• Skip to main content
  • Keyboard shortcuts for audio player

Homeless camps are often blamed for crime but experts say it's not so simple

Martin Kaste 2010

Martin Kaste

research on homeless encampments

A homeless camp on the edge of downtown Seattle. Martin Kaste/Martin Kaste hide caption

A homeless camp on the edge of downtown Seattle.

Do illegal homeless camps generate crime? It's a sensitive question, but one that's becoming politically urgent in cities where pandemic-era tolerance policies have allowed the camps to sprawl into more visible areas.

In Los Angeles, Sheriff Alex Villanueva has been at loggerheads with city leaders, accusing them of being too lax with camps. In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed recently promised to crack down on the illegal drug economy in the Tenderloin district, where sidewalk camping is common.

And in Seattle, there's concern about people going into the camps on their own to try to retrieve stolen goods — last summer, one such incident led to a death .

But experts warn against jumping to conclusions.

"It's very difficult to say that the encampments themselves are what's creating the crime," says Alexis Piquero , a sociologist at the University of Miami who studies policing and homelessness. He points out that camps often go up in marginal parts of town, or near crime-prone locations such as pawn shops or liquor stores.

"What that means is that the area around those encampments is already criminogenic — it has the ingredients, if you will," Piquero says.

That makes it hard to figure out how much crime would be happening in a city anyway. It's also hard to get an accurate count of unsanctioned camps, which move around and can be hard to find.

The methodological problems were so daunting, quantitative sociologist Charles Lanfear at the University of Oxford had shelved his research into it — until he discovered a meticulous census of camps done at different points in time by a professor and her students at Seattle Pacific University.

"I basically immediately began screaming in my head," Lanfear recalls. "It's the only sort of data set of this kind that I've ever seen — in a place where you also have reasonably good data on crime."

Why some cities are operating legal homeless camps even in the dead of winter

Why some cities are operating legal homeless camps even in the dead of winter

California Turned Pandemic Rentals Into Permanent Housing For Homeless People

California Turned Pandemic Rentals Into Permanent Housing For Homeless People

research on homeless encampments

Charles Lanfear is a quantitative sociologist who has built a model to track changes in property crime as homeless camps grow. Martin Kaste/Martin Kaste hide caption

Charles Lanfear is a quantitative sociologist who has built a model to track changes in property crime as homeless camps grow.

Increases in the size of homeless camps are not associated with increases in property crime, on average

The data allowed him to build a statistical model analyzing the change in reported property crimes in relation to the growth of the camps.

"On average, an increase in the number of tents and structures in an area is not associated with any increases in property crime — very close to zero," Lanfear says.

He's still finalizing his project, which has yet to be published, and he admits people may have trouble accepting his conclusion.

"There is such a strong association between encampments and crime, that it's leading people to assume that any change in property crime is attributable to the tents and structures in their neighborhood," Lanfear says.

He also stresses this is a city-wide average. The culture of homeless camps varies a lot, and he says it's possible some camps are benign, while others generate more than their share of crime.

In Seattle, people point to camps downtown, where the open sale and consumption of drugs such as meth has become a broad-daylight routine. Sidewalk tents have been found containing stashes of goods stolen from nearby stores; drug users peddle stolen liquor to passers-by.

research on homeless encampments

The edge of a major homeless camp close to Seattle's Little Saigon neighborhood. Martin Kaste/Martin Kaste hide caption

The edge of a major homeless camp close to Seattle's Little Saigon neighborhood.

"This in many ways is a cancer on our downtown retail environments," says Downtown Seattle Association President Jon Scholes. "The illegal retail trade feeds and sustains an illegal, active drug market."

Police confirm the reports of crime in unsanctioned camps

Police officers tend to share this analysis. The Seattle Police Department has been instructed to take a more hands-off approach to the camps in recent years, and it wouldn't make any officers available to NPR for an interview. But in private, officers express frustration.

Carol Cummings is a recently-retired suburban police chief who's lived in Seattle for decades, and who regularly talks to SPD patrol officers about what they're seeing. They confirm the reports of stolen merchandise in unsanctioned camps, but she says they're especially unhappy about the frequency of crimes committed inside the camps.

"It's hard, because they know that there are people within those encampments that are victims themselves, that they're not able to reach out to and help," she says. "I know that might surprise people that an officer might think that, but in fact that is the truth."

Cummings is surprised by Lanfear's analysis showing no property crime increase, on average, associated with growing camps. She wonders whether that might be because people have become less likely to report the crimes. She says in her neighborhood — which has seen rapid growth in homeless camping — many people seem to have given up on calling the police.

These moms overcame homelessness. But the fight for a better life is far from over

These moms overcame homelessness. But the fight for a better life is far from over

Clearing camps: the pandemic, america's cities, and homelessness, people are "losing faith that they can expect justice".

"I am getting progressively more concerned about some of the conversations that I'm hearing in my community," she says. "They're losing faith that they can expect justice. And when that happens, it then defaults to the individual to protect themselves and their families. And that's where I get concerned."

Meanwhile, leaders of liberal cities such as Los Angeles and Seattle continue a to try a more tolerant policy toward camps, refraining from clearing the tents and shacks while social workers offer services. Alex Piquero favors the approach, calling it "tolerance first."

"These people need services, just like someone who's sick and needs to go to the doctor and you have the doctor say, 'Okay, here's why you're sick and here's what you need to do.' " Piquero says. "The key is doing that first."

But as public opinion sours, the pressure is mounting on those city governments, which must decide how long to keep offering those services — and tolerating the camps — before laying down the law.

Cookie banner

We use cookies and other tracking technologies to improve your browsing experience on our site, show personalized content and targeted ads, analyze site traffic, and understand where our audiences come from. To learn more or opt-out, read our Cookie Policy . Please also read our Privacy Notice and Terms of Use , which became effective December 20, 2019.

By choosing I Accept , you consent to our use of cookies and other tracking technologies.

  • Newsletters

Site search

  • 2024 elections
  • Trump investigations
  • Maui wildfire
  • Extreme heat
  • Travel guide
  • Artificial intelligence
  • All explainers
  • Future Perfect

Filed under:

  • Social Policy

Homeless encampments — and the debate over what to do about them — explained

People living in tents has become one of the most urgent issues in American politics.

Share this story

  • Share this on Facebook
  • Share this on Twitter
  • Share All sharing options

Share All sharing options for: Homeless encampments — and the debate over what to do about them — explained

A woman sitting outside a tent eating soup with other tents in a homeless encampment in the background, and lit-up city buildings behind that.

In mid-February, a block from the White House, agents with the National Park Service cleared the largest homeless encampment in Washington, DC. More than 70 people had pitched tents in the downtown federal park known as McPherson Square, and all were forced to leave, with 60 days to claim any belongings left behind.

The encampment was long scheduled to be cleared in April, when the people living there would no longer be in danger of hypothermia. But in January, local DC officials requested it be cleared early, and the federal government agreed, citing increased complaints about trash and debris, sex work, and harassment of visitors. Over the past six months, three people had died due to exposure or drug overdoses.

