Homeless encampments

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Stop the Sweeps PDX rally, 12/20/19. photo by Cory Elia

(1) Background

"Tent Cities in America: Pacific Coast" (NCH, 2010)

National Coalition for the Homeless (2010). Tent Cities in America: A Pacific Coast Report."

prefatory quote: 

“Tent Cities are American’s de facto waiting room for affordable and accessible housing. The idea of someone living in a tent (or other encampment) in this country says little about the decisions made by those who dwell within and so much more about our nation’s inability to adequately respond to those in need.”
  -Neil Donovan, Executive Director, National Coalition for the Homeless 

"Tent Cities in America, A Pacific Coast Report lays the groundwork for:
• Understanding the diversity and conditions under which tent cities are created
• Comparing various levels of community acceptance, regulation, and governance
• Advocating safe, legal, and effective methods and practices of encampment."

1st site profiled: Dignity Village, Portland Oregon
• Est. 2000 (Legally Recognized in 2001)
• Population: 60
• Location: Public Land / Urban Periphery / Permanent Site
• Regulatory Status: Leased Public Land with City Contract to Operate.
• Funding Source: The Community’s Own 501 c (3) Nonprofit
• Structures: Wooden structures measuring up to 10x15 ft. 

"Unlike other homeless encampments that are sponsored by local governments or outside nonprofits, Dignity Village’s model of complete self-governance and funding gives the homeless a unique sense of autonomy and ownership of their community. Having a permanent site (unlike other Pacific Northwest homeless encampments, which move to different churches every ninety days) furthers this sense of ownership and allows the homeless to make both tangible physical and social improvements to their community in a way that is not possible in a mobile community. Many of the homeless describe the village as a “stepping stone” to a better situation and the stability offered by the permanent nature of the village, which allows people to keep and store their items in one place, improve their residence and public assets, and be a part of a community that defines itself not simply as one of homeless people, but an eco-village and intentional community founded on socialistic and communal beliefs. All of this contribute to Dignity’s mission and sets it apart from the other encampments."

"Villagers see their model not only as a viable alternative to an overburdened shelter system, but as one with significant benefits that offer their residents the stability, autonomy, and a platform for a better life. The density, publicness, and tangibility of the village attracts non-profits, students, and service groups in a way to support homeless people that is unique to other homeless outreach work found in cities with dispersed homeless populations or with traditional shelter systems. While Dignity Village is no longer classified as a tent city, or even a homeless encampment, it is particularly relevant to this report as an evolutionary development that sprang from such a community ten years ago. The community consciously sees itself as a national and even international model; advocates and government officials from across the nation and world have visited to learn about the community. "


"Constructive Alternatives to Criminalization" report (USICH, 2012)

USICH. "Searching Out Solutions: Constructive Alternatives to the Criminalization of Homelessness." June 2012. 

from: Executive Summary:

"In recent years, the United States has seen the proliferation of local measures to criminalize “acts of living” laws that prohibit sleeping, eating, sitting, or panhandling in public spaces. City, town, and county officials are turning to criminalization measures in an effort to broadcast a zero-tolerance approach to street homelessness and to temporarily reduce the visibility of homelessness in their communities. Although individuals experiencing homelessness should be afforded the same dignity, compassion, and support provided to others, criminalization policies further marginalize them, fuel inflammatory attitudes, and may even unduly restrict constitutionally protected liberties. There is ample evidence that alternatives to criminalization policies can adequately balance the needs of all parties. Community residents, government agencies, businesses, and men and women who are experiencing homelessness are better served by solutions that do not marginalize people experiencing homelessness, but rather strike at the core factors contributing to homelessness. 

"the 2009 HEARTH Act charged the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) with “develop[ing] alternatives to laws and policies that prohibit sleeping, eating, sitting, resting, or lying in public spaces when there are no suitable alternatives, result in the destruction of property belonging to people experiencing homelessness without due process, or are selectively enforced against people experiencing homelessness.” "

Potential solutions include...Ensure 24-hour access to shelters and/or services that offer alternatives to living in public spaces and access to services that meet the basic needs of individuals experiencing homelessness in order to reduce visible street homelessness and contribute to reductions in homelessness."


