The morning of the homeless encampment cleanup at the Lake City Mini Park brought the kind of chaos typical for Seattle’s forced removals. On a recent Thursday, more than a dozen people rushed through a maze of tents and makeshift structures with carts and crates, pushing and rolling away from the garbage truck whatever they had accumulated over the last 17 months.
A woman in a white Mercedes-Benz SUV, driving by the first clearing of the park since encampment residents settled in at the outset of the pandemic, honked and clapped her hands for the Seattle city staff dismantling the tents. The driver of a black Chevy Silverado honked another round of support moments later.
In many cities and suburbs nationwide, the tolerance by housed neighbors and business owners for homeless people remaining in place is over. After pulling back from almost all encampment removals in 2020, Seattle has now conducted at least 33 since March.
As the country has begun to reopen, metro areas from Portland, Oregon, to Manchester, New Hampshire, are implementing new camping bans, conducting new removals or grappling with the possibility of unsheltered homelessness as a permanent part of their landscapes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautioned against dispersing homeless people from where they were staying in tents and under tarps at the start of the pandemic — and still recommends against it if individual housing is not available — saying that people with no homes should still be able to shelter in place to avoid spreading the coronavirus. In King County, the vaccination rate for homeless people living outside lags far behind the general population.
But after more than a year of staying put, encampments are more visible and public outcry about the effects on parks, playgrounds and sidewalks has followed, increasing pressure on officials to act.
Karen stood in the center of the tents on the day of the Lake City removal, watching her daughter listlessly sort her belongings into piles. Over the past year, Karen, who did not want her last name to be published because of employment concerns, saw her daughter’s mental health deteriorate. She had tried to get psychiatric help for her, to no avail. The city arranged shelter space for her daughter during the removal’s outreach process, but the shock of displacement and losing her community, Karen believed, would hurt more than help.
“What the hell am I paying taxes for?” she asked, her voice rising. “For this? It’s just, it’s too much. And it shouldn’t be happening. We’re still in the pandemic.”
Cities changed by COVID
Pandemic-era supports like the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan Act funding bills, alongside federal and local eviction bans, have given many Americans a respite from the most extreme effects of poverty. An Urban Institute analysis published in late July projected a nearly 45% decrease in the number of poor Americans compared to 2018, though researchers warned the relief could end once those programs sunset.
But for those already living outside, conditions have only become more desperate during COVID-19. In Seattle, while many people living in homeless shelters moved to better accommodations during the pandemic, thousands of people in tents and cars were left to fend on their own outside as social service programs shuttered or limited their capacity. Many also feared going inside shelters, worried about the spread of the coronavirus, or how those spaces might exacerbate mental health issues.
As people remaining outdoors clustered around the scarce resources left behind, tent encampments swelled. One local study found a 50% increase in the number of tents in Seattle between the summers of 2019 and 2020.
In San Francisco, officials counted 649 tents citywide in January 2020. By June 2020, they estimated the number of tents at more than 1,400.
Smaller cities, too, saw encampments grow. In March, the Everett City Council passed what is commonly called a “no sit, no lie” ordinance in one area of the city, intended to break up a large encampment that had stirred complaints from local businesses for months. These types of laws are controversial and have spurred lawsuits around the country.
Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin said that the pandemic “sped up” the issue of unsheltered homelessness in the city when surrounding resources in other parts of Snohomish County shuttered.
Before, many people homeless near Everett lived out of sight in wooded, rural areas and would come into the city once a week or so, Franklin said, to get food and supplies. Now, scarcity of services has forced them into public view to meet their needs.
While Franklin was pushing for temporary shelters in a part of the city that had seen a growing number of tents, the council passed an ordinance banning people from otherwise congregating nearby.
“Thinking, OK, if we’re going to increase services again in this area of the city that has been most impacted, what can we do to help protect the people that live in that area of the city, the businesses that exist in that area of the city and just the kind of the general health and safety of the area,” Franklin said.
Sanctioned camping gets greenlight
Advocates and homelessness experts are troubled by the new wave of enforcement around homelessness — particularly if risk of disease transmission increases, and if the loss of personal possessions during removals makes it more difficult to stabilize people’s lives. A 2020 Seattle Times analysis showed the city took dozens of important personal belongings like medication, wallets and IDs the year prior.
Temporary shelter, too, still falls short of what is needed to move people off the street for good.
“The goal should be to get everyone into permanent housing,” said Ned Resnikoff, policy manager at the University of California San Francisco’s Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative. “If getting them sheltered doesn’t get you closer to that goal, then you actually haven’t solved anything.”
People with mental health or substance use disorders are often the hardest to get into shelter or housing and keep there, and are a growing part of the homeless population nationwide. Between 2019 and 2020, the federal government estimated that chronic homelessness across the country grew a shocking 15%, mostly outdoors.
