Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Homeless Encampments

Guide No. 56 (2010)

by Sharon Chamard

The Problem of Homeless Encampments

What This Guide Does and Does Not Cover

This guide addresses homeless encampments, also known as transient camps. It begins by describing the problem and reviewing factors that contribute to it. It then identifies a series of questions to help you analyze your local problem. Finally, it reviews responses to the problem and what is known about them from evaluative research and police practice.

Homeless encampments are only one aspect of the larger set of problems related to homelessness, street life, and public disorder. This guide does not cover all aspects of homelessness, only those that pertain to the small proportion of homeless people who live in encampments. Throughout this guide, the term "transient" is often used to refer to this small group. Further, it addresses only the particular harms created by homeless encampments, not the issues commonly associated with homeless people. These related problems, each of which requires separate analysis, include:

  • chronic public intoxication,
  • panhandling,
  • loitering,
  • trespassing,
  • shoplifting,
  • drug dealing,
  • mental illness, and
  • disorder at day laborer sites.

A discussion of the broad economic and social conditions that give rise to homelessness and to homeless encampments is beyond the scope of this guide.

The Philosophical Debate on Chronic Homelessness

Dealing with homeless people living in encampments can be fraught with moral danger. Few people would argue that the police should do what they can to reduce burglary or car theft. Yet there are many strong and organized advocates of the chronically homeless. Some believe chronic homelessness is a lifestyle choice and, as such, should be protected by law. Others claim it is a consequence of socio-economic factors, such as high unemployment and the lack of affordable housing, or that the chronically homeless are victims of abusive childhoods, addiction, or mental illness. In any event, they oppose criminalizing what they perceive to be a status beyond a homeless person's control. Still others object to the "criminalization of homelessness" because it violates fundamental constitutional rights, in particular those codified in the First, Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments.

On the other hand, problems associated with transients and their encampments can often lead business owners and residents to demand the police use traditional, and perhaps somewhat punitive, law enforcement methods to solve them.

It is important to be aware of the fundamental differences in people's beliefs about chronic homelessness (put simply, the homeless are victims who need society's help to recover versus the behaviors of homeless people drain public resources and damage the community) because how the problem is defined determines what is considered to be an "effective strategy." †

† See Harcourt (2005) for a fascinating discussion of the conflicts between owners of single room occupancy (SRO) hotels and real estate developers in Los Angeles' skid row.

General Description of the Problem

What are homeless encampments?

The term "homeless" refers to someone who is usually poor and frequently on the move from one temporary dwelling situation to another. Many slang words are used to describe such a person: transient, squatter, hobo, bum, vagrant, and vagabond. Homeless encampments take a variety of forms: tent cities; groups living under freeway overpasses; and groups sleeping in parks, in skid rows (urban areas with concentrations of poverty and dilapidated buildings), in subway tunnels, on sidewalks, etc. One person setting up shelter in such a location does not constitute an encampment. Studies show homeless encampments vary in size. Some, particularly those in the woods, can be fairly small with only a few campers. Those under freeway overpasses and in urban vacant lots and parks may be larger, with some reportedly having 100 or more people. Shelters in homeless encampments range from lean-tos made of cardboard, to tents, to more elaborate structures—in one case including French doors, a skylight, and a picture window.1 Obviously, the more established the encampment, the better constructed the "housing" is likely to be.

Homeless encampment in woods

Some encampments, particularly those in the woods, such as the one shown above, can be fairly small with only a few campers. (Photo credit: Myrtle Beach Police Department)

Who lives in homeless encampments?

To understand who lives in homeless encampments,†† it is useful to begin with the entire population of homeless people and whittle it down.

†† The behavior in question is known as "sleeping rough" in the United Kingdom.

It is important to realize that although people living in homeless encampments are homeless, most homeless people do not live in homeless encampments. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) classifies homeless people in two broad categories: sheltered and unsheltered. A "sheltered" homeless person lives in an emergency shelter or transitional housing. This includes domestic violence shelters; residential programs for homeless or runaway youth; or a hotel, motel or apartment paid for with a voucher provided by a governmental or private agency because the person is homeless. An unsheltered homeless person lives in "a place not meant for human habitation, such as cars, parks, sidewalks, abandoned buildings, or on the street."2 About 44 percent of homeless people are unsheltered.3 Unsheltered homeless are usually single men, who, unlike homeless families, are less likely to live in emergency shelter, transitional housing, or permanent supportive housing.4

Another categorization of homelessness is whether the status is temporary (due to an eviction, prolonged unemployment, job layoff, or domestic violence) or chronic. The federal definition of chronically homeless is an "unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has either been continuously homeless for a year or more or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years" (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development , 2008b:15). About 18 percent of the total homeless population (unsheltered and sheltered in emergency shelter) is considered chronically homeless, and, of those, two-thirds are unsheltered. In other words, an estimated 12 percent of the United States' homeless population, or close to 83,000 people, is unsheltered and chronically homeless.5

This relatively small group of homeless people may end up in homeless encampments because they have exhausted all resources available to them or their conditions (e.g., drug use, alcoholism, criminal record) hinder them from using them (shelters, for example). Others may have chosen the lifestyle because it frees them from competing in a consumerist society, or because it is better than previous living arrangements.6††† However, most residents of homeless encampments say they would prefer to live in a more conventional way with their own room and a job.7

††† For a reasoned and practical discussion of the causes of homelessness and policies for solving the problem, see Jencks (1994).