"Welcome Home: The Rise of Tent Cities in the US" (NLCHP, 2014)

Hunter, Julie, and Paul Linden-Retek, Sirine Shebaya, Samuel Halpert (2014). "Welcome Home: The Rise of Tent Cities in the United States." National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, March 2014. https://nlchp.org//wp-content/uploads/2018/10/WelcomeHome_TentCities.pdf.



"Tent City, USA" report (NLCHP, 2017)

"The USICH, in its [2015] guidance, took a bright line approach that municipalities should never authorize or support encampments, because that diverts resources that could otherwise go to permanent housing solutions for the residents of those encampments. The underlying principle—that every American deserves fully adequate housing, and encampments are not an acceptable alternative to permanent housing, is a valid one. But the USICH’s stance is not realistic with the current shortage of affordable housing and the current need for housing. As one city official put it “we need to deal with the problem of where do people sleep tonight while we build the housing where they can affordably and permanently sleep for the long term.” Furthermore, the criminal justice approach that so many communities are adopting is more expensive than supporting encampments short term- diverting a larger amount of resources away from permanent housing solutions." (p.41)


"Housing Not Handcuffs" report (NLCHP, 2019 edition)

"In October 2019, following years of advocacy by local homeless organizers Denver Homeless Out Loud, the Denver City Council unanimously voted to allow 70 square foot tiny home communities in most of Denver.424 With a willing property owner, a tiny home “village” is permissible as a matter of right in industrial, commercial, and mixed-use areas. Church parking lots and residential areas can also host a village, and permits can be renewed yearly at the same location for up to four years, after which they village must move to a new location."


"Authorized Encampments:
As with emergency shelters, authorized encampments are not a permanent solution to homelessness. Housing is the only permanent solution. But safe and lawful homeless encampments can be a critical interim measure for helping to unhoused people while housing options are pursued. Local governments should develop constructive encampment policies, including designating a sufficient number of adequate areas where homeless people may safely and lawfully camp and store their belongings. To reduce harm to homeless residents and the surrounding communities, encampments should be provided with trash service, water service, and other necessary services, like toilets. In addition, local governments should develop constructive policies for addressing existing homeless encampments modeled on federal guidance and our Encampment Principles and Best Practices. At a minimum, state and local governments should develop policies for cleaning public places that do not displace homeless people from public lands, nor result in the destruction of their belongings, when there is no adequate housing alternative. Our Encampment Principles are available in Appendix B of this report."


(2) US legal precedents

Martin v Boise case


"'We in no way dictate to the City that it must provide sufficient shelter for the homeless, or allow anyone who wishes to sit, lie, or sleep on the streets . . . at any time and at any place.' We hold only that 'so long as there is a greater number of homeless individuals in [a jurisdiction] than the number of available beds [in shelters],' the jurisdiction cannot prosecute homeless individuals for 'involuntarily sitting, lying, and sleeping in public.' That is, as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter...As long as the homeless plaintiffs do not have a single place where they can lawfully be, the challenged ordinances, as applied to them, effectively punish them for something for which they may not be convicted under the Eighth Amendment." "Even where shelter is unavailable, an ordinance prohibiting sitting, lying, or sleeping outside at particular times or in particular locations might well be constitutionally permissible."


(3) Portland

HUCIRP - Homeless and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program 


"is responsible for coordinating cleanup/abatement of unsanctioned campsites on City and ODOT [Oregon Department of Transportation] owned properties/rights-of-way within the City while managing the City’s One Point of Contact campsite reporting system."  [City of Portland HUCIRP site]. 

The program staff pronounce it like "HUCK-urp."
We suggest "hue-SURP" - like "usurp."

HUCIRP Strategic Plan 2019-2021

• Continue to work with the Joint Office of Homeless Services, Multnomah County, and other jurisdictions on public space management strategies that reduce the need for campsite cleanup interventions which require the removal and storage of personal property.
• Implement a model of collaboration and cooperation with Portland Housing Bureau, Prosper Portland, OMF-HUCIRP, and property owning bureaus to identify underutilized City properties, or properties in pre-development stages, that could be used for alternative shelter purposes to provide lawful and organized places for people experiencing homelessness to sleep.



Stop the Sweeps PDX & related responses


Kaia Sand, executive editor of Street Roots newspaper in Portland, tweeted on Dec 17:

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty https://www.facebook.com/CommissionerHardesty/posts/450865485834942 December 20 at 3:58 PM ·

"I’ve heard concerns coming from community members around campsite cleanups and I feel it’s imperative to clarify that City Council has not made a decision to cancel the Rapid Response contract, nor did I or any commissioners advocate for that. I want to assure community members that I hear your fear that the services currently provided felt threatened they would be interrupted and assure you that they are not.

