Sanctioned Encampments Successfully Operating in Florida, Washington

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Popular opinion has it that homeless encampments should be removed from San Francisco’s streets, though often such action results in the scattering of a single camp into many smaller ones. “Nobody is getting better by sleeping in tents at night,” said District 2 Supervisor Mark Farrell, the progenitor of last year’s Measure Q, which sought to strengthen the City’s bivouac-removal policy. “It should be our policy not to incentivize or institutionalize tent encampments, but instead prioritize housing, shelter as the alternative.”

Though tents are widely seen as unacceptable, Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing head, Jeff Kositsky, has openly acknowledged that the City has no plans to house, or even shelter, all of the homeless, as reported in last month’s View.   

Pinellas Hope, a “tent city’ in Clearwater, Florida, offers an alternative perspective on encampments.  Roughly a decade ago, in response to attacks against the homeless, the Diocese of St. Petersburg gifted more than 10 acres of land to house upwards of 300 tents erected on pallets. Roughly 200 individuals now live at the site on a given day, with an average stay of two months, though some individuals remain for as long as six months.  Permanent supportive housing has been built elsewhere at the location, with long-term plans to replace tents with containers.

Pinellas Hope is an alcohol-free facility. Three meals are provided daily. Case managers assist people to secure public benefits and housing.  General education classes are offered.  Employment training, in collaboration with Goodwill-Suncoast, is being developed. There’s a curfew and security at night.  While potential occupants are vetted for criminal backgrounds, people who don’t have a violent history, even if they have a record, are accepted.

According to Rhonda Abbot, camp director, though the police aren’t often called, the facility isn’t “drama free.” 

Earlier this year, the City of Seattle, Washington began operating, though contracts with nonprofit organizations, three sanctioned encampments. Seattle had previously passed an ordinance that addressed such issues as regulating proximity to residential areas, security and case management.  Initial indications suggest that crime rates have remained stable in the areas surrounding the three camps.  Four more sanctioned encampments will be opened in the greater Seattle area by summer.

According to Steve Walker, Director of Housing for Seattle, sanctioned encampments “are a failure” and the municipality will be “expanding the program.” He went on to clarify that the need to authorize tent living is a failure of society’s ability to provide sufficient stable housing, mental health and addiction services.  Walker insisted that sanctioned encampments were a necessary element in the continuum of care for Seattle’s homeless, along with studious efforts to eliminate the need for them.

As municipalities grapple with chronic homelessness, a number of shelter experiments have emerged.  These range from the development of Navigation Centers in San Francisco – which are relatively high cost and time-intensive – to more readily implemented sanctioned encampments in Seattle.  The City’s existing housing needs are unlikely to be met without a more expansive effort to develop accommodations.