The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

The criminalisation of homelessness and informal settlements in US cities

Why do "squatters" in houseboats become residents, but campers in tents and caravans remain "homeless" and unwanted? In her second of three essays on America’s informal residents, Martha Bridegam describes a recent increase in criminalising legislation and policing against homeless and informally housed Americans but asks, is this a short-term backlash against changes in the nature of US housing?

Martha Bridegam

Martha Bridegam

Cities: Denver-Aurora, Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, Philadelphia, Sacramento, San Francisco-Oakland, San Jose, Seattle, Tampa-St Petersburg

Topics: Housing, Property, rights and evictions, Crime and security, Homelessness, Informal settlements

The United States has seen a recent striking increase in local laws and clearance campaigns against visibly "homeless" people — a category that, to Americans, includes residents of makeshift housing  such as those I introduced here last month. Infomal shelters were not the sole targets of these campaigns but group camps and some organised "tent city" communities did suffer raids and removals.

Headlines about backlash measures suggested that poor people had become more visible as users of public space. On the other hand, with mainstream news reports full of no-fault misfortunes, such as evictions of foreclosed borrowers' tenants, it seemed Americans might be attaching less moral blame to the loss of housing. There were hints of selective sympathy, especially for recently displaced people, those living in vehicles, and residents of orderly "tent cities".

Campaigns against visible poverty

As the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) reported in 2010, uses of public space by homeless people have been contested for decades through criminalising legislation and civil rights litigation. Civil rights precedents on the use of public space require that arrests be made only for discrete prohibited acts, not for characteristics such as lack of housing that were formerly defined as "vagrancy". To get around this, modern anti-homeless laws criminalise acts such as sleeping, sitting, trespassing (including sleeping in doorways), begging, drinking alcohol, erecting shelters, or sharing food.

But mid-2012 produced a special hail of punitive local ordinances and eviction sweeps against people described as "homeless". In May the city of Denver passed an ordinance against camping on public or private property. Camping bans are common nationwide, but Denver's ban was especially strictly worded and represented a sharp break from the city's prior level of tolerance. It banned "eating, sleeping, or the storage of personal possessions" in conjunction with any "shelter" consisting of tents, bedding, or "any form of cover or protection from the elements other than clothing." Although arrests had not been made under the law as of October, just its threat was said to be clearing usual camping areas, with homeless people being "driven underground".

In June USA Today reported on a national trend of punitive ordinances: the Denver law, talk of public space restrictions in upscale Ashland, Oregon, and a Philadelphia ban on food sharing programmes in parks — a ban defended in let-them-eat-cake style by Philadelphia mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald: "We think it's … much more dignified … to be in an indoor sit-down restaurant." From the Tampa Bay Times: laws were passed against sitting or lying on sidewalks and rights of way in parts of Clearwater, Florida.

San Francisco's Board of Supervisors passed a law prohibiting the parking of large vehicles on specified streets, ironically including some where inhabited RVs (caravans) have traditionally been herded by police. (A friend has described her first-hand experience.) Nearby Berkeley came close to passing a ballot measure in imitation of San Francisco's largely unenforced 2010 ordinance against sitting or lying on the sidewalk, but the proposal was narrowly defeated in the left-tending November 2012 election.

California's state highway agency, Caltrans, demolished camps in the towns of Vallejo and Los Gatos. In Sacramento residents have been evicted from generations-established campsites along the American River, in one case displacing approximately 150 people. A "cleanup" campaign on Los Angeles' notorious Skid Row included both much-needed waste disposal as well as destruction of campsites, sometimes including arrests.

But the September court ruling Lavan v City of Los Angeles, which arose from property destruction in prior Skid Row raids, presented a major advance by protecting campers' rights to possess "unabandoned" property left on the sidewalk, though the city still can and does dismantle campsites. And this October, activist attorney Mark Merin won payments for 1,143 past residents of Sacramento encampments who lost property in evictions dating back to 2005.

Compassionate demolition?

At the national level, responses to criminalisation vary substantially and, surprisingly, by agency. At the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), spokesman Brian Sullivan chose words carefully about local measures directed at homeless people. He said he didn't know if HUD had a policy on "sanctioning" or on "depopulating camps", but "the law enforcement approach doesn't answer the fundamental question about how are you going to house homeless people".

The Department of Justice (DOJ) contributed to a recent report on alternatives to criminalisation but has also funded a policing think tank, the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, that provides an intelligent but prejudice-skewed guide to removing "the problem of homeless encampments". It presumes that camps pose crime and safety hazards by and to "transients" and must be removed.

Given that the US Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) participated in the report on avoiding criminalisation, it was surprising to see the mayor of Fresno, California quoting approving comments from USICH director Barbara Poppe in a press release about a November 2011 camp removal.

The statement attributed to Poppe apparently responded to local officials' assurances that many displaced people had been or would be housed. It reads: "I applaud the City and its partners for focusing on the housing-first approach to addressing this issue and getting the public, private and nonprofit sectors aligned to services and housing to the men and women living in the encampments … The City and its partners have shown true leadership in energizing the community to respond in a way that is compassionate to individual needs and also makes sense for the greater community."

I heard about Poppe's comments from Paul Boden of the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), who headed the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness when I volunteered there as a lawwyer. He told me USICH confirmed the quote and provided further material from Poppe saying in part: "The costs associated with trying to ensure the safety, health, and well-being of people in encampments would be more strategically spent on housing."