"Here is where I stand: I understand the trauma that comes from sweeps. I have heard the stories of how these actions affect the mental, physical and emotional well-being of houseless individuals. With that understanding I am not supportive of the way the current contract is laid out. It is too large and onerous a task to ask one group to provide services; including engaging with houseless community members, moving and storing their property, and cleaning up biowaste.

"What I would like to see is for the city to extend the current contract for 6 months while council reimagines a new set of contracts to meet the needs of our community. Rather than one large contract, I would like to see the responsibilities split between several contractors with more specific expertise.

"I want to thank Commissioner Eudaly for working with me to pull the item from the agenda so council could have more time for a more robust discussion on this issue, and the Mayor for working collaboratively with his colleagues and hearing their concerns.

"I appreciate that advocates, neighbors and the hard working people at the city, including those at the Homelessness/Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program are all working towards solutions to this complex problem and I am committed to working with all of you. Together we can address these concerns with compassion."  

See extensive comments thread on this post for various views from community.


and later..



Dec 21 initial proposal in Village Collaborative group

intially labled HUCIRP+ ("use-SUR-plus"):


"What if we proposed a response to Supreme Court ruling and Portland 'sweeps' contract dispute that would put the $4.5M entirely into a program to provide sanctioned campgrounds, meeting specified standards of adequate capacity & location and civil rights, etc, and would also employ residents to do [any remaining] impact-mitigation work? 
    Linking stop-the-sweeps to this is in conversation in Seattle, where Councilmember Sawant and a large group of faith leaders recently proposed to add 20 new tiny house villages: 

"The proposal above come from my mulling this week about Supreme Court upholding of Boise v. Martin ruling. I am starting to wonder if advocates with Stop the Sweeps PDX etc may be missing some of the legal implications, and also possibilities, of this situation. 

Cory's article [Elia, 2019a] says, "The demands by the Stop the Sweeps PDX group are a complete stop of the practice of sweeps in accordance with the 9th District Court decision of Martin v. Boise." 
   However, it is not at all clear that Boise v. Martin requires that.  The majority opinion says:

"Nor do we suggest that a jurisdiction with insufficient shelter can never criminalize the act of sleeping outside. Even where shelter is unavailable, an ordinance prohibiting sitting, lying, or sleeping outside at particular times or in particular locations might well be constitutionally permissible. So, too, might an ordinance barring the obstruction of public rights of way or the erection of certain structures."  -- https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/appellate-courts/ca9/15-35845/15-35845-2019-04-01.html

"Further, as argued by dissenting opinions in the ruling, and many of the amici curiae briefs filed by states' attorney generals and many cities & counties, lots of people don't see it as manageable, sensible, or acceptable to allow shelter on *all* public property. You might say, nor do the unhoused, who probably wouldn't, for example, think it sensible to sleep/camp in the middle of active roads, or allow others to. 

"Localities continue to have many legal & practical means to sweep encampments -- after all, the law didn't change this week, it was upheld. I don't see that they either have or will soon have either a legal mandate or enough public pressure, in most places, to stop all sweeps. 

"HOWEVER, local governments/officials do feel beset, confused, and under high scrutiny in these matters, and they sense they are facing a lot of costs one way or another in terms of 'cleanup' costs, policing, political risks of being seen as mistaken or ineffective, etc. Perhaps we can help them help us? 

"THEREFORE, I suggest that we, and Stop The Sweeps campaign etc, consider what alternative proposals could be better than the status quo, or the most acceptable, even favorable, if we projected that "stop all sweeps" is not attainable.  Thus for example the hypothetical proposal above for citywide campground / village system presented as a way for city to remain in complance with Boise v. Martin ruling. "



Proposal for test lawsuit against Portland camping ban

from Tim McCormick, Comment, January 31, 2020, on Facebook post by Cory Elia, inviting suggested questions to ask Mayor Wheeler at upcoming homelessness forum. [see: Street Roots, "Mayor to host Portland forums about homelessness." 31 Jan 2020]: 

"I'd ask, like Mike O'Callaghan's question: how could Portland create adequate, sanctioned, shelter and/or camping areas for all homeless residents, in order for the city's campsite clearances to be defensible against constitutional challenges following from the 9th Circuit's Martin v Boise ruling? For example, if Portland's camping-restriction ordinance were challenged in Federal court?

