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Report: What Clearing Homeless Encampments Costs Cities 

With unsheltered homelessness on the rise, homeless encampments are becoming more prevalent in U.S. cities, suburbs, and rural communities. This trend began prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and has continued during this time of economic hardship.  

While there’s no official definition of an encampment, most cities define it as a place where multiple people stay for a continuous time with built structures and personal belongings. Encampments vary in size–from a small group of people to a couple hundred–and their residents have a diverse range of ages, races, and genders. Most, however, are men with multiple barriers to housing. Encampments have negative implications for the health and safety of the people living in them and for neighboring businesses and residences.  

To understand why homeless encampments form, how cities respond to them, and the costs associated with those responses, Abt Associates conducted a study for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).  

The final report, “Exploring Homelessness Among People Living in Encampments and Associated Costs,” can help local, state, and federal policymakers and practitioners make more informed decisions about encampments.  

In 2019, Abt staff completed telephone interviews with key stakeholders in nine cities (Chicago, Fresno, Calif.; Houston; Las Vegas; Minneapolis; Philadelphia; Portland, Ore.; San Jose, Calif.; and Tacoma, Wash.) to learn about their encampment approaches. The Abt researchers then visited four of those cities (Chicago, Houston, San Jose, and Tacoma) to interview public officials, homeless service providers, and other encampment responders; observe encampments; and talk to people currently living in them.  

We also published community-level reports on ChicagoHoustonSan Jose, and Tacoma

All four cities were converging on a common response to their most visible encampments: “clearance and closure with support.” Using this model, cities removed structures and personal belongings, required residents to leave the location, and often erected physical barriers to prevent future encampments. These steps typically occurred after encampment residents received intensive outreach from local homeless service providers. The cities also created or expanded shelters with low-barrier entry to accommodate people leaving encampments. 

Here are some key findings of the report: 

  • Encampments often form because of a lack of affordable housing and because of shelter requirements that keep people from accessing them.  
  • Responding to encampments cost the four cities between $3,393,000 in Houston to $8,557,000 in San Jose. 
  • The cost per unsheltered homeless person ranged from $1,672 in San Jose to $6,208 in Tacoma–and was not highest in the cities with the largest unsheltered homeless population.  
  • Outreach for encampment residents cost the most, followed by clearing the encampments. 
  • City governments were the largest source of funding (usually more than 90%) for encampment responses. (HUD funds cannot be used for cleaning, sanitation, or policing activities related to encampments.) 

Read the full report.

This summary was written by Lauren Dunton, report co-author and senior associate for Abt Associates.