One day after the clearing, roughly two-thirds of those evicted from the park were still believed to be sleeping on the street.

DC is just one of many cities across the country grappling with the rise of tent encampments and associated political pressure to address them: encampments have increased in prevalence since the pandemic, even as homelessness in the city has gone down . Last year a Washington Post poll found 75 percent of local DC residents backed shutting encampments down.

The federal government’s role in the McPherson Square clearing made the challenges and contradictions of these encampments especially sharp. Local and national homeless advocates were outraged: they had called on the Biden administration to wait until the city had identified permanent shelters. They say their offer to help city officials find housing was rebuffed . The clearing, they argue, also stood in direct conflict with the Biden administration’s recently released national strategic plan on homelessness, which said that closing encampments without providing adequate support and housing was an “out of sight, out of mind” approach that provided other cities with cover to do the same.

“If they don’t stick to their federal strategic plan, how do we expect any other community to abide by it?” said Ann Oliva, the CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Unsheltered homelessness, meaning sleeping somewhere at night that’s not primarily designed for human residence — like a car, a park, an abandoned building, or a train station — has risen sharply over the last seven years, and at a faster rate than homelessness overall. The unsheltered homeless now account for 40 percent of all homeless people in the country, up from 31 percent in 2015 .

While encampments are most common in big cities, on the West Coast, and in areas with high housing costs, tents have also sprung up in places where housing is broadly available and homelessness is going down — like Houston , which saw a 63 percent drop in homelessness since 2011 but still has hundreds of encampments throughout the region .

For decades, a promising strategy for dealing with homelessness has had bipartisan support: the “housing first” model, which prioritizes getting people into permanent housing without requiring them to first address mental health conditions or substance abuse. In recent years, the strategy has experienced unprecedented attacks and been blamed for exacerbating homelessness.

In Washington, Houston, and elsewhere, political leaders have argued that rising public discontent with encampments threatens their long-term ability to tackle homelessness. Due to a lack of affordable housing, and in some cities, available shelter beds, many homeless people have simply nowhere to go.

“Mayor [Sylvester] Turner believes addressing tent encampments is key to maintaining support for the housing-first model because the public didn’t believe with their own eyes that homelessness was actually decreasing in the city,” said Marc Eichenbaum, the special assistant to Houston’s mayor on homeless initiatives. In the past few years, Houston leaders have “decommissioned” 59 tent encampments, including the city’s largest last month . In Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser stressed that her support for encampment clearing was rooted in her commitment to the housing-first model.

“I could build half a million units of housing,” newly elected Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass told the Los Angeles Times , “and if there are still tents, people will not believe that you did anything except to steal their money.”

The McPherson Square clearing sat at the middle of a national tug-of-war over homeless encampments. On one side are homeless advocates who maintain that dismantling encampments without clear plans to move inhabitants into stable housing is both cruel and counterproductive. On the other side are conservatives calling to crack down on people sleeping outside, blasting what they describe as a too lenient approach to homelessness by Democrats. Liberals can’t use a lack of affordable housing as an excuse to avoid taking action on encampments, they say , given that it could take decades to build more housing units.

Left in the middle are city officials, struggling to balance their commitment to ending homelessness with the very visible signs of its continued existence — and so are the hundreds of thousands of people sleeping outside and in cars, whose lives will be deeply affected by their leaders’ decisions.

What we know about homeless tent encampments

Encampments refer to outdoor places people live for periods of time with built structures like tents, and personal belongings. They can be found in public areas and secluded corners of cities, and their populations range from just a handful of people to hundreds.

While most cities do not collect good data on encampments (they track instead the broader category of unsheltered homelessness) many have cited increases in the last several years. The federal government recently acknowledged gaps in its understanding of encampments, citing difficulties in collecting data on people who often “actively try to escape public notice.”

Still, experts broadly agree the problem is getting worse, and researchers say the primary cause is a lack of affordable housing, stemming from both a shortage of units, and from rents rising faster than wages. They say encampments have also increased because people can’t access shelter beds, or have objections to the requirements at local shelters, like the need to relinquish their pets and personal belongings. Other people see tent encampments as offering more opportunity for privacy and safety than shelters.

Some encampments have established governance procedures and residents take on day-to-day responsibilities, while others are more informal and more fractious. Though inhabitants have a diverse range of ages, races, and gender, research suggests most tend to be men with multiple barriers to housing like mental illness, a history of evictions, or a criminal record.

In recent years, court rulings have made it more difficult for cities, especially on the West Coast, to clear encampments. In 2018, the US Ninth Circuit Court found people experiencing homelessness can’t be punished for sleeping outside on public property if there are no adequate alternatives available.

The decision only formally applies across the West , in areas under the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction, but when the US Supreme Court declined to hear this case, Martin v. City of Boise, in 2019, cities nationally were left to debate how they can respond to encampments in ways that will avoid new constitutional challenges. Boise says that as long as sleeping indoors is not an option, “the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”

The impact of the Boise ruling is playing out every day. Just before Christmas, a district judge cited Boise when she ruled that San Francisco can no longer enforce encampment sweeps , since the city lacks enough shelter beds to move the homeless into. San Francisco Mayor London Breed decried the decision . “We already have too few tools to deal with the mental illness we see on our streets,” she said. “Now we are being told not to use another tool that helps bring people indoors and keeps our neighborhoods safe and clean for our residents.” The city appealed the ruling in January , arguing it’s “unnecessarily broad and has put the City in an impossible situation.”

In other cities, officials have concluded Boise means they can no longer enforce certain laws against people experiencing homelessness. In Phoenix, for example, citations for outdoor camping dropped dramatically since the ruling — from 283 in 2017 to just 9 in 2021. More than 1,000 people have moved to a downtown Phoenix encampment called “the Zone,” and local residents are currently suing officials for the situation. Meanwhile, a federal judge issued an injunction in December, barring Phoenix officials from conducting encampment sweeps if there are no shelter beds available.

Whether sanctioned outdoor camping sites would be legal under the Boise decision if a city lacked indoor shelter beds remains unclear, and some policy leaders are urging officials to test the legal boundaries and find out.

“The Boise reading was specifically against a city-wide [camping] ban, and it’s still open question on more specific parts,” said Stephen Eide, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a critic of housing-first . “These are all meaty questions that will probably have to be decided by the Supreme Court.”

How cities are responding to tent encampments so far

Because encampments at this scale are a relatively new problem for so many cities, elected officials and nonprofit partners have largely been experimenting on the fly with how to address them, balancing a mix of political, financial, and legal pressures, along with a practical shortage of affordable housing . Recommended practices continue to evolve as leaders pilot new models , as activists demand more compassionate standards, and as researchers study the consequences of past sweeps.

City responses have typically fallen into four broad categories, ranging from quickly “sweeping” the tents and providing no services to the unsheltered living there, to formally permitting people to camp out, and even providing bathrooms, areas to prepare food, and other social services. HUD research published in 2020 found the most common strategy cities have embraced was encampment “clearance and closure with support” — meaning deploying trained outreach workers to provide people with weeks of notice that their encampment would be shutting down, working to connect them with housing and services, and making longer-term storage of their belongings available.

