USICH Releases New Encampment Guidance for Communities

April 28, 2024
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A Message From USICH Director Jeff Olivet:

Housing is a basic human need, essential for the health of individuals, families, and communities. Yet people experience homelessness in every community in America, and homelessness has been steadily rising since 2016. Since I became executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) in 2022, I have witnessed the human toll of homelessness, which forces people to face the deadly and daily risks of hunger, disease, extreme weather, and violence. 

For people without homes, finding a safe place to sleep can be difficult or impossible. While many shelters are often doing their best, they cannot keep up with the need. And even when some shelters have space, many have strict rules that leave people no choice but to sleep outside. Some shelters require sobriety, locking out people struggling with substance use or mental health conditions. Others have fees or curfews that lock out low-wage employees who work overnight jobs. Some deny entry to people who identify as LGBTQI+, people with criminal records, and people who do not want to separate from their children, partners, pets, or possessions. For these reasons and others, many people form encampments for safety, survival, and connection to others. But while encampments can become informal communities where people lean on each other for support, their conditions can also be dangerous for the people living in them. 

Today, USICH released new guidance—19 Strategies for Communities to Address Encampments Humanely and Effectively—to help local leaders and community partners act with urgency to successfully and compassionately address the crisis of unsheltered homelessness. 

Legal Landscape

This guidance comes at a pivotal time when the U.S. Supreme Court is considering the case of City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson, which revolves around the legality of local laws that ban sleeping in public—even when people have no other option. In Grants Pass—a town of 39,000—the city had no shelter beds available for the hundreds who needed them. Despite that, the city made it a crime to use a blanket to keep warm or a rolled-up sweatshirt for a pillow in public. These laws target the mere existence of people without a home, and we see similar laws gaining traction in states and cities across the nation. 

The court will decide what is legal—but what is legal is not necessarily effective or right. Imagine being evicted, with no friends, family, or shelter to lean on, and having your community push you out of town instead of offering a helping hand. Just because a court allows local leaders to do something does not mean they should. A court ruling does not determine what is the best decision for a community or the people who live in it. 

Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules in the Grants Pass case, laws that make homelessness a crime are ineffective, expensive, inhumane, and far too often lead to unintended, even deadly, consequences. Criminalizing homelessness is often portrayed as a way to fix homelessness, but this “out of sight, out of mind” approach actually makes homelessness worse. It shuffles people experiencing homelessness from one neighborhood to the next, from one town to the next, and from streets to jails, where people acquire criminal records that make it even harder to access shelter, housing, and jobs. It creates a vicious cycle that traps people in homelessness. 

Furthermore, laws like the one in Grants Pass do not connect people to shelter or housing, and they do not address the systems that cause people to experience homelessness. Until communities address the root causes of homelessness—such as the massive shortage of affordable housing and the lack of access to quality health care—people will continue to experience homelessness.  

New USICH Guidance

The Biden-Harris administration has been working with state and local governments to help address this crisis in neighborhoods across America. HUD invested nearly half a billion dollars last year in first-of-its-kind grants and housing vouchers to help communities address unsheltered homelessness. The White House helped put the country on track last year to build more apartments than any other year in the last 50 years. President Biden asked Congress to invest $8 billion to expand housing options for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness, as well as guaranteed housing vouchers for every extremely low-income veteran and every young adult leaving foster care. The White House and USICH launched the ALL INside Initiative to deploy federal teams and embed federal officials in mayors’ offices where the number of people living outside, just like the cost of living, is high.

USICH’s new guidance was developed with input from people who have experienced homelessness, national partners, and experts from multiple federal agencies. This guidance focuses not only on helping people move off streets and into homes but also on preventing future encampments.

USICH believes that any action state and local governments take to address harmful conditions in encampments should use evidence-based strategies to collaboratively, equitably, and humanely make housing, health care, and other support available to all who need it. But when health and safety factors call for encampments to be closed before that happens, the process must be implemented in a humane and trauma-informed way, and the goal must be to connect every person to housing and services to help them overcome and avoid future experiences of homelessness. 

Homelessness Is a Policy Choice

Local leaders are caught in a dilemma. Many members of the public worry about the health, safety, and economic impact of encampments and want swift action. But the reality is that both shelter and affordable housing are often unavailable, and lasting solutions often take time. 

Solving this crisis is challenging. You are not alone. USICH’s regional advisors are committed to helping communities implement policies and programs that work and make the most of their resources.

Homelessness is a policy choice. When local leaders have a choice between passing bans on sleeping in public or investing in housing and services that help people move off streets and into homes, the choice is clear: Housing and support—not handcuffs—solves homelessness. 

Click to read the full guidance and the one-page summary.


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