"You may be able to ask the Mayor this or some question, but it doesn't seem that these very managed public fora are much likely to shift the Mayor/City's policy on, say, sweeps. In terms of the classic Arnstein "Ladder of Citizen Participation" model, these fora are probably low on the ladder. But I imagine other efforts/strategies are in play, what are they and where are those conversations happening?

"As my question suggests, a strategy I might suggest [though I Am Not a Lawyer] is to develop a test case something like original Martin v. Boise case: find someone penalized by city's anti-camping ordinance, who undeniably endured harm during actions enforcing the ordinance, and faces concrete, imminent risk of harm from future such enforcement action. Then file suit in Federal district court against the city seeking prospective relief and a permanent injunction enjoying the City from enforcing the ordinances.

"Federal district court in Oregon is bound by 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rulings, ie Martin v Boise, so if we got to this point it might look like the suit had a chance to succeed and invalidate the camping ban. This might create sufficient leverage to make the City either suspend enforcement of the campsite ban, or modify the ordinance to meet constitutional muster, and possibly get the suit withdrawn.

"Note, I imagine that groups such as National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and ACLU and ACLU of Oregon are contemplating such legal strategies, and would know much more about it than my amateur legal hypothesizing does. I haven't yet seen anything from them along these lines, perhaps it's too soon after Supreme Court's denial of Martin v Boise appeal the other month.

"Reference: An action like the suit above would be a case of moving UP on "A Ladder Of Citizen Participation," described by Sherry R. Arnstein, 1969, in Journal of the American Planning. Association, 35: 4, 216-224."


Groups / leaders involved

Fight the Sweeps PDX (Facebook page)


Commissioner Joann Hardesty 




(4) Other cities





San Francisco


Washington D.C. 


from Metraux et al 2019. "An Evaluation of the City of Philadelphia’s Kensington Encampment Resolution Pilot."


(5) Guides/Proposals for encampment operation and response

Parr & Rankin (2018), Guide for Authorized Encampments.

Parr, Evanie and Rankin, Sara (2018). "It Takes a Village: Practical Guide for Authorized Encampments." Seattle University Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, May 3, 2018. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3173224.


Leilani Farha & Haseena Manek (2020)

Manek, Haseena, and Leilani Farha.  "The case for a human rights response to homeless encampments." ["Residents of informal settlements are not recipients of charity nor are they trespassers, criminals or deviants – they are rights-holders and experts in their own lives"]. Now Toronto, Feb 11, 2020. https://nowtoronto.com/news/homeless-encampments-toronto-canada/.

"What’s mystifying is the response to encampments by all levels of government.

"Instead of trying to address the situations through robust human rights-based strategies, they respond by committing yet another human rights violation: forcibly evicting people from their homes. For those experiencing homelessness, it’s double jeopardy. 

"Governments need to recognize that tent encampments are of their own making. It’s time to develop a national protocol on tent encampments based on human rights.

"What does that mean? Here are the fundamentals:

"A ban on forced evictions 

"Forced eviction, the permanent or temporary removal of a person from their lands or home – whether an apartment, a house, a tent or a car – constitutes a gross violation of international human rights law, particularly when shelters are at capacity. Laws permitting forced evictions should be repealed. And all viable alternatives to eviction must be explored in consultation with residents. 

"Meaningful engagement 

"Residents of informal settlements are not recipients of charity nor are they trespassers, criminals or deviants. They are rights-holders, and they are experts in their own lives. Any policies, programs or decisions that affect them should include their active and meaningful participation. Residents should be provided with the necessary resources and support to engage in discussions with government officials regarding their living conditions and arrangements.

"Access to basic services

"Conditions in encampments are often deplorable. Governments fail to provide basic services required for human dignity such as toilets, showers, garbage collection and electricity. Denial of these services not only infringes the right to adequate housing but also serves to entrench public stereotypes about those living in poverty and homelessness. The provision of these services should be mandatory.

"Housing over evictions 

"Where there is no viable alternative and eviction is required, it must be carried out in a manner consistent with international human rights law, which includes relocating residents to adequate, long-term housing with supports in the approximate location to the encampment or to another agreed-upon location. 

"A human rights foundation." [...].