This has worked fairly well in some communities, but caseworkers and housing are often unavailable, and new units or shelter beds cannot simply be erected quickly.

Earlier studies have suggested that clearance with no support, or a so-called “tough love” approach, does little to drive people to shelters or mitigate the broader problem of encampments. Typically the homeless often just pick up and relocate somewhere else nearby. “Clearance with little or no support may actually reduce the likelihood that people will seek shelter because it erodes trust and creates an adversarial relationship between people experiencing homelessness and law enforcement or outreach workers,” a HUD report published in 2019 concluded.

Individuals forced out of encampments often report losing their medication, walkers, and other items that affect their physical and mental health. Critics of sweeps point to the risks they pose to individuals’ health , as well as the cost to local city budgets . (Federal homeless dollars cannot be used on tent encampments.)

Amid growing community frustration, some leaders have started to pursue tougher measures on encampments, including ramping up criminal penalties on people pitching tents on public land. In at least half a dozen states, lawmakers have pushed bills based on templates from the Cicero Institute, an Austin-based think tank opposed to housing-first . The bills propose to permanently ban tent encampments and penalize cities that permit them.

Texas became the first state to pass a version of Cicero’s template legislation in 2021, and lawmakers say it was a direct response to Austin’s city council lifting its homeless encampment ban in 2019. (Austin’s encampment ban returned in 2021, after 57 percent of Austin residents voted for its reinstatement.)

In 2022, Tennessee became the first state to pass a bill that would make camping on local public land — like parks — a felony . Missouri likewise passed a Cicero-inspired law last year, that would criminalize sleeping on state-owned land . Missouri’s law allows the state’s attorney general to sue local governments that don’t enforce the ban.

This year lawmakers in Georgia and Arizona are debating passage of similar bills. Arizona’s was written by attorneys at the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank that has also filed a brief in support of the plaintiffs suing Phoenix officials for “the Zone” encampment.

While Republican lawmakers are advancing these bills on the state level, leaders in more liberal cities have also started to look for new tent-clearing solutions, including ones they previously would not have entertained.

In Portland, Oregon, for example, lawmakers voted in November to create several large sanctioned campsites for homeless individuals, and ban the more than 700 other encampments spread across the city. Sixty-eight percent of Portland voters support the idea, according to a poll commissioned by the Portland Business Alliance. In Sacramento, leaders recently approved new penalties for camping on sidewalks , and banned encampments near schools and daycares .

In San Francisco, leaders pioneered a model known as “navigation centers” — places unhoused people can go with fewer barriers to entry than traditional shelters. At the indoor navigation centers, individuals can connect with intensive case management and receive help with finding permanent housing. These centers have been deemed relatively successful even though the city hasn’t been able to stop the flow of more people into homelessness.

More than a dozen other liberal cities have since adopted San Francisco’s navigation center model, including Seattle and Houston. Supporters of these low-barrier spaces see them as very different from the sanctioned camping sites backed by the Cicero Institute, and a more welcoming option for many people wary of traditional shelters.

On her first day in office in December, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass declared a city emergency over homelessness, announcing a new plan to tackle encampments. The plan essentially consists of creating navigation centers to close encampments and connect homeless individuals with services and housing. But the challenge will be actually finding enough housing. Last year LA had nearly 42,000 people living on the streets, mixed with a growing housing affordability crisis .

Practically speaking, city officials recognize they are also fighting for their own careers. Homelessness, and how to handle it, has become one of the most salient political issues in recent elections in liberal cities like Portland, San Diego, Seattle, and Austin. Republicans have cast Democrats as incompetent and feckless when it comes to addressing the crisis. The public, across the political spectrum, wants elected officials to take some sort of action.

Marc Eichenbaum, the special assistant to Houston’s mayor on homeless initiatives, said when his city received its federal pandemic aid, they knew they wanted to launch a more proactive response to tent encampments. “We’re interested in solving it, not managing it,” he said. “There is an opportunity for homeless systems and providers to demonstrate to the public that housing-first is the answer to encampments.”

Correction, March 8, 12:50 pm ET: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of encampments Houston leaders have closed in the past few years. It is 59.

Will you support Vox’s explanatory journalism?

Most news outlets make their money through advertising or subscriptions. But when it comes to what we’re trying to do at Vox, there are a couple of big issues with relying on ads and subscriptions to keep the lights on. First, advertising dollars go up and down with the economy, which makes it hard to plan ahead. Second, we’re not in the subscriptions business. Vox is here to help everyone understand the complex issues shaping the world — not just the people who can afford to pay for a subscription. It’s important that we have several ways we make money. That’s why, even though advertising is still our biggest source of revenue, we also seek reader support. If you also believe that everyone deserves access to trusted high-quality information, will you make a gift to Vox today? Any amount helps.

We accept credit card, Apple Pay, and Google Pay. You can also contribute via

research on homeless encampments

Next Up In Policy

Sign up for the newsletter future perfect.

Each week, we explore unique solutions to some of the world's biggest problems.

Thanks for signing up!

Check your inbox for a welcome email.

Oops. Something went wrong. Please enter a valid email and try again.

Four people walk across dusty, sandy earth. One woman carries a package of bottled water on her head. Behind them, a large yellow sign bears the word VOTE printed in green.

Zimbabwe’s elections herald more of the same

Yevgeny Prigozhin wearing camouflage and holding a rifle.

The Wagner chief’s fate was decided when he crossed Putin

Wearing a red polo shirt, Shawn Fain speaks to two workers wearing neon yellow work vests on July 12, 2023, in Wayne, Michigan.

What a UAW strike could mean for labor

James Ho sits on a panel speaking as video of him is projected on a screen behind him at the Federalist Society’s 2022 National Lawyers Convention in Washington, DC.

The edgelord of the federal judiciary

Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani mugshots side by side.

A visual guide to the 19 defendants in the Trump Georgia case

Scooter Braun, smiling slightly, wears a black baseball cap and a small headset microphone.

The confusing Scooter Braun exodus, explained

Sign up for the newsletter vox technology.

Articles on Homeless encampments

Displaying all articles.

research on homeless encampments

Homeless people deserve the same right to their belongings that we all have

Nicholas Blomley , Simon Fraser University

research on homeless encampments

If cities don’t want homeless encampments they should help people, not punish them

Penny Gurstein , University of British Columbia

research on homeless encampments

Who is ‘the public?’ The answer shapes how we address homelessness

Timothy Martin , York University, Canada

research on homeless encampments

The solution to homeless encampments is making them unnecessary, not illegal

Jesse Jenkinson , University of Toronto and Stephen Hwang , University of Toronto

research on homeless encampments

The coronavirus pandemic provides an opportunity to address homelessness

research on homeless encampments

Cities must end homeless camp evictions during the coronavirus pandemic

Estair Van Wagner , York University, Canada and Alexandra Potamianos , York University, Canada

Related Topics

  • Affordable housing
  • Coronavirus
  • Homelessness
  • Housing crisis

Top contributors

research on homeless encampments

PhD Candidate, Faculty of Education, York University, Canada

research on homeless encampments

J.D. (Juris Doctor) student at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Canada

research on homeless encampments

Assistant Professor, Law, York University, Canada

research on homeless encampments

Postdoctoral Fellow, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions, Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, St. Michael's Hospital, University of Toronto

research on homeless encampments

Professor, Department of Medicine, University of Toronto

research on homeless encampments

Professor of Human Geography, Simon Fraser University

research on homeless encampments

Professor Emeritus, and Director of Housing Research Collaborative, University of British Columbia

  • Unfollow topic Follow topic

U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Here’s how you know

Official websites use .gov A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS A lock ( Lock A locked padlock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

2021 | 2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005  | 2004 | 2003 | 2002 | 1998

In addition to grant programs relevant to homelessness, the Department of Health and Human Services also works to advance research in this field. The Department funds the development of a range of research projects to aid providers and policymakers in better understanding and addressing the issues facing people experiencing homelessness.