Compared with the general population, people in homeless encampments are more likely to be male, older, and a minority.8 A significant number of transients living in encampments are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and a sizable portion are also mentally ill ("dually diagnosed").9

Panhandling is one way homeless encampment dwellers make money, but more work at odd short-term jobs, such as street vending and day labor. Collecting cans or bottles is also common. Relatively few receive public benefits. A very small number engage in prostitution.10 The relationship between crime and transients is discussed later in this guide.  

Harms Caused by Homeless Encampments

Problems associated with homeless encampments fall into three categories: impact on the homeless population, impact on the environment, and impact on the larger community.

Impact on the homeless population

Unhealthy encampment conditions.Conditions in homeless encampments can be dangerous to health. Garbage attracts rodents and other vermin. Food cannot be stored, and dishes cannot be washed properly, facilitating the spread of food-borne diseases. Depending on a camp's location, some residents might use portable toilets or public facilities, but most are likely to use an outdoor location. Poor hygiene contributes to dental and skin problems.11 Other environmental hazards, such as batteries and fuels, are used for heating and cooking.12

Most people who live in homeless encampments lack health insurance, but they frequently have chronic physical and mental health conditions that require ongoing medical attention.13 Barriers to seeking routine medical care lead many to the emergency room for non-emergency care. There is some indication that tuberculosis and sexually-transmitted diseases are of special concern.14 Many transients living in encampments report addiction to drugs or alcohol.15

Victimization of the chronically homeless. Not much is known about victimization among this population because they are not included in large-scale household-based surveys, such as the National Crime Victimization Survey. Official data, such as the National Incident-Based Reporting System and the Uniform Crime Reports, typically do not include victims' housing status. Further, specific information on victimization of chronically homeless people who live in homeless encampments is based on case studies of particular jurisdictions or is anecdotal.16

However, smaller studies paint a troubling picture. The chronically homeless report high rates of child and sexual abuse that occurred before they became homeless. Further, once homeless, the population continues to be victimized at a rate about twice that of the general population. Chronically homeless people are also more likely than the general population to be victims of crime against the person than property crime. These patterns are particularly true for chronically homeless women; one British study found that 95 percent of chronically homeless women had been victimized compared with 75 percent of men.17

Chronically homeless people are victimized by the public and by their peers.18 Violence against the homeless committed by non-homeless offenders appears to be increasing even while violent crimes are generally decreasing.19 Many of these incidents are beatings. Over the nine-year period from 1999 to 2007 in the United States, 217 homeless people were killed by those who were not homeless.20

Despite the notion that homeless encampments are safe havens for those living an otherwise rough or unconventional life, these camps can be venues for serious violent crime. In November 2008, five people in a Long Beach, California, encampment were shot to death21, and one man was fatally stabbed at a homeless camp in Tucson, Arizona.22 A homeless encampment in a wooded area off a freeway in Orlando, Florida, was the site of three homicides in the 10 months between October 2006 and August 2007.23 In Sacramento, California, in September 2008, two men were murdered within hours of each other in a "well-established homeless camp" near some light-rail tracks.24 Other research found that the incidence of victimization by strangers was lower for the homeless population (16 percent)25 than for the general population (which ranges from 28 percent to 89 percent depending on the type of violent crime).26

Impact on the environment

In addition to concerns about the hazardous materials mentioned above, which potentially harm both the transients and the surrounding environment, inadequate human waste disposal at large encampments along rivers can pose a hazard to the water supply of nearby communities.27 Another hazard linked to homeless encampments is fire. Residents of homeless encampments turn to wood stoves and camp fires for heat and cooking. If left unattended (typically by intoxicated transients), these fires can become out of control and burn down camp structures and injure people. Larger fires can spread to more populated areas and damage buildings and infrastructure. More significantly for the environment, these fires may kill animals and vegetation and destroy their habitats. Although most wildfires are started by people, there are no data on how many of those are started specifically by transients.

Wilderness areas are further damaged through abusive camping practices, such as cutting down trees and leaving garbage on site.

