As communities struggle with outdoor homelessness, more and more are looking to Ohana Zones as they are called in Hawaii, sanctioned tent cities as they may be called elsewhere. In some communities these are strictly for single adults, while other communities consider these for families with children. Some have premade structures and tents, while other communities require people to bring their own tent or create their own structure. Some are service rich environments with professional staff onsite, while others allow the campers to self-govern. Some have running water and other amenities onsite, while others rely on bottled water and portable toilets. The truth is, there is so much variation it is difficult to provide a comprehensive outline of exactly what constitutes a sanctioned place such as these, other than to say government allowed, encouraged or created it.
Let us look at this critically. I have six questions:
1. Does a sanctioned tent city solve street homelessness?
A sanctioned tent city does not take care of street homelessness in the way that many proponents would like. These are not jails or prisons. You cannot force people to stay in a tent city - sanctioned or otherwise. Yes, you may have some people who were living on the street make use of them. You will still have unsheltered homelessness outside of the sanctioned tent city. The response to this from communities is often along the lines of, “We will enforce existing laws making it very difficult for anyone to stay anywhere other than the sanctioned site.” So, you increase police and court costs and still have very vulnerable people who will refuse to use the sanctioned tent city. And then you have a public relations nightmare on your hands because you spent so much on the sanctioned tent city and expended political capital to put it in place and the general public still sees people staying outside.
You may also have the unintended consequence of having other people who had been precariously housed gravitate to them, or have people exit bricks and mortar shelter to live in the tent city.
2. Isn’t it a cheap fix?
In most instances sanctioned tent cities are expensive to operate. If it is professionally run and operated there are the infrastructure costs and staffing costs. This quickly gets into the millions in community after community and doesn’t actually solve the problem of inadequate supply of bricks and mortar shelter or affordable housing. If it is not professionally run and operated there are still the possibilities of infrastructure costs, but also the increased likelihood of policing costs to address unfortunate instances on the site. People living in congregate settings tend to have conflict.
3. What’s the end game?
There is no end game in sight once sanctioned sites start because communities are not concurrently investing in and/or creating the housing supply that would get the community to the place where the sanctioned sites are not needed. If a community envisions people transitioning through the sanctioned site then there needs to be a concurrent strategy and action plan in place to get people housed out of the sanctioned site. Most sanctioned sites have a fixed size. What is the plan when the current Ohana Zone fills up? Create another one?
4. Who is served?
The population aimed to be served is remarkably acute and complex. If the intention is to serve those that would otherwise be unsheltered, a sanctioned camp likely needs a staffing compliment that surpasses that which is found in a typical shelter. Why? Because study after study shows that unsheltered persons are generally sicker, less connected to services, and have a shortened life expectancy. Go ahead and check out Montgomery et al. Homelessness, Unsheltered Status, and Risk Factors for Mortality Public Health Rep. 2016 Nov-Dec; 131(6): 765–772 or Cheung AM, Hwang SW. Risk of death among homeless women: a cohort study and review of the literature. CMAJ. 2004;170(8):1243–1247 or Cousineau MR. Health status of and access to health services by residents of urban encampments in Los Angeles. J Health Care Poor Underserved. 1997;8(1):70–82 or Hwang SW, Lebow JM, Bierer MF, O’Connell JJ, Orav EJ, Brennan TA. Risk factors for death in homeless adults in Boston. Arch Intern Med. 1998;158(13):1454–1460 or Stergiopoulos V, Dewa CS, Tanner G, Chau N, Pett M, Connelly JL. Addressing the needs of the street homeless. Int J Ment Health. 2010;39(1):3–15 or Levitt AJ, Culhane DP, DeGenova J, O’Quinn P, Bainbridge J. Health and social characteristics of homeless adults in Manhattan who were chronically or not chronically unsheltered. Psych Serv. 2009;60(7):978–981 or Nyamathi AM, Leake B, Gelberg L. Sheltered versus nonsheltered homeless women: differences in health, behavior, victimization, and utilization of care. J Gen Intern Med. 2000;15(8):565–572
Better to invest in professional street outreach services with connections to permanent housing and integrated with health care.
5. We spent a long time making mistakes that led to wanting a sanctioned tent city. Shouldn’t we double-down?
The need for expanded shelter services did not happen overnight. It would appear as though someone was asleep at the switch in long-term homeless system planning, or there was a lack of appetite to invest strategically along the way to prevent the need for a quick fix. Let finger pointing begin on whose fault that was.
6. What should we do instead?
I get it. You have acute needs. The community is bursting at the seams with homelessness. You need housing, appropriate permanent shelter, professional staffing, and a plan. Most sanctioned tent cities are an idea in search of a comprehensive strategy. Yes, the thought of doing the right things comes with a hefty price tag, but compare that to the hollow outcomes and expense of providing sanctioned campsites, and it is a no-brainer.