Resources from the CDC on People Experiencing Homelessness and COVID-19, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Homelessness Research, Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families

Homelessness Research, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation

Homelessness Among People Living in Encampments (Conducted in partnership with HUD) As of 2019, homeless encampments were appearing in numbers not seen in almost a century. To learn more about encampments and cities’ approaches in responding to them, Abt Associates conducted the study Exploring Homelessness Among People Living in Encampments and Associated Costs for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). After completing a literature review, the study team selected nine cities currently responding to encampments to participate in telephone interviews in early 2019. Findings from this study – the report on costs, individual site summary reports, and the literature review – are intended to help federal, state, and local policymakers and practitioners understand the nature of encampments, strategies for responding to encampments, and the costs associated with those approaches.

Health Conditions Among Individuals With a History of Homelessness This paper uses a proprietary data set with electronic health records of more than 54,000 individuals with ICD-10 code of homelessness between 2015 and 2019. The paper found that for many chronic conditions, people with a history of homelessness have a greater prevalence than a comparison cohort of individuals matched on age and gender. In addition, the cohort with a history of homelessness had twice the rate of ever having head injuries and high rates of viral hepatitis, alcohol abuse, and opioid abuse.

Comorbid Health Conditions and Treatment Utilization among Individuals with Opioid Use Disorder Experiencing Homelessness People experiencing homelessness have been particularly hard hit by the opioid crisis. This epidemic has also impacted individuals experiencing homelessness in ways that are distinct from how it has impacted individuals with stable housing. However, not much is known about comorbid health conditions and health services utilization among adults with opioid use disorder (OUD) who are experiencing homelessness. A retrospective observational cohort study was conducted utilizing a large national all-payer electronic health record database, finding that underlying mental health conditions and polysubstance use contribute toward making individuals experiencing homelessness more susceptible to adverse health outcomes associated with OUD. Health policy initiatives directed toward treatment engagement might benefit from an emphasis on addressing housing instability that many individuals with OUD might be experiencing.

top of page

Individuals Experiencing Homelessness Are Likely to Have Medical Conditions Associated with Severe Illness from COVID-19 This paper is a descriptive analysis of the prevalence rates of some chronic health conditions that are associated with a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 among people with a history of homelessness. It uses a proprietary dataset with electronic health records of 61,180 individuals with an ICD-10 code of homelessness between 2015 and 2019. The paper finds that many of the health conditions examined (those believed to be linked to higher risks of severe illness from COVID-19), people with a history of homelessness have greater prevalence than the general population. People with a history of homelessness have comorbidities that impact their health in multi-faceted ways.

Housing Models that May Promote Recovery for Individuals and Families Facing Opioid Use Disorder This project describes the housing models available for individuals with opioid use disorder (OUD) who experience housing instability or homelessness. The association between OUD and homelessness has been examined and established. To better understand housing models that may support those with OUD, the study team conducted an environmental scan and held discussions with experts and providers in four communities.

Behavioral Health Improvements Over Time among Adults in Families Experiencing Homelessness The Behavioral Health Improvements Over Time among Adults in Families Experiencing Homelessness brief explores parents’ behavioral health at the time the family was in emergency shelter and at 20 and 37 months after experiencing homelessness. This brief examines psychological distress, alcohol dependence, drug abuse, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder; examines what family characteristics and experiences prior to shelter were associated with behavioral health problems and changes over time; and examines the relationship between housing instability and behavioral health 37 months after a shelter stay.

Employment of Families Experiencing Homelessness The Employment of Families Experiencing Homelessness brief explores parents’ earnings at the time the family was in emergency shelter, prior to becoming homeless and at 20 and 37 months after experiencing homelessness. This brief examines employment rates, compares the employment rates of families experiencing homelessness to the employment rate of parents in deeply poor families in the same communities, discusses barriers parents identified for not working, and explores the relationship between employment, income, and continued housing instability.

Child Separation among Families Experiencing Homelessness The Child Separation among Families Experiencing Homelessness brief explores child separations among families experiencing homelessness. It builds upon the fourth brief in this series, “Child and Partner Transitions among Families Experiencing Homelessness,” which looked at family separations and reunifications in the 20 months after being in emergency shelter and the association between family separation and recent housing instability following an initial shelter stay. This brief provides a more detailed examination of these families and their children before and after the initial shelter stay, revealing more extensive and persistent levels of child separation. It gives detailed characteristics of separated children and examines whether future child separation after a shelter stay is related to either housing instability of previous separations.

Child and Partner Transitions among Families Experiencing Homelessness This research brief takes advantage of data collected for the Family Options Study, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This brief examines the extent to which parents were separated from their children or adult partners, including spouses,1 during a stay in emergency shelter and whether they experienced additional separations or reunifications in the 20 months following the shelter stay. It also considers whether family separations while in shelter are associated with additional housing instability following the shelter stay, as well as whether continued housing instability is associated with subsequent family separations.

Well-being of Young Children after Experiencing Homelessness This research brief takes advantage of data collected for the Family Options Study, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. High-quality early education and care arrangements have been linked to gains in school readiness for children in low-income families, but less is known about its influence on children who have experienced homelessness. This study examines the extent to which children are enrolled in Head Start and other early education and center-based care programs 20 months after a shelter stay, as well as whether continued housing instability after a shelter stay is related to enrollment rates and stability of care arrangements. The study then examine whether there is evidence of relationships between Head Start and other early education and center-based care enrollment and children’s school readiness and behavioral challenges.

Pretesting a Human Trafficking Screening Tool in the Child Welfare and Runaway and Homeless Youth Systems Despite the fact that youth involved in the child welfare (CW) and runaway and homeless youth (RHY) systems are particularly vulnerable to being trafficked, there is no consensus screening tool to identify trafficking experiences among such youth. In order to better serve youth trafficking victims, this study developed a Human Trafficking Screening Tool (HTST) and pretested it with 617 RHY- and CW-involved youth. This research established that the screening tool is accessible to youth and easy to administer, and that both the full-length tool and a shorter version were effective in identifying youth who are trafficking victims in RHY and CW systems, though additional research with more youth is needed.

