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A lesson from our Executive Director - Jim Wheeler

Updated: Sep 30, 2020

Homeless Encampments in the Age of Pandemic

***In this post I reference the City of Bakersfield but I do not claim to speak for the City of Bakersfield nor it's policies. You may have noticed an increase in “homeless encampments” around town lately, or at the very least an increase in their visibility, that is if social media posts are any indication.

But is this true? Before I seek to answer that question, let me talk about “homeless encampments” in general. Homeless encampments are quite controversial even within the homeless service provider community. Some communities have embraced the idea of “sanctioned encampments” or “safe zones,” while others have been diligent about preventing them from developing. The idea of “sanctioned encampments,” “safe zones,” or other similar settings was conceived by those motivated to help people stay in a safer and more sanitary environment, without the risk of being arrested or cited. Sometimes these settings feature sheds or other structures, or provide areas for people to stay in their cars or RVs. Others simply provide places for people to sleep in their own tents or on mats. Some communities have created these environments as a voluntary option for people living in unsafe situations. In other cases, people living outside may be compelled to move to the designated locations through the threat of citation or arrest. Before communities make the decision to create such environments, it is important to weigh the costs and consequences of that action, and the impact on the community’s systemic efforts to end homelessness. (U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness – Fact Sheet May 2018) On the other side are those who say that encampments do not in fact make things better for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, but rather it entrenches them in their circumstances. Those that support this point of view basically have four objections to encampments. 1.) Encampments do not motivate people to move to shelter or stable housing situations and instead can unintentionally incentivize them to stay in the encampment, especially as more time passes. While all agree that encampments should be a temporary part of a community’s response to homelessness, once implemented they can prove difficult to close. I know this from first-hand experience as I discovered while working for the County of Orange. In 2017-18 a large encampment (or series of encampments) began to grow along the Flood Control Channel (also known as the Santa Ana Riverbed). The FCC encampment as we called it, ran along the 57 freeway near the Big A (Anaheim Stadium). At its greatest size, the miles-long encampment became home to over 700 people. When the County Supervisors made the decision to enforce the no camping ordinance on the books and to remove the encampment, we discovered that people had become dis-incentivized to leave. And why should they leave? Churches and the other charity groups were there providing food, clothing and other daily needs. Furthermore, they had created their own unique community with their own makeshift government. How we ended up removing the encampment should be a blog post of its own. Needless to say, several law-suits and tens of millions of dollars later, the County was finally able to remove the encampment.

2.) Encampments are generally costlier in terms of money and resources than other alternatives. Creating and operating a sanctioned encampment requires a significant amount of resources including funding, staff time and energy from both the private and public sectors. Those critical resources would be better used to focus on proven interventions that lead to stable housing and an end to a person’s homelessness. 3.) Often, sanctioned encampments are not safer, nor more sanitary and can be more difficult to manage and maintain. Without adequate sanitation facilities at encampment sites, health and hygiene can be almost impossible to maintain. Additionally, safety and security are a challenge as many people may be vulnerable to victimization and such communities can become targets for illegal activities, such as drug sales and human trafficking. 4.) Sanctioned encampments make it look like a community is doing something to address homelessness, but in reality, it has little impact on reducing unsheltered homelessness. Some communities, especially high-density urban areas are often motivated by the desire to do something, anything, to address the visibility of unsheltered homelessness. It seems logical for them to move people experiencing unsheltered homelessness out of high visible areas and to locations where they can be hidden and out of the way. But even then, there is never any guarantee that most people living on the streets will want to go to an encampment. Despite a lack of consensus about how best to deal with encampments, all agree that our increasing unsheltered homeless population continues to grow. What to do? In response, some communities have created more shelter beds, like our own (thankfully). At least in a shelter, people can become stabilized and begin the work of finding housing, in a safe and sanitary environment. Ultimately, the goal is to find enough housing resources so that an unsheltered homeless individual or family can move into stable housing as quickly as possible. Once people have been moved into housing, wrap around, supportive services cam be provided to help them maintain their housing. In fact, in Kern County, our housing retention rate is over 90 percent. Speaking for myself, as Jim Wheeler, I am not a big fan of encampments. I believe that encampments should only be allowed to exist if there are no other alternatives. Again, this is why I was such a passionate proponent of creating new shelter beds in our community. If you don’t want encampments you must have an alternate place for people to go. So, back to our original question. Has there been an increase in the number of encampments locally? possibly. However, keep in mind the number of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness has not likely increased significantly over the last few months. Are they more visible? Obviously! There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has issued guidance to federal, state and local jurisdictions about how to respond to encampments during the COVID-19 crisis. In a nut shell, CDC guidance is that unless individual housing units are available, encampments should not be cleared. This is because: “Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.” Early on, code enforcement from the City of Bakersfield met with Flood and other members of the Bakersfield-Kern Regional Homeless Collaborative (BKRHC) to discuss an appropriate strategy for addressing encampments during the pandemic. It was agreed that code enforcement would refrain from removing encampments unless the encampment was a danger to the community or was inhibiting a business from operating properly. This continues to be the practice as some encampments are necessarily being addressed. Second, while the number of encampments, may or may not have increased, the size of some definitely have. This clearly makes some encampments more visible. This is partly due to the fact that without major enforcement, people experiencing homelessness are less transient and are staying longer in each location. Be assured Flood staff is out on the streets responding to calls and concerns about encampments. This includes tracking their current locations for future removal, when the crisis has ended. We are working closely with City code enforcement to synchronize our efforts. With specific respect to encampments, Flood staff is on the streets everyday communicating to those residing in the encampments:

  • · the most recent information about COVID-19 being spread in their area,

  • · advice on how to avoid crowded areas if COVID-19 is circulating in their area,

  • · social distancing recommendations,

  • · hand hygiene instructions, cough etiquette instructions, and advice not to share personal items,

  • · how to recognize the symptoms of COVID-19 and what to do if they are sick,

  • · what to do if their friends, family, or community members are sick and how to isolate themselves if they have symptoms. Flood street outreach teams also continue to make referrals for food, water, hygiene facilities, and ongoing linkages to healthcare, behavioral health resources, and shelter placements. In the meantime, if you want to report an encampment or you want Flood staff to check on someone experiencing unsheltered homelessness you can contact our street outreach message line and leave a message. We will respond to your call as soon as possible and no later than 48 hours. That number is (661) 578-5354. Jim

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