Homeless Encampments Are a Growing Dilemma for Cities. Here's What Local Leaders Need to Know.
Last week, both the New York Times and the Washington Post had front page stories regarding municipal ordinances that aim to address homeless encampments. The prominence of these stories illustrates a rising tension among city leaders, homeless advocates, and federal officials when it comes to how cities confront the conflict, both perceived and real, between local businesses and individuals and families without a home.
The facts at the center of many of these cases revolve around whether there was available shelter on the night when an individual was ticketed for violating the municipal ordinance. Unfortunately, in many instances, neither side can offer evidence that documents whether shelter was available or offered.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released a policy brief summarizing how communities could best implement coordinated entry systems. Proactively integrating law enforcement with homeless service providers and the community’s assessment and housing placement system provides city leaders with the opportunity to affirmatively document their interactions.
Cities would be well served by taking the additional proactive step of outlining in advance how they will handle homeless encampments. By codifying who they will work with and what resources they will utilize prior to addressing situations, cities can develop rules to guide their actions in situations that have historically been criticized for their lack of transparency and foresight.
To support cities learning from each other on this topic, NLC has recently published a review of an Indianapolis ordinance that offers a framework for action.
While recognizing that city leaders could do more by taking these steps, local governments need the authority to make policies that balance the needs of their diverse constituencies — including the homeless, businesses, community organizations, and others. In addition, it is critical that we place these ordinances in their proper context.
Despite being on the front line of community issues like homelessness, local leaders cannot adequately address these issues without the support of their county, state, and federal government partners.
Recent reports have once again documented what every city leader knows – there is not enough affordable housing for low-income residents. The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) shows “a shortage of 7.2 million affordable and available rental units for the nation’s 10.4 million extremely low-income renter households.” Furthermore, NLIHC shows that renters need to earn $20.30 per hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment.
The ability of local leaders to address this crisis is limited when state officials, through action or inaction, prevent cities from raising or accessing resources. Many cities are constrained by tax and expenditure limitations, which can restrict their ability to set their own property or sales tax rates. In addition, many states have refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which could unlock millions of federal dollars that local partners could use to pay for supportive services for the homeless.
Coupled with a lack of both resources and consistent investment from federal partners through annual appropriations, municipal officials are left in the position of not being able to implement known best practices.
City leaders may be well-served to harness the concern of local business leaders by developing tools that can help homeless service providers, such as landlord incentives or move-in kits – but before local officials are scapegoated for favoring one constituency over another, we must ensure they have the full support they need.
Failing to do this is a detriment to the collaboration that is necessary to make humane progress on encampments, as they become a tragic reality in more and more urban spaces.
About the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.