Patterns of Benefit Receipt among Families who Experience Homelessness This brief uses data collected for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Family Options Study to analyze patterns of receipt of TANF cash assistance, SNAP food assistance, and publicly funded health insurance benefits among these families, with a focus on the characteristics of those receiving and not receiving benefits. The brief: Examines whether family characteristics, including age, marital status, and demographic characteristics relate to benefit receipt; Explores the relationship between benefit receipt and housing instability following an initial shelter stay; and examines whether help accessing benefits is related to families’ TANF receipt

Final Report – Street Outreach Program Data Collection Study This first-of-its-kind study focused on 873 youth ages 14 to 21 in 11 cities. Respondents included street youth receiving services from ACF’s Street Outreach Program grantees and street youth who were not currently using services from SOP grantees. Study findings include that: nearly half of respondents became homeless for the first time because they were asked to leave home by a parent or caregiver; more than half have tried to stay at a shelter but found it full; the average youth had spent nearly two years living on the street; and nearly 30 percent identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and nearly 7 percent identified as transgender.

Are Homeless Families Connected to the Social Safety Net? This analysis of HUD's Family Options Study data shows that families in a shelter and 20 months later are generally connected to public benefits at similar rates to other families in deep poverty. This non-experimental analysis finds that homeless families receive TANF, publicly funded health insurance (including Medicaid, CHIP, and state-funded insurance), and SNAP at equal or greater rates than other families in their communities who are also living in deep poverty.

State Strategies for Coordinating Medicaid Services and Housing for Adults with Behavioral Health Conditions This Issue Brief describes the strategies used by four states--Louisiana, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Illinois--to improve the link between Medicaid and housing services for adult Medicaid beneficiaries with behavioral health conditions. This brief does not assess the success of these strategies, but instead focuses on the mechanisms the states are using to improve care coordination for individuals with both behavioral health and housing needs. Federal and state policymakers and other stakeholders can use this information in developing their own initiatives.

Improving the Coordination of Services for Adults with Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders: Profiles for Four State Medicaid Initiatives In 2013, ASPE contracted with Mathematica Policy Research to conduct case studies of the financing arrangements and delivery models that states are using to improve the coordination of care for Medicaid beneficiaries with mental health and substance use disorders in four states: Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Tennessee. This report profiles and describes the key elements of the strategy used in each state, including the financing mechanisms, state-level and local-level partnerships, use of data and information systems, and efforts to improve coordination with housing. Moreover, the case studies sought to describe the "on-the-ground" operation of the care coordination models from the perspectives of providers, consumers, and other stakeholders. Although these case studies do not evaluate the effectiveness or outcomes of the strategies used in these states, policymakers, managed care organizations, providers, and other stakeholders may wish to consider the components of these strategies in their own efforts to improve care coordination.

State Strategies for Improving Provider Collaboration and Care Coordination for Medicaid Beneficiaries with Behavioral Health Conditions This Issue Brief highlights the efforts of four states--Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Tennessee--to facilitate provider-level coordination for Medicaid beneficiaries with behavioral health disorders. It describes the financing strategies and specific mechanisms that states are using to improve care coordination. It summarizes some of the key ingredients of these efforts as reported by providers, consumers, agency representatives, and managed care companies in the four states. This information may be useful to federal and state policymakers and other stakeholders as they develop their own initiatives.

"Homeless Caseload is Associated with Behavioral Health and Case Management Staffing in Health Centers"    [Journal Article authored by analysts at ASPE and SAMHSA)] This paper examines organizational characteristics and staffing patterns in FQHCs with large homeless caseloads. Regardless of whether each health center received targeted Health Care for the Homeless funding, health centers with high homeless caseloads were more likely to have high behavioral health and enabling services staffing—indicating that health centers tailor their staffing mix to the needs of their patients. The study also found that rural health centers had lower levels of behavioral health and enabling services staffing, highlighting the need to monitor disparities, link health centers with technical assistance on partnering with community-based behavioral health providers, and emphasize co-locating behavioral health services through grant oversight mechanisms.

Medicaid and Permanent Supportive Housing for Chronically Homeless Individuals: Emerging Practices From the Field (Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation) This report describes existing practices in the field of communities currently serving homeless and formerly homeless individuals as Medicaid beneficiaries.

Building Partnerships to Address Family Homelessness Around the country, Head Start and Early Head Start programs are building partnerships in their communities in order to make their services more accessible for children experiencing homelessness. This resource paper highlights the work being done by local Head Start and Early Head Start programs to connect with public housing associations, emergency shelter providers, local education agencies, and other community service providers. It also provides recommendations and resources to facilitate collaborations in other communities.

Promising Practices for Children Experiencing Homelessness: A Look at Two States This resource paper highlights work to create interventions that are specifically targeted at increasing access to high-quality early care and learning programs for children experiencing homelessness. It provides an overview of the effects of homelessness on young children, reviews federal initiatives that have expanded access to early care and learning for this population, looks at how two states - Massachusetts and Oregon - have implemented innovative policies to improve early childhood outcomes for this group, and presents recommendations for how other states can develop their own interventions.

Identifying and Serving LGBTQ Youth: Case Studies of Runaway and Homeless Youth Program Grantees To better understand provider experiences serving lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and Questioning (LGBTQ) runaway and homeless youth, this study reports on case studies of four local agencies receiving grants from the Administration for Children and Family’s Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) Program. The purpose of the study was to learn about programs’ strategies for identifying and serving LGBTQ RHY, the challenges programs face in understanding and addressing the needs of this population, and potential areas for future research.

Promoting Protective Factors for In-Risk Families and Youth: A Brief for Researchers    (Administration for Children and Families) This report explores the factors that make children and young people more able to cope with the trauma they face. It focuses on five populations that are often victimized the most: infants, children, and adolescents who are victims of child abuse and neglect; runaway and homeless youth; youth in or transitioning out of foster care; children and youth exposed to domestic violence; and pregnant and parenting teens.

Housing for Youth Aging Out of Foster Care (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, with HHS’ Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation) This research project focused on the housing needs of the over 25,000 youth who “age out” of the foster care system each year. It explores and documents the range of housing options available to these youth, includes an in-depth review of communities using the Family Unification Program (FUP) vouchers, identifies opportunities to mitigate the risk of homelessness for youth as they transition from the foster care system, and suggests areas for future research.

Housing Assistance and Supportive Services in Memphis: Best Practices for Serving High Needs Populations This standalone document from the Housing Assistance and Supportive Services in Memphis project synthesizes the literature and recent research on how to provide services to people in HUD-assisted housing.

Linking Human Services and Housing Assistance for Homeless Families and Families at Risk of Homelessness    (Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation) This final report presents findings from the Linking Human Services and Housing Supports to Address Family Homelessness project. Through in-depth, on-site case studies, this study observed 14 communities that coordinate federally funded housing supports and comprehensive services to more effectively serve homeless families and families at risk of becoming homeless. Seven of the models include participation from local public housing agencies (PHAs). The report includes information about the structure of the programs examined, common promising practices identified across the models, and detailed case studies of the 14 models.

Establishing Eligibility for SSI for Chronically Homeless People    (Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation) This issue paper describes innovative approaches to establishing SSI eligibility.

