Understanding Your Local Problem
The information provided above is only a generalized
description of homeless encampments. You must combine the basic facts with a
more specific understanding of your local problem. Analyzing the local problem
carefully will help you design a more effective response strategy.
In addition to criminal justice agencies, the following
groups have an interest in the homeless encampments problem and should be
considered for the contribution they might make in gathering information about
the problem and responding to it:
- Social services agencies. Government agencies and non-government
organizations that serve homeless populations are obviously interested in
improving living conditions for their clients, but they also are interested in
reducing the level of resources consumed by relatively few chronically needy
clients. They also have data that police may not have and expertise and
resources to improve responses.
- Religious and charitable organizations serving the transient
population. As with social services agencies, these groups are interested
in improving transients' lives. Their mission, however, may focus on meeting
transients' daily needs (food, clothing, and emergency shelter) and preclude
involvement in strategies that will ultimately reduce the need to carry out
this missionary work. These organizations can sometimes provide monetary
support for programs, and their staff and congregations can be valuable sources
of volunteers. Religious organizations also can help shape the moral content of
public policy discussions about how to respond to transient encampments.
- People living in homeless encampments. Transients
themselves clearly have a strong interest in this problem. Although they may
not prefer life in encampments, they still regard these places as their homes
and expect that others will respect their privacy and personal belongings.
Transients can be a valuable source of information about who lives in the
encampments and the activities of other transients.
- Residents living close to homeless encampments. These
people suffer disproportionately from crimes committed by transients. Their
interest may not extend beyond pushing the problem out of their immediate area.
Nearby residents can provide information about individual transients and the
nature of crime and disorder associated with transients in particular camps.
- Businesses. Businesses are frequent targets of transients'
crimes and the social and physical disorder accompanying them. Because
businesses' viability can be adversely affected by transients in the area,
business owners are motivated to support practical solutions. They can provide
resources for programs once they discover they can effectively reduce the
problems that impact their businesses.
- Community as a whole. Efforts to address homeless
encampments and homelessness in general are often met with hostility from the
public, perhaps because they resent public resources being spent on people seen
as unproductive members of society, or because they think providing services
will encourage more transients to move into the area. Many members of the
community would rather push the problem out of their area than deal with it in
a meaningful way. Depending on your response, citizens can provide volunteer or
- Media. How your local media cover homeless encampments can
influence the community's perception of the issue. Stories about transients and
interviews with representatives of homeless advocacy organizations can be quite
compelling; however, if this is the only side of the issue the public hears, you
may have trouble galvanizing support for problem-solving. Involving the media in
early planning efforts can work to your advantage, especially if they can
convey your message that solving this social problem will likely take much
longer than expected and involve some false starts and failures.
- Politicians. Elected officials have an interest in being
responsive to citizens' calls for tougher enforcement of laws concerning transients'
public behavior. At the same time, they can direct funding toward projects they
think will address the issue. Involve them at the early planning stages to ensure
their cooperation later when fiscal resources may be needed.
- City officials. People who run the local government's daily
operations want to increase efficiency and would be receptive to strategies to
reduce the demand for public resources from a small number of transients. If an
encampment needs to be removed, city officials can provide personnel such as
zoning and land use enforcement officers and parks and recreation staff. Human
or social services offices can recommend nonprofit organizations to help
identify the problem and create a successful strategy. Also, these local
government offices may be involved in advocating for and coordinating the
receipt of HUD (Community Development Block Grants, Emergency Shelter Grants
and HOME Investment Trust funds) and state resources for addressing
- County officials. County officials are concerned with
ensuring a coordinated regional approach to homelessness issues. Counties also
control state "pass through" resources. Although it may be tempting to move the
problem from your jurisdictional boundaries, it is more responsible to create a
strategy that does not impact neighboring communities.
- Police leadership. Given the controversy that typically
surrounds interventions involving the chronically homeless, it is important to
keep the chief and command staff advised of the details of the project and even
to include them in planning. They may have insights to offer about the
political realities in your jurisdiction and can provide a buffer between you
and concerned advocates, media, and politicians.
Asking the Right Questions
The following are some critical questions you should ask in
analyzing your particular problem of homeless encampments, even if the answers
are not always readily available. Your answers to these and other questions
will help you choose the most appropriate set of responses.
- How many people live in homeless encampments in your
- What is known about them? Where did they live before the
encampment? What are their gender, age, race or ethnicity, and employment
histories? How many of them have chronic health issues, substance abuse problems,
and/or mental illness?
- What is known about the criminal victimization of transients
living in encampments?
- What is known about the criminal behavior of transients living in
- How long have these individuals been living in encampments?
- Why do transients report living in encampments instead of other
types of shelters?