At that, Boden's customary fluent profanity deserted him: he emailed a photo showing men in paper suits kicking down makeshift plywood homes (see photo gallery). He wrote: "Has she even looked at the HUD budget lately?"

That is, Poppe's comment presumed it is possible to get all campers into conventional housing — except it isn't. As Boden and WRAP point out persistently, HUD spending on housing construction and subsidies has been steadily far below the level of need since the cuts of the 1980s.

The man who took the demolition photo, homeless-rights campaigner Mike Rhodes, writes that Fresno authorities and NGOs have created some housing meant for homeless people, but nowhere near enough. During late 2011 his activist Community Alliance Newspaper chronicled an especially heavy series of multi-site demolitions in which bulldozers destroyed residents' structures and property. He wrote to me about Fresno authorities: "They see providing any public services to the homeless in these encampments as helping them to live in these degrading conditions, therefore they refuse to help."

Why the sudden visibility?

"Tent cities" became discussed as a rising US trend as long as three years ago. The National Coalition for the Homeless reported extensively on West Coast examples in 2010, calling them "America's de facto waiting room for affordable and accessible housing". Meanwhile its Twitter feed (a source for several items reported here) has been monitoring the nationwide backlash — including for example a Talent, Oregon, report about a sudden "homeless problem".

Homelessness isn't new since the global financial crisis. It had a long remission in the US from the Great Depression of the 1930s through the 1970s but substantially reappeared in the 1980s with the Reagan Administration's cuts in social support programmes. It became institutionalised a quarter-century ago: July 22, 2012 marked the 25th anniversary of the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the first federal law to dedicate major spending to homelessness, though it spends less than was cut from welfare and housing programmes.

City populations are now presumed to include a stratum of unhoused and underhoused people, described as "homeless", circulating among weekly-rental hotels, shelters, subsidised housing programmes and campsites. Homelessness is understood as a condition of life, even a quasi-ethnic social status or, in the case of "chronic homelessness", a housing status elided with medical diagnosis.

What is new is that homelessness has overflowed into public view from a system of services that, while they didn't end homelessness, managed for a generation to partially contain and routinise it.

Waiting rooms or living rooms?

It is beginning to seem optimistic to view informal communities as "waiting rooms". Moves toward legalisation of makeshift housing are already appearing as cities admit to the need. Unfortunately, some combine substandard conditions with the paternalism of traditional US shelters.

Rhodes is a long-term critic of one such complex in Fresno, Village of Hope, run by an NGO called Poverello House. It provides sleeping space in tool sheds without utilities. His 2004 photos of closely spaced sheds behind a wire-topped fence induce a slight shudder. Poverello House's website states the village is self-governing but Rhodes has written that homeless people tend to dislike the strict rules, which include a requirement to leave the site in daytime.

Similarly, town governments have experimented with legalised parking "programmes" for RVs. One in San Luis Obispo is limited to "only those people who commit to case management and remain drug-free and alcohol-free." In nearby Arroyo Grande the police reviewed applications for spaces in a small parking area. The police chief of Nevada City, California, began to issue permits to sleep in public.

A few camps of the autonomous type are hanging on, offering valuable chances to prove that people without money have no special need to be told how to live. After many past evictions, the large self-governing Nickelsville community in Seattle is being allowed to remain at a site on appropriately named Marginal Way. However the organisation still seeks legitimacy. A resident said the community is allowed to contract for portable toilet and garbage pickup service but the city will not help with those costs nor provide utilities — yet city service programmes sometimes refer people there to stay. Last year the Seattle Post-Intelligencer found 130 residents including children and pregnant women.

In Sacramento, the uniquely sophisticated and reportedly democratic Safe Ground initiative seeks refuges for campers on both public and private land. It has drawn national and international human rights attention. Significantly, a news report on City Council skepticism toward Safe Ground led with the question: "Should a group of homeless people be allowed to camp together in Sacramento without outside monitoring?" Currently lacking a main campsite, the organisation continues to search.

Better, but more elusive, is the possibility that unauthorised communities could become regularised as neighbourhoods, with residents accepted simply as townspeople. A heartening model is available in San Francisco: the houseboats along Mission Creek, a frequently polluted but picturesque channel in the same urban renewal area as the freeway camp I've described previously. Formed in the 1960s, the houseboat group has outgrown a past semi-squatter status that at one point saw an abrupt threat of 30-day eviction notices. The community has become more conventional in legality and lifestyle over time. It's now viewed as a chic bohemian enclave with no questions asked about residents' trustworthiness, though the group had to campaign fiercely for a while to stay put amid development.

Unfortunately, the houseboaters are distinct from poorer residents of RVs who parked around that shore until gentrification drove them out. A recent article on the colony underscored the class difference between houseboat residents and RV campers by saying of the houseboaters, "until recently, they were the only people out there."

As I'll discuss further in the next article, it remains to be seen whether informal community legalisations can be a means for residents to escape the irregular, second-class status of "homelessness" or whether such places risk becoming institutional holding areas where people wait for a chance at conventional affordable housing.

is a lawyer and writer in San Francisco with a history of volunteer advocacy for informally housed city residents. She tweets @mbridegam.

This is the second of three articles by on homelessness and informal settlements in the US. Read the first article on campers in San Francisco here, and the third article on the settlements demonstrating the dignity of informal housing here.