Health, Housing, and Service Supports for Three Groups of People Experiencing Chronic Homelessness  (Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation) This issue paper describes three subgroups of the people experiencing chronic homelessness, and the services and housing configurations currently supporting them.

Public Housing Agencies and Permanent Supportive Housing for Chronically Homeless People    (Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation) This issue paper looks at innovative ways that public housing agencies are supporting housing for formerly homeless people in the communities the researchers visited.

Medicaid Financing for Services in Supportive Housing for Chronically Homeless People: Current Practices and Opportunities    (Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation) This issue paper describes the ways that Medicaid is being used now and might be used in the future under provisions of the Affordable Care Act of 2010 to serve chronically homeless people.

Housing Assistance for Youth Who Have Aged Out of Foster Care: The Role of the Chafee Foster Care Independence Program Each year the Chafee Foster Care Independence Program provides $140 million for independent living services to assist youth as they age out of foster care and enter adulthood. Under this formula grant program, states are provided allocations and allowed to use up to 30 percent of program funds for room and board for youth ages 18 to 21 who have left care. This report describes how states are using these funds to provide housing assistance to these vulnerable youth and explores how the assistance provided through this program fits in with other sources of housing assistance available in the states examined.

Medicaid and Permanent Supportive Housing for Chronically Homeless Individuals: Literature Synthesis and Environmental Scan This report reflects existing published and unpublished literature on permanent supportive housing (PSH) for people who are chronically homeless. It has a particular focus on the role that Medicaid currently plays in covering the costs of the supportive services that help people keep their housing and improve their health and quality of life. In addition to written material, this document incorporates the knowledge of housing and service configurations and ways that providers have been able to cover the cost of supportive services, garnered over our many years in the field.

Human Services and Housing Supports to Address Family Homelessness: Promising Practices in the Field  (Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation) This ASPE Research Brief explores local programs for linking human services and housing supports to prevent and end family homelessness. The Research Brief is based on interviews with stakeholders in 14 communities nationwide, highlighting key practices that facilitated the implementation and ongoing sustainability of the programs. The Research Brief was prepared by Abt Associates under contract with the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.

Homeless Children Roundtable, Conference   (Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation) The purpose of the Roundtable (May 2010) was to understand the impact of homelessness on children, identify the resources currently available to address the needs of homeless children, and discuss opportunities for coordination. While other meetings have focused on the adults in homeless families, the Roundtable focused specifically on the children in families that are experiencing homelessness. A diverse group of policy experts, researchers, practitioners, and federal agency staff were invited.

Homeless Children: Discussion Synthesis   (Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation) This document synthesizes the discussion from the Roundtable on Homeless Children. The background paper from this meeting is also available and provides an update on the research, policy, laws, and funding for programs and services for children who are homeless in the United States.

Homeless Children: Update on Research, Policy, Programs, and Opportunities  (Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation) Despite the knowledge that homeless children face poor outcomes, research has largely focused on the parent(s) in a homeless family, perhaps because these children are still part of a family unit. The children themselves, however, have different and separate needs from their parent(s). Given the impact of the current recession, it is critical to understand the impact of homelessness on our youngest population, and to ensure that resources are mobilized to guarantee that these children's needs are met quickly and thoroughly. This paper provides an update on the research, policy, laws, and funding for programs and services for children who are homeless in the United States. Education, health, and mental health for homeless children are examined.

Findings from a Study of the SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access, and Recovery (SOAR)  Initiative   (Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation) The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) programs provide critical income support for those who meet eligibility requirements. The SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access, and Recovery (SOAR) initiative aims to improve access to SSI/SSDI benefits for individuals who are homeless through a multi-pronged strategy designed to mitigate the challenges this population faces when navigating the SSI/SSDI application process. To determine how and the extent to which SOAR is achieving its goals, ASPE conducted an evaluation of SOAR. The goals of the evaluation were to (1) provide a comprehensive description of SOAR processes, (2) examine the outputs and some of the short- and long-term outcomes that may be associated with these processes, (3) assess the factors that appear to be associated with successful implementation of the initiative, and (4) describe ways in which the initiative might be improved at either the state or federal level. This report summarizes the findings from the evaluation.

Homelessness Data in HHS Mainstream Programs  (Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation) This study explores the extent to which states collect data on housing status and homelessness from applicants for the two largest HHS mainstream programs that may serve individuals or families experiencing homelessness:  Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Interviews were conducted with TANF and Medicaid directors in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to learn about state practices related to the collection of housing status and homelessness data from program applicants. The study also includes a review of data-collection practices in nine other HHS mainstream programs. The Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) and the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) jointly funded this project. The study yielded three publications:

  • Homelessness Data in Health and Human Services Mainstream Programs , Final Report, Winter 2009.
  • Housing Status Assessment Guide for State TANF and Medicaid Programs , Winter 2009.
  • Potential Analyses with Homelessness Data: Ideas for Policymakers and Researchers , Winter 2009.

Study of HHS Programs Serving Human Trafficking Victims This project developed information on how HHS programs are currently addressing the needs of victims of human trafficking, including domestic victims (i.e., citizens and legal permanent residents), with a priority focus on domestic youth. The project provides in-depth and timely information to help HHS design and implement effective programs and services that help trafficking victims overcome the trauma and injuries they have suffered, to regain their dignity, and become self-sufficient. Components to the study include a comprehensive review of relevant literature, studies or data (published or unpublished) related to providing services to victims of human trafficking (including domestic victims); nine site visits to geographic areas (e.g., counties) containing at least one HHS- or federally-funded program currently assisting victims of human trafficking; at least three brief reports highlighting interesting, innovative, and/or effective experiences, knowledge, or information resulting from one or more of the site visits; and a final report providing a synthesis of all information obtained under the study.

The Mental Health of Vulnerable Youth and their Transition to Adulthood: Examining the Role of the Child Welfare, Juvenile Justice, and Runaway/Homeless Systems This project focused on the mental health of vulnerable youth who have been in contact with service systems, including child welfare, juvenile justice, and run-away and homeless programs. Data for this project come from the  National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health  (Add Health). The Add Health is a nationally representative study that was designed to examine the causes of health-related behaviors of adolescents and their outcomes in young adulthood. The analytic sample for this current study was limited to participants who completed an interview at Waves 1 and 3 and who have a valid population weight for these Waves.

Final Report for the Independent Evaluation of the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant Program (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) The independent evaluation of the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant (SABG) was conducted to assess the extent to which the SABG Program is effective, functioning as intended, and achieving desired outcomes. Key Finding 1 indicates the SABG program demonstrated a positive outcome in the stable housing domain of the client-level National Outcome Measures (NOMs) between admission to and discharge from a treatment episode.

