Solving Unsheltered Homelessness

On any given night, there are over half a million people experiencing homelessness in America, including 36,000 unaccompanied youth.

According to the recent The State of Homelessness in America report, over one-third of all homeless people are living unsheltered on the street, in cars or in other places unfit for human habitation. While most Americans experiencing homelessness can find shelter at local emergency and transitional housing facilities, or with family and friends, the number of unsheltered individuals and families has increased for the third year in a row.

This recent uptick in people living in unsheltered places has very visibly manifested itself in the growth and proliferation of homeless encampments in cities across the country. Not surprisingly, an intensification of concern and scrutiny has arisen, surrounding the efficacy of policies aimed at creating positive outcomes for encampment inhabitants, and mitigating the real and perceived negative impacts of unsheltered homelessness upon the broader community.

Many cities have over-relied upon the use of their policing powers to enforce both criminal and civic prohibitions against living on the streets. While the federal government had been escalating pressure on local policymakers to reduce the criminalization of homelessness, in favor of  practices that quickly connect people to housing, the Trump administration, in recent months, has touted the merits of increased police activity as a way to reduce homelessness.

The Criminalization of Homelessness  

Indeed, many people experiencing homelessness view encampments as safer, more accessible and pragmatic arrangements than living alone on the streets or in emergency shelters. At the same time, other community residents consider homeless encampments to be nuisances, due to the prevalence of vandalism, unmanaged human waste, litter, drug use, pests, disease, violence and other public dangers emanating from these semi-permanent settlements. Local governments, under political pressure from community stakeholders to eliminate these nuisance factors, have responded by passing and enforcing laws that effectively criminalize homelessness.

As a result, local bans on public camping, sleeping, sitting and laying down, loitering and vagrancy, panhandling, and living in vehicles have increased dramatically within the last decade. Violation of these laws and ordinances also frequently results in arrests and fines for homeless individuals and in some cases, banishment from entire communities and public spaces. Trespass and disorderly conduct laws have also been used to evict persons from homeless encampments.

While these and other enforcement strategies may temporarily assuage public outcry against homeless encampments, they do not appear to work as therapeutic and cost-effective long term solutions for the unsheltered homeless. In fact, in the absence of a complimentary policies that emphasize the provision of a sufficient quantity of shelter and crisis services, enforcement activity alone may make conditions worse.

Housing First

Despite recent year over year increases, there were 11 percent fewer people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in 2018 than there were in 2007 and approximately 13 percent fewer experiencing homeless in general. The Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homeless attributes much of this progress to the focused and collaborative effort of communities to embrace Housing First practices.

The housing first approach seeks to end homelessness by providing immediate permanent housing without preconditions to people experiencing homelessness. Overlaid on this foundational provision of shelter is a suite of voluntary supportive services to help people experiencing homelessness succeed in living better lives.

Included in Housing First are rapid re-housing strategies which provide quick off-ramps for individual and families to exit homelessness in the form of short-term rental assistance and services. Such assistance may include payment of first month’s rent and security deposits, temporary rental subsidies and other short-term interventions.

In contrast to approaches that mandate participation in services such as addiction counseling, mental health, and employment programs as a condition of housing, the housing first approach recognizes each person experiencing homelessness as being housing-ready from day one of homelessness. The approach also effectively challenges community stakeholders and local, state and federal governments to ensure that shelter is available for the entirety of America’s homeless population.

Where Cities Stand

Differences over these approaches have sharply divided stakeholders including local leaders, homeless advocates, public health experts and law enforcement, as well as the judiciary. Earlier this year, following an initial round of litigation in lower courts, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that criminalizing unsheltered homeless people for sleeping on public property, on the false premise that other housing options are available, runs afoul of Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishments.

From the perspective of cities and NLC, however, finding a solution to unsheltered homelessness isn’t simply a question of housing versus law enforcement. Unsheltered homelessness is a complex problem for which cities need maximum flexibility to address with a wide variety of resources and approaches. Cities need more tools, not fewer, particularly now during this time of crisis in housing affordability and homelessness.

More can be done to improve the lives of Americans experiencing homelessness, including:

  • Addressing the root causes of homelessness;
  • Developing a national housing policy;
  • Linking federal transportation funding to housing production; and
  • Reforming land-use and zoning regulations that lead to inflated land prices and hinder the production of affordably-priced housing units.



About the Author: Terrah W. Glenn is the Senior Associate for Housing within NLC’s Center for City Solutions. In addition to pursuing dual Master’s degrees in the fields of urban and regional planning and landscape architecture, Terrah works on the Center’s full range of research priorities with special emphasis on the areas of affordable housing, urban innovation, sustainability, and economic development.