The Homelessness Crisis is Getting So Bad That Cities Are Now Building Their Own Camps

Thousands of people sleep on the streets in Oakland, California. They pitch their tents in the Home Depot parking lot. They build elaborate tree forts. They park their bulky RVs in residential areas.

In the past, city officials might have torn down their temporary shelters and even arrested the homeless people living there. But many places around the country, Oakland included, have started homeless encampments themselves — or at least allowed people to occupy a small slice of land to make living outside more humane. Last month, Oakland designated a city lot where homeless people can park their RVs. And in late 2017, the city started providing heated, garden shed-like cabins with a door that locks and enough space for two people.

“It’s just to make things more manageable because it’s so bad in the streets,” said Joe DeVries, assistant to Oakland’s administrator and head of the city’s encampment management team. “We don’t have housing or shelter for everybody, and we have to create a less inhumane situation.”

In an attempt to combat a deepening homelessness crisis, other cities have instituted similar policies to Oakland’s. In February, city crews in Modesto, California, pitched 150 tents beneath a bridge and asked people to move in. San Clemente, California, designated a campsite for homeless people in May. And last year on the East Coast, Rochester, New York, quietly opened a small homeless camp.

The new accommodations don’t fix the lack of affordable housing at the root of the problem. And not everyone — especially residents who live near encampments that have burned down or seen outbreaks of disease — can see the benefits. But advocates and experts concede so-called “sanctioned” encampments — or those given legal permission to exist — are at least better than ignoring or trying to conceal the problem without offering any solutions.

“We should never accept that people live in camps — but at the same time we know that authorized encampments can be better for residents than being exposed on the streets,” Sara Rankin, associate professor and director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at the Seattle University School of Law. “They literally have nowhere else to go, and there isn’t a safe and legal place for them to be.”