Denver, CO

U.S. cities spend millions disrupting homeless like Denver

David Heitz

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Just like Denver is doing, cities across America are spending millions chasing homeless encampments around town. No sooner do they disrupt one settlement, which the CDC says assists in COVID transmission, and a new tent city springs up down the road a day later.

It’s a futile practice that creates misery for everyone. There is no way to make the encampments disappear without giving those experiencing homelessness shelter. Shoo-ing people from encampments is like trying to squeeze the air in a balloon. A new bulge of encampments will just appear elsewhere.

Encampment sweeping is a multi-million-dollar enterprise, often with sky-high labor costs that include overtime for unionized city workers. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently undertook a study to a put a price tag on the problem.

San Jose puts nothing toward housing, Tacoma spends $2.3 million

They found that just four U.S. cities threw $20 million at the dehumanizing sweeps in 2019 alone. Cities often pay employees overtime in the pre-dawn sweeps to seize belongings like blankets from the displaced individuals.

Each city’s expenditure broke down like this:

Chicago, $3,572,000, unsheltered population of 1,260, $2,835 spent displacing each unsheltered person. Of the millions spent, $297,000 went to shelter.

Houston, $3,393,000, unsheltered population of 1,614, $2,102 spent displacing each unsheltered person. Of the millions spent, $782,000 went to permanent housing.

Tacoma, $3,905,000, unsheltered population of 629, $6,208 spent displacing each unsheltered person. Tacoma dedicated $2.3 million to shelter, however.

San Jose, $8,557,000, unsheltered population of 7,922, $1080 spent displacing each unsheltered person. Of the millions spent, nothing went toward sheltering people experiencing homelessness.

Preventing formation of the homeless camps

HUD has some ideas for better understanding how to prevent the formation of the urban campsites.

“Further exploration should be done on approaches to prevent the formation of encampments, including ones that reach out to and serve encampment residents by building on neighborhood and community strengths,” the authors of the study observed. “This approach could be coupled with enhanced engagement with people who have recently lived in encampment settings. Their perspectives and feedback could offer insight into what assistance would be most helpful both to help people leave encampments and to prevent their formation.”

The study stresses that people who live in encampments are a subset of the homeless population. Little is known about them because there’s not enough data about this demographic. It leaves those struggling to assist people living in encampments with a challenging task because they don’t fully understand their needs.

“Based on the limited data available, people living in encampment settings sometimes have complex needs that can make it challenging to help them access shelter or housing,” the study reports. “Some cities report high levels of mental illness among encampment residents but also note that severe mental illness may be lower among encampment dwellers than among people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in more isolated settings.”

Denver spending hundreds of thousands on sweeps

The city of Denver also is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on sweeps. A community group made an open records request and tallied bills associated with the cleanups, such as wages for city employees and contracts with private companies. They learned the city spent at least $147,000 on seven of the cleanups last year.

The community group Homeless Out Loud said they believe the number of sweeps in 2021 already is triple what occurred last year. They currently are in the process of tabulating costs.

Encampments offer community, shelters offer fighting

The encampments tend to form around groups with similar backgrounds and interests, be it drugs of choice, level of education, sexual orientation, or something else.

“Because of the sense of community offered in an encampment, some encampments have people with similar needs or characteristics,” HUD explains in their report. “Some encampments are composed of specific racial or ethnic groups, often reflecting the demographics of the surrounding neighborhood."

The study found that in 2019, homeless encampments were sprouting across America at rates not seen in 100 years.

“Today’s encampments, mirroring the increasing numbers of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, seem to reflect a complex set of factors: the persistence of deep poverty and chronic homelessness; lack of affordable housing; a shortage of shelter beds and, in some places, shelter rules; wage stagnation; large numbers of people who have been incarcerated; and substance use,” the HUD report found. “Local policies and the availability of resources and capacity to develop systems that serve homeless people can affect how commonly people experiencing homelessness choose to stay in encampments rather than enter shelters.”

The study drills down on why people choose encampments over shelters. “Homelessness is primarily a housing affordability problem, reflecting income levels that fail to keep up with rents and insufficient levels of housing assistance in certain cities,” the authors explain. “Homelessness typically is triggered by a crisis, and once the crisis is resolved, many people regain stable housing.

“Additional factors may explain why more people are choosing to stay in encampment settings: addiction issues; lack of mental health treatment; a lack of knowledge about resources to assist people experiencing homelessness; past involvement with the criminal justice system, and the greater perceived safety, anonymity, autonomy, and social supports offered by encampments compared with shelters.”

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best newspapers in the country. Today, I specialize in Denver local news, health reporting, social justice issues, addiction/recovery/mental health news, and topics surrounding homelessness and human trafficking.

Denver, CO
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