  • Executive Summary (PDF | 209 KB)
  • Highlights of Key Findings (PDF | 1.4 MB)
  • Detailed Key Findings (PDF | 2.5 MB)
  • Final Report (PDF | 1.1 MB)

Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children  (Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation) This report investigates the availability of data with which to construct a typology of homeless families with the goal of identifying key knowledge gaps regarding homeless families and to consider whether these gaps may most efficiently be filled through secondary analysis of existing data, adding questions or a module to planned surveys that include low-income populations, or whether additional primary data collection would be needed. Ultimately, it is intended that an improved understanding of the characteristics of homeless families with children will guide the development of appropriate service responses to such families and provide an empirical foundation for the design of homelessness prevention and intervention approaches. The project consisted of three phases: assessing the availability of already existing data that could be mined through secondary data analysis; proposing a set of questions to modify existing and ongoing surveys that would allow for the key research questions related to homeless families to be answered, and conceptualizing various primary data collections that would specifically collect the kind of data required to develop a typology of homeless families.

Evaluation of the Collaborative Initiative to Help End Chronic Homelessness  (Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation) A cornerstone effort of the Administration goal to end chronic homelessness was the development of the  Collaborative Initiative to Help End Chronic Homelessness  (CICH), an innovative demonstration project coordinated by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, jointly funded by the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services (HHS: SAMHSA and HRSA), and Veterans Affairs.

Summary of CICH Interim Reports The summary reviews the background of the study, the methods, client outcomes, and system outcomes.

Preliminary Client Outcomes Report , February 2007  This report presents data on screening, enrollment, client characteristics across sites, service use over time, and outcomes during the first 12 months of CICH participation. Data are also presented on a comparison group that received some lesser combination of housing and services than the CICH clients.

An Evaluation of an Initiative to Improve Coordination and Service Delivery of Homeless Service Networks , February 2007  This report examines the service system of the CICH during the first 24 months of the program including the types of housing and service models that were available for the target population and the nature of the interaction between agencies in the CICH.

Is System Integration Associated with Client Outcomes? , June 2007 This report merges network data reflecting collaboration, trust and use of evidence-based practices at the time clients enrolled in the CICH with 12-month client outcome data to examine the association of interagency relationships at the start of the program and client outcome during the first year of program participation.

Computer Retrieval of Information on Scientific Projects   (National Institutes of Health) The National Institutes of Health (NIH) supports a wide range of studies involving homeless populations because of associations between homelessness and many adverse health conditions. Research projects funded via an NIH grant are traditionally published in scientific journals. To access a full list of research relevant to homelessness currently being supported by NIH and other Public Health Agencies, follow the link to search Computer Retrieval of Information on Scientific Projects (CRISP). CRISP is a searchable database of federally funded biomedical research projects conducted at universities, hospitals, and other research institutions. The database, maintained by the Office of Extramural Research at the National Institutes of Health, includes projects funded by the National Institutes of Health, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Health Resources and Services Administration, Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Agency for Health Care Research and Quality, and Office of Assistant Secretary of Health.

Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research   (Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Housing and Urban Development) The National Symposium on Homelessness Research, co-funded by the Department of Health and Human Services (both Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation and Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development in FY 2005, sponsored the development of twelve research papers in an effort to capture the current state of the research related to homelessness. The Symposium event itself, which was held over two days in March of 2007, brought together 200 researchers, policy makers, government officials, service providers, and consumers from across the country to discuss the research papers and directions for future research related to homelessness. This Symposium was a follow-on event to the first National Symposium on Homelessness Research, which took place in 1998 and was also sponsored by Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This volume presents the twelve papers developed and presented at the 2007 Symposium.

Promising Strategies to End Youth Homelessness  (Administration for Children and Families)

Provides an overview of youth homelessness, as well as a set of preventive strategies that show promise in the effort to end homelessness. This report was created by the Administration for Children and Families, in consultation with the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Strategic Action Plan on Homelessness   (Department of Health and Human Services)

Report details Departmental strategies to prevent homelessness; ensures the provision of services to eligible individuals and families; empower states and community partners to improve their response to homelessness, and track Departmental progress in reaching these goals.

Condensed Version  of the Medicaid Primer on How to Use Medicaid to Assist Persons Who are Homeless to Access Medical, Behavioral Health and Support Services (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) Primer to help to connect people who are homeless with critical Medicaid benefits

An Evaluation of the Respite Pilot Initiative  (Health Resources and Services Administration) In May 2000, Health Resources Services Administration (HRSA) funded ten Health Care for the Homeless grantees, for up to five years, to enhance their medical respite services for homeless persons. HRSA also supported a prospective evaluation to document the differing models of respite care delivery being used and assess the effect of those respite services on the health of homeless persons. 

Evaluability Assessment of Discharge Planning and the Prevention of Homelessness: Final Report   (Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation) The purpose of this study was to conduct an evaluability assessment of discharge planning in institutional and custodial settings, with a specific focus on whether discharge planning is a strategy that can prevent homelessness. 

Using Medicaid to Support Working Age Adults with Serious Mental Illness in the Community: A Handbook  (Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation) The purpose of this primer is to describe the Medicaid program in the delivery of services to adults with serious mental illnesses; specifically, the primer explains how existing Medicaid options and waivers are used by states to finance a broad range of community services and supports for adults with serious mental illnesses, and to demonstrate what aspects of state-of-the-art community services and supports for this population are funded by Medicaid.

The Implementation of Maternity Group Home Programs: Serving Pregnant and Parenting Teens in a Residential Setting Given the considerable interest in maternity group homes and the roles they can play in assisting pregnant and parenting teens’ transition to independence, it is important to fill some of the gaps in the existing research. For this reason, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is interested in learning more about maternity group home programs and in assessing the feasibility of conducting a rigorous evaluation to measure the effectiveness of such programs. To this end, ASPE contracted with Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. to conduct a study of how these programs operate and to explore options for studying them further. This report aims to document the implementation of maternity group home programs.

Improving Medicaid Access for People Experiencing Chronic Homelessness: State Examples (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) This technical assistance report is designed to highlight several state initiatives that increase Medicaid access for people who are chronically homeless.

Maternity Group Homes Classification and Literature Review This document provides an overview of past research and develops a preliminary classification framework for maternity group homes. The report classifies maternity group homes according to population served, degree of structure and supervision provided, and level of support services offered. The report also reviews research related to maternity group homes by categorizing existing studies into four groups: those that describe the characteristics of maternity group homes, but do not report data on outcomes; those that collect some data, but without any context for comparison; those that compare outcomes of different groups or at different points in time; and those that look at implementation of maternity group homes. Included in the review of research are resident characteristics, experiences during residence, outcomes after leaving maternity group homes, limitations of existing studies, and recommendations for future research.

Achieving the Promise: Transforming Mental Health Care in America  (President's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health) In 2002, the President announced the creation of the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health and charged the Commission to study the mental health service delivery system, and to make recommendations that would enable adults with serious mental illnesses and children with serious emotional disturbance to live, work, learn, and participate fully in their communities.  Achieving the Promise  is the final report of the New Freedom Commission.

Adapting Your Practice: Treatment and Recommendations for Homeless Patients with HIV/AIDS Pocket Guidebook (Health Resources and Services Administration) This condensed pocket guidebook on adapting clinical guidelines for homeless clients with HIV/AIDS was a project of the HIV/AIDS Bureau Homelessness and Housing Workgroup in revising the original manual,  Adapting Your Practice: Treatment and Recommendations for Homeless Patients with HIV/AIDS (2003) , developed by the Health Care for the Homeless Clinicians’ Network. 

