A Tale of Two Tent Cities: The Critical Role of Housing Engagement in Addressing Homeless Encampments
Local governments have essentially three choices in responding to the presence of homeless encampments. They can adopt a law enforcement approach, forcing individuals to move their camps on pain of arrest for trespassing. They can adopt an “out of sight, out of mind” approach, designating a specified area where homeless individuals are permitted to camp. Or they can adopt a housing engagement approach, treating the sanctioned camp as a housing-focused, low-barrier outdoor emergency shelter and working with homeless individuals to get them out of homelessness and into housing. The first approach does nothing to address the problem of unsheltered homelessness, and recent court decisions limit the ability of governmental authorities to pursue it. The second approach may be superficially appealing as a low-cost alternative, but experience demonstrates that it can entail significant hidden costs and create a toxic and poorly regulated environment. Moreover, it does nothing to reduce the number of individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness. By contrast, the housing engagement approach actually works to get people out of homelessness and into housing, substantially reduces the hidden costs of homeless “tent city” encampments, and promotes a pro-social well-regulated environment. Using the experience of Gainesville, Florida as a case study, this Article summarizes the outcomes achieved with the housing engagement approach—a 222-person encampment closed with zero arrests, less than ten percent dispersal into the local community, and 145 successful exits into permanent housing in less than two years—and identifies best practices for implementing a housing engagement model in responding to the problem of unsheltered homelessness.