Impact on the larger community

Criminal activity by the chronically homeless. Numerous studies have pointed to a strong relationship between homelessness and criminality. Yet contrary to popular opinion, the typical chronically homeless person is not a hardened violent felon, but someone with a disproportionately high arrest rate for crimes such as public intoxication, petty theft, and trespassing.28 The longer someone is unsheltered and chronically homeless, the more involved he or she becomes in criminal behavior, largely due to the increased use of "non-institutionalized survival strategies," such as panhandling, street peddling, and theft.29 Chronically homeless people who are mentally ill are arrested more than those who are not mentally ill.30

Many researchers have argued that the high rates of arrest and low-level offending by the chronically homeless are results of the "criminalization of homelessness." Laws against lying down or sleeping in public, public excretion and urination, public intoxication, and the like, make it difficult for the street homeless to carry out routine behaviors in public places.31 Some police observers report that being homeless subjects people to more strict enforcement for activities that are dealt with more leniently if the person can show proof of address.32

Even if transients are not hard-core violent offenders, evidence from police case studies shows areas adjacent to transient encampments have higher levels of petty and serious crime unrelated to "routine behaviors," such as drug dealing and usage, disturbance, theft, prowling, burglary, panhandling, fighting, vandalism, armed robbery, rape, and aggravated assault.33 Stolen property, weapons, and wanted felons have been found in homeless encampments.34

Threats to business viability. Urban homeless encampments have a more immediate impact on the nearby community because of proximity. Many chronically homeless behaviors, such as sleeping on the streets, panhandling, public excretion or urination, and public intoxication, are threatening or undesirable. In some urban settings, police rate transients and their behaviors as a bigger problem than drugs, car burglaries, public fighting, cruising, or noise.35 Entertainment districts are particularly vulnerable to transient behavior because of the availability of people with disposable income, park benches, unattended public restrooms, and lax enforcement of laws governing street behavior. The presence of transients creates an environment of lawlessness. During the day, transients sitting in front of businesses can scare away customers.36

Illegitimate use of public space. Regular citizens may not use public parks and other facilities because they fear the spaces are controlled by transients. Often the homeless are victimized at night, prompting them to sleep only during daylight hours in parks and other public places. Thus, the park may be laden with individuals sleeping on benches or in picnic shelters during the park's busiest hours. This condition only exacerbates the conflict with legitimate park users. Further, due to the homeless taking over and sometimes vandalizing park barbeques, sinks, and faucets designed for regular park visitors to use, officials may remove these amenities thereby penalizing everyone.37 In Madison, Wisconsin, a group of 30-40 men (not all of whom were homeless) took over a lakeside park shelter, moving in furniture and other personal belongings. They drank there during the day and slept there at night. Nearby residents reported car break-ins, firewood thefts, and attempted burglaries. Legitimate park users reported aggressive panhandling. Use of this park by permit-holders was considerably lower compared with other area parks.38

Cost to society. Because so many chronically homeless people have medical problems and substance abuse issues and frequently come in contact with the police and social service providers, they can be very costly to taxpayers. For example, a study following 15 chronically homeless people in San Diego found that they cumulatively received more than $3 million worth of public services in just 18 months. Despite benefiting from $200,000 in taxpayer-provided services during this time, each was still homeless. Just as a small number of criminals commit most of the crime and a few addresses in a city account for most of the calls for service, studies have found that about 10 percent of all homeless people consume about half of the resources.39 In Madison, Wisconsin, for example, a study of "chronic nuisance" people in the downtown area found that two-thirds were homeless; however, only five percent of the downtown homeless population was defined by the police as being part of the "chronic nuisance" population.40  

Factors Contributing to Homeless Encampments

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.

Encampments are usually located close to goods and services that transients need: food, alcohol, employment (or crime) opportunities, and shelter (in case of inclement weather). Services geared toward this population obviously contribute to a concentration of transients in certain areas. Although soup kitchens attract the chronically homeless, food pantries are less popular with transients because they often lack facilities to cook the items pantries distribute. Social service providers and day labor sites attract some transients.† Liquor stores and drug markets attract others.41 Homes and businesses are targets for theft or burglary, but also for short-term work for those so inclined.

† See Problem-Specific Guide No. 44, Disorder at Day Laborer Sites.

Because many transients do not have their own vehicles, encampments, even in wooded areas, are likely to be located by pedestrian access points (such as trails), or close to public transportation facilities and railroad tracks.

Transients look for overgrown brush to help hide their encampment from public view, providing privacy and the opportunity to establish the camp before it is discovered and dealt with by the authorities.  

People in homeless encampments benefit from food and clothing provided by church groups, missions, and social services agencies, but such charity is not always combined with efforts to facilitate transition from the streets.42 In some respects, this enables encampment residents to stay where they are.