Adapting Your Practice: Treatment and Recommendations for Homeless Patients with HIV/AIDS  (Health Resources and Services Administration) A clinical guidebook written by clinicians with extensive experience caring for individuals who are homeless and who routinely adapt their medical practice to foster better outcomes for these patients. 

Core Performance Indicators for Homeless-Serving Programs Administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services  (Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation) This report explores the feasibility of developing a core set of performance measures across four Health and Human Services (HHS) programs that focus on service delivery to homeless persons. The report also explores the extent to which mainstream service-delivery programs supported by HHS, i.e., those not specifically targeted to homelessness, could generate performance measures on the extent to which homeless persons are served and to what effect. 

Ending Chronic Homelessness: Strategies for Action   (Department of Health and Human Services) This document was developed in 2003 by the Health and Human Services Secretary’s Work Group on Ending Chronic Homelessness to outline a series of goal and strategies that would align the Department’s effort towards the goal of ending chronic homelessness.

The 1996 National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients: A Comparison of Faith-Based and Secular Non-Profit Programs  (Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation) This study examines data from National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients to determine more thoroughly the role that faith-based programs play in the larger context of homeless assistance. The study has an explicit focus on comparing homeless assistance programs administered by faith-based versus secular non-profit service agencies. It provides a basic but comprehensive picture of the numbers and characteristics of the two types of homeless assistance programs.

Practical Lessons:  The 1998 National Symposium on Homelessness and Research   (Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Housing and Urban Development) This symposium was jointly sponsored with HUD and provides 13 papers that summarize more than a decade of research on homelessness.

research on homeless encampments

An Overview of Homeless Encampments

research on homeless encampments

  • Share this page on Facebook facebook
  • Share this page on Twitter twitter
  • Share this page on LinkedIn linkedin
  • Community & Economic Development
  • Large: 200K +
  • Mid-size: 50-200K
  • Northeast Mid-Atlantic
  • Prospective

Understanding encampments for more compassionate and effective solutions

Without sufficient resources to shelter and house the growing population of unhoused people, the number of encampments has grown in cities nationwide. Community responses to encampments varies and is dependent upon competing priorities of a diverse group of stakeholders, including encampment residents, business owners, public health and safety officials, community residents and advocates. Understanding both the reasons why individuals experiencing homelessness live in encampments and how servicing encampments can advance a city’s homelessness response is central to developing a more compassionate and effective local government approach to encampments.

Homelessness is first and foremost the result of a severe shortage of affordable housing, poverty and insufficient resources. Encampments are a visual representation of the lack of those resources and of policy failures.

This overview provides local leaders with an understanding of the complex network of factors that lead individuals to live in encampments and offers alternatives to encampment sweeps .

Key insights from this overview include:

  • What encampments are and why individuals choose to live in them
  • The detrimental impact of encampment sweeps without referral to shelters, housing or additional resources, particularly on Black, Hispanic/Latino, Indigenous, Pacific Islander and LGBTQ+ populations who face disproportionately high rates of homelessness
  • The long-term impacts of the criminalization of homelessness and how it exacerbates barriers to housing and employment, rather than addressing the root causes of homelessness
  • Case studies and recommendations for responding effectively and empathetically to the growing prevalence of homeless encampments

By recognizing the damage done by clearing encampments without providing comprehensive support, city leaders can pivot to directing resources toward assisting people with moving out of encampments and into safe, quality and affordable housing to end unsheltered homelessness, prevent recurring homelessness and ending homelessness altogether.

You may also like:

research on homeless encampments

CIE Spotlight: Resource Network Brings New Flavor to Food Business Support in Durango

research on homeless encampments

  • Corianne Rice

research on homeless encampments

  • Economic Opportunity & Workforce Development

Making Affordable Homeownership A Reality for First Responders and Teachers 

research on homeless encampments

From the Event: Cost-Free City Banners for All Communities

research on homeless encampments

Transforming City Resident Experiences

research on homeless encampments

Reimagining Emergency Response: Drone as First Responder

research on homeless encampments

CIE Spotlight: Supporting Economic Resilience for San Diego’s Informal Childcare Entrepreneurs

research on homeless encampments

  • Samantha Pedrosa

Center for Problem oriented policing

Homeless Encampments

Guide no. 56 (2010).

by Sharon Chamard

PDF Guide   Order Bound Copy

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
  • Trespassing
  • Shoplifting
  • Drug dealing
  • Mental illness
  • 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 death 21 , 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.

Free Bound Copies of the Problem Guides

You may order free bound copies in any of three ways:

Online: Department of Justice COPS Response Center

Email: [email protected]

Phone: 800-421-6770 or 202-307-1480

Allow several days for delivery.

Email sent. Thank you.

Send an e-mail with a link to this guide.

Error sending email. Please review your enteries below.

Separate multiple addresses with commas (,)

  • Your Name *

Please limit your note to 200 characters.

Contents & Links

Logo - National Health Care for the Homeless Council

Our Networks:

RCPN - Respite Care NCAB - Consumers HCHCN -Clinicians

Logo of the National Institute for Medical Respite Care


Homeless encampments are highly visible and troubling reminders of the housing crisis in our country. encampments occur because there is a pervasive lack of affordable, permanent housing in our communities., the national health care for the homeless council fundamentally disagrees with policies that create homelessness and advocates for public policies that both reduce the health and safety risks for those living in encampments and prevent and end homelessness through long-term solutions., nhchc encampment resources, press release: study shows involuntary displacement may cause significant spikes in mortality, overdoses and hospitalizations | april 2023.

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a study that shows encampment sweeps, bans, move-along orders and cleanups that forcibly relocate individuals away from essential services will lead to substantial increases in overdose deaths, hospitalizations, and life-threatening infections as well as hinder access to medications for opioid use disorder (along with other detrimental impacts). 

New 2023 Study: Encampment Sweeps, Drug Use, and Death

Issue brief: impact of encampment sweeps on people experiencing homelessness | december 2022.

Sweeps do not end homelessness. Grassroots leaders and direct service providers understand that encampment sweeps cause four general problems:

  • Sweeps damage health, well-being, and connections to care
  • Sweeps compromise personal safety and civic trust
  • Sweeps undermine paths to housing and financial stability
  • Sweeps create unnecessary costs for local communities

Each of these problems presents significant challenges to those directly impacted by forced displacement and the service providers who care for them.

Read our statement on the Roles of the HCH Community | April 2018

Watch our webinar “clinician’s coffee chat on encampments” | july 2018, more on encampments from our national partners, policing- and punishment-based approaches: a really expensive way to make homelessness worse | september 2021.

This statement from the National Coalition for Housing Justice, to which the NHCHC is a party, describes how the criminalization of unsheltered homelessness and encampments harms everyone and wastes money. 

Martin V Boise: What Does it Mean for Communities? | September 2018

This info-graphic from the Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty provides guidance for localities regarding the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Idaho that affirmed the state may not “criminalize conduct that is unavoidable consequence of being homeless- namely sitting, lying, or sleeping in the street”