First Study of Homeless Encampments Finds Lack of Affordable Housing to Be Key Driver
Rockville, Md. – As of 2019, homeless encampments were appearing in numbers not seen in almost a century. The growth of encampments mirrored the increase in unsheltered homelessness overall, reflecting a complex set of societal factors, including a lack of affordable housing and the persistence of deep poverty. Although encampments have implications for the health, safety, and well-being of the people living in them and can negatively affect the surrounding neighborhoods and businesses, communities have only a weak knowledge base on which to structure their response.
Exploring Homelessness among People Living in Encampments and Associated Costs, a new study conducted by Abt Associates for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is one of the first efforts to bolster that knowledge base.
After completing a literature review, the Abt team studied and interviewed officials in nine cities currently responding to encampments: Chicago; Fresno and San Jose, Calif.; Houston; Las Vegas; Minneapolis; Philadelphia; Portland, Ore.; and Tacoma, Wash. Additionally, in fall 2019, the team conducted site visits to Chicago, Houston, San Jose, and Tacoma to collect cost information on expenditures explicitly related to encampments, interview implementation partners, observe encampments, and interview a small number of encampment residents.
- People are living in encampment settings because of the lack of affordable housing opportunities in their communities. Researchers and stakeholders in the nine cities cited the lack of affordable housing and shortcomings in the local shelter systems, including insufficient beds or programs with high barriers for entry, as two reasons why people are living in encampment settings. Most people living in encampments have ties to their local community, having grown up in the city or immediate geographic area.
- In four cities, a diverse set of implementation partners worked to clear and close encampments while providing intensive outreach services. The Mayor’s office or other city departments typically coordinated the response of partners not traditionally involved in homeless assistance, including departments of solid waste and sanitation, transportation, and local environmental organizations. Homeless service providers visited encampments regularly to deliver outreach and case management services ahead of cleaning, clearing, and the ultimate closure of encampments.
- In 2019, four cities spent between $3,393,000 and $8,557,000 annually, on encampment-related activities. These expenditures include costs related to outreach, clearance and prevention activities, as well as emergency shelter costs and in one city, permanent supportive housing. In all four cities, the largest funder of encampment response activities is city government.
To support future encampment response efforts as well as assistance for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness overall, some cities are exploring and identifying other ways to fund their activities (e.g., special assessments and taxes). State and federal governments should also explore how to make more funding available for outreach to connect people with support services in addition to the funding for encampment clearance and closure activities.
“Homeless encampments are a complex issue that require cities to coordinate many partners across multiple levels of government in their response,” said Abt’s Lauren Dunton, the study’s lead author. “Ultimately, people living in encampments often don’t have access to permanent, affordable housing or the existing services and supports are not meeting their needs. While we conducted our research prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, these issues are even more heightened now.”
Dunton added, “This study offers some approaches that federal, state, and local governments can use to help people living in encampments.”
Read the full report here.
About Abt Associates
Abt Associates is a global consulting and research firm that uses data and bold thinking to improve the quality of people’s lives. From combatting infectious disease and conducting rigorous program evaluations, to ensuring safe drinking water and promoting access to affordable housing—and more—we partner with clients and communities to tackle their most complex challenges. https://www.abtassociates.com