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Encampments vs. bans? DESC knows there’s a better way for everyone

On April 22, the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) heard oral arguments in a case that will determine whether people experiencing homelessness may be penalized for having no safe place to sleep. 

Johnson v. Grants Pass asked whether cities that enforce laws about camping on public property when there is no other place for people to go are violating the Eighth Amendment by imposing “cruel and unusual punishment.” 

An off-white tent is framed by two vertical black bars. "Housing is a human right" is either painted or taped on the tent in dark orange red. Other tents and belongings are visible behind the big tent. The quote "Criminalization is an expensive way to make homelessness worse," by David Peery, Miami Coalition to Advance Racial Equity, is on the bottom of the image.
Visit https://johnsonvgrantspass.com/ for more information.

This case, like much community discourse about unsheltered homelessness, seemingly reduces a community’s choices to either punishing people for not having a place to live or accepting public camping virtually anywhere and everywhere. At DESC we know both of those options are poor, and more importantly, we know that neither is necessary. 

It’s understandable that cities want to maintain attractive, comfortable public spaces. But enforcing bans on public camping is actually counterproductive unless better alternatives for people are in place.  

We sometimes say that the law of gravity dictates that people must stick to the planet somewhere as a way to point out that people who are moved from one spot will have to move to another spot. Forcing people to move is not a solution to a city’s problem, it only moves the unsheltered people from one microenvironment to another. Temporarily. 

But there is a solution, and it’s not the “either/or” premise of public camping vs. removal of camps and people, the idea that a community must either repeatedly push people around through draconian sweeps, or grant people a right to camp on the sidewalk and live in squalor.  

Our long experience and evidence show that people will accept something better for themselves if it meets their needs: Housing First practices and affordable Permanent Supportive Housing built at scale to meet the needs of everyone who is unhoused.  

Sweeps and bans do not motivate people to change their circumstances; in fact, they are harmful to those experiencing homelessness. Someone caught up in a sweep isn’t forced to seek help; they are moved away and disconnected from essential services, and they lose their belongings. Being uprooted and moved along like an object is traumatizing and stressful. 

“Choosing to be homeless” is a myth.  We developed the 1811 Eastlake project to address the community’s most visible street homelessness, marked by those whom many people believed were homeless by choice. We created supportive housing exclusively for people who were characterized that way and who were the heaviest users of expensive public systems such as hospital emergency departments and jails. We only had to make offers to 79 people to reach the full capacity of 75.  Even though many of these individuals had previously turned down other offers of help, we came to understand that people hadn’t been rejecting a safe and stable place to live, they have been rejecting various kinds of “programs” that were going to tell them how to live their own lives. 

Another example of meeting people’s needs is DESC’s Navigation Center. It was largely created for people in Seattle who were living in established encampments and who weren’t responsive to offers of shelter and case management. The Navigation Center was designed to remove some of the barriers that kept people from accepting offers of help–and they accepted them. 

These examples alone strongly indicate that people do want better circumstances for themselves, and they will accept help when it is well-aligned with their needs. We have seen it over and over again.  

Yes, in order to offer something better to people a community has to create it. But evidence shows that it saves money in the long run, it is the right thing to do, and it actually achieves the aim that so many communities purport to want: getting people off the streets.  And isn’t that the ultimate priority?