- Do the transients know about and use community social services,
such as soup kitchens, drop-in centers, shelters, job training, and substance
To find the number of
"unsheltered homeless people" aggregated to your county or state level, look at
the data compiled annually for HUD as part of the application for Continuum
of Care grants. 2005-2008 Population/Subpopulation reports, available at http://www.hudhre.info/index.cfm?do=viewHomelessRpts,
include the number of unsheltered homeless people in your area. This report does
not give the exact number of people living in homeless encampments in
municipalities. However, if this is your type of jurisdiction, it is still a
good starting point to get a sense of the problem and the percentage of
homeless people who are unsheltered in your area. This web site also lists HUD Continuum
of Care grant recipients – organizations you should contact for data on
chronic homelessness in your community.
There are three primary
methods for counting unsheltered homeless people. Your community's characteristics
determine which is most appropriate. The first, called the "public places"
method, is a direct count of people in a non-shelter location; e.g., walking
through a homeless encampment and taking a head count. This works if you know where
all the encampments are and can reliably count everyone residing there. The
second method is to augment the counts in non-shelter locations with an
interview component, helping to ensure the people counted were not counted
twice and actually are homeless. Conducting interviews is recommended if you
also want to get information about this population as part of your project's scanning
phase. You could learn what services the subjects use and what it would take
for them to leave the chronically homeless lifestyle. The third method involves
counting users of soup kitchens and other social services for the homeless. One
advantage of this strategy is that it allows you to reach people who may not be
living in known, public areas. A Guide to Counting Unsheltered Homeless
People (available at http://www.hudhre.info/documents/counting_unsheltered.pdf)
discusses the pros and cons of each method and is an invaluable resource.43
For an example of a
questionnaire used to count homeless people, look at the Texas Homeless
Network's point-in-time survey
and training guide for volunteers.
Most states conduct annual surveys to measure the size of their homeless
population; here is an example of the questionnaire used in Colorado (http://www.colorado.gov/cich/documents/Final_Statewide_Homeless_Survey.pdf).
Time and location patterns
- Are there seasonal patterns to homeless encampments? Are there
more people in such places in the summer or the winter?
- Where are the encampments located? (You might use aerial
surveillance and on-board infra-red, or night-vision goggles to identify camps
and ingress/egress points.)
- How accessible or remote are the encampments? How visible are
they from a distance?
- Who owns or has jurisdiction in the encampment areas for
policing, landscaping, maintenance, etc.? Are the encampment sites publicly or
- Why are the encampments located where they are? Are they close to
food and water sources or transportation? Are they concealed? Do they provide shelter
- How elaborate are the encampments? Are there shelters, cooking
facilities, bathing facilities, potable and non-potable water sources, and security
- Are there health and safety concerns, such as unsafe fire
situations and poor waste management?
- What is the allowable land use (according to municipal code) of
the area where the encampment is located?
- Who else uses the area around the encampment? Do transients and
"legitimate" users conflict over the user of this area?
- What are your community's standards regarding street behavior? In
entertainment districts, do people prefer things to be orderly or more exciting
to attract people?
- How many citizen complaints do you receive about homeless
encampments? What, precisely, is the nature of those complaints?
Demand on police resources
- How many crimes are committed against people living in homeless
encampments? What is the nature of these crimes? How serious are they?
- How many calls for service concerning encampment areas does your
- How many calls for service concerning nuisance problems involving
transients does your agency receive? How many of these calls are from
businesses and residents close to encampments?
- How many incidents involving disputes over public space does your
- How much time and money does your agency spend dealing with
problems associated with homeless encampments?
Current responses to the problem
- How has the homeless encampment problem in your jurisdiction been
handled in the past? How is it handled now? Is the current response adequate
- What laws currently regulate homeless encampments? Are these laws
adequate and/or constitutional?
- What is being done now in your community to address chronic
homelessness? Does your community have a long-range plan to end chronic
- How many contacts with chronically homeless people do members of
your department make? What are the outcomes of these contacts?
- Does your department have any formal policies with shelters and
social services agencies regarding referrals and transportation of chronically
- What efforts have been made by social services providers to
discourage transients from living in encampments? Have such efforts been
Measuring Your Effectiveness
Measurement allows you to determine to what degree your
efforts have succeeded, and suggests how you might modify your responses if
they are not producing the intended results. You should take measures of your
problem before you implement responses to determine the seriousness of your
problem, and after you implement them to determine the effectiveness of your
responses. Take all measures in both the target area and the surrounding area.
(For more detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, see the companion guide
to this series, Assessing Reponses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for
Following are potentially useful effectiveness measures of
responses to homeless encampments:
- Reduced numbers of encampments and transients living in them
- Less crime in areas around the encampments
- Fewer or less serious crimes committed against transients living
- Fewer calls for police service to the encampment area
- Fewer calls for police service for nuisance problems caused by
- Fewer calls for police service by businesses and residents
- Fewer citizen complaints about transient behavior and encampments
- Fewer health and safety hazards associated with encampments
- Reduced number of conflicts between transients and others over
use of public space
- Lower costs of police response dealing with homeless encampments
- Increased use of social services by transients
- Improved communication between the police and social services