed police officers. A chaotic scene unfolds. Homeless encampment residents scatter as their few remaining worldly possessions are tossed into massive garbage receptacles. 

Housing advocates clash with law enforcement officials. Tear gas peppers the sidewalks of the city. Arrests are made. Stragglers are hauled off in handcuffs. Days later, a new variation of the dismantled encampment emerges a few blocks down.

The vicious cycle begins again, costing millions of dollars of funding to exercise the futility. This is the embodiment of a lose-lose situation. 

But what if we told you it doesn’t have to happen this way?

In Boston, Massachusetts, a notorious homeless encampment was cleared in under two months, and virtually all residents left voluntarily. As it turns out, Mayor Michelle Wu successfully cleared the encampment by merely offering permanent supportive housing and other services. Some encampment residents had to wait to be placed into permanent housing situations. They did so in short-term accommodations.

Throughout the two-month process, public health experts and homeless outreach professionals frequented the encampment, passing out food, clothing, and other necessities and extending offers of healthcare and other services.

Boston implemented a “whole-person approach to treatment” by establishing trust between encampment residents and outreach workers. 

Permanent supportive housing was made available to some encampment residents. City leaders achieved this by making use of all the following funding options:

  • Emergency Solutions Grants from the CARES Act
  • Housing Choice Vouchers from Boston Housing Authority
  • Emergency Housing Vouchers from the American Rescue Plan
  • State and Local Fiscal Recovery funds from the American Rescue Plan

This is an excellent example of making good use of available funding and rectifying a problem instead of just relocating it to somebody else’s city. 

Fortunately for advocates, it is not the only alternative that’s working.

Sacramento’s ‘Camp Resolution’ is Leasing the Land Until Permanent Supportive Housing Options Open Up

Recently, the City of Sacramento, California, took a novel, non-punitive approach.

Camp Resolution,” a tent encampment at Arden Way and Colfax Street in North Sacramento, was offered a lease for residents to remain on public property until permanent supportive housing becomes available. Under this lease, the encampment functions as a self-governing site with laws and ordinances like any other region.

“The City is viewing this agreement as a pilot project and expects to learn many things from it that can help inform future possible agreements,” explained city spokesperson Tim Swanson.

All Solutions to the Homeless Crisis Require the Construction of Affordable Homes. Please Contact Your Legislators.

Critics of Boston’s sweep alternative fear the encampment will return, not because it was cleared without the presence of law enforcement officials, but because it was cleared without enough available housing to sustain that action.

The truth is that without permanent affordable housing, homelessness will always exist, either in plain sight or obscurity. Under the current housing market model, which features a shortage of more than 7 million affordable housing units, homelessness is sketched into the blueprint.

Contact your local legislators and urge them to construct more affordable homes and implement non-punitive alternatives to homeless encampment sweeps.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


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

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