In Madison, Wisconsin, where winter temperatures can fall to the single digits, the city of 260,000 is debating the future of encampment residents who made shelter in city parks during the pandemic. The city allowed for some encampments on a temporary basis, but in winter, ordered people camping in one unsanctioned park near downtown resources to vacate after the camp size dwindled and people started building fires to stay warm. The city planned to remove an encampment from another park this past spring, until some city lawmakers intervened.
Brenda Konkel, executive director of nonprofit Madison Area Care for the Homeless OneHealth, thinks that without affordable housing, encampments could become a permanent feature of the city, even with its cold weather. Some city politicians have proposed continuing the sanctioned encampments.
“In the past, the city never would have talked about a sanctioned encampment,” Konkel said.
Few places have paired a city’s blessing for sanctioned encampments in exchange for clearing the rest as closely as San Francisco, which began zealously clearing growing encampments four months into the pandemic.
The number of tents in San Francisco now falls below pre-COVID numbers, according to the city. The more than 1,400 tents across 75 encampments have dropped to 383 tents across nine encampments, according to Jeff Kositsky, manager of that city’s Healthy Street Operations Center.
Between March and June, the city created “safe sleeping sites” with bathrooms, hand-washing stations and electrical outlets in public spaces where people could bring their belongings without having to go into a shelter.
“And then it was like, go-time,” Kositsky said.
But the compromise Kositsky thought he had struck became uneasy. Advocates who supported the safe sleeping sites criticized the city’s push to clear unsanctioned encampments.
“We’re not trying to get rid of every tent in San Francisco,” said Kositsky, who will step down from his city role in September. “We are trying to deal with this intersection of people who are just trying to live their lives and people who are struggling to survive.”
Portland, too, has passed legislation that has paved the way for the creation of sanctioned encampments while tightening restrictions around public camping.
Fines, criminal penalties return
By late June, lawmakers in Los Angeles — the metro area with the second-largest homeless numbers in the country — voted to pass new anti-camping restrictions though advocates say the city still doesn’t have enough shelter beds for a homeless population of more than 63,000.
A month earlier, voters in Austin, Texas, had had enough and approved a ballot initiative to reinstate a ban on sitting, lying and camping in public spaces. In 2019, Austin’s city council had lifted the ban, arguing that moving people from place to place and cycling them through the criminal justice system did little to tackle the root issues around a lack of affordable housing.
A statewide bill signed into Texas law in June underlined the matter: Camping on public land would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $500 fine, and no Texas cities could decriminalize camping on public land.
Matt Mollica, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, the agency that coordinates Austin’s homelessness response, said returning to Austin’s earlier policies will just cost the city more without solving the problem.
“Our beds and our shelters are at capacity. Our housing programs are near or at capacity. And there’s no place for folks to go,” Mollica said.
Earlier this year, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-commissioned study found lack of affordable housing to be a main driver of unsheltered homeless. The same analysis found that four cities — Chicago, Houston, San Jose and Tacoma — spent between $3.93 million and $8.56 million a year on encampment removal activities, with Tacoma spending the most per unsheltered person.
There can be a wide range of what those activities entail, said study co-author and Abt Associates senior associate Lauren Dunton. As homelessness becomes more visible, many cities are adapting as they go along.
Yet some advocates have become concerned by what they see as local governments’ enthusiasm for encampment crackdowns without sufficient investment in housing.
“We did have hope that (the pandemic) was going to be a really transformative moment, that in the communities where people got significant numbers of people experiencing homelessness off the street, that people would realize, ‘Oh wow, when we do it this way, when we actually house people in individualized, dignified housing, there’s no problem with this so-called ‘service resistance,'” said Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center.
Some lawmakers and private companies in Seattle are currently raising money to do something in between — double the city’s number of individual tiny homes as temporary shelter in sanctioned villages, an idea that’s gained popular support in recent years.
Tiny homes are an idea Van My Tran, who owns two salons near Lake City Mini Park, can get behind. But in truth, she’s tired of it all.
Her revenues sunk during the pandemic and the Delta variant is her biggest stressor right now. But problems associated with the encampment made stylists and customers afraid to come in. Since the removal, she’s found some people sleeping behind her business and noticed new tents and structures pop up in a parking lot a few blocks away.
“I have to pay for my employees, for taxes, I have to deal with homeless people around, and I’m tired,” Tran said.
Karen’s daughter is back to living among the new tents Tran has noticed, nearly three weeks after the Lake City Mini Park removal, Karen said. Karen, too, is homeless — she works as a rideshare driver and is currently staying in a motel.
Her daughter has been caught up in the city’s forced removals before, but this was the first one Karen witnessed. It affected her deeply.
“Those people are dealing with some trauma,” she said, “that nobody who’s paid to care about the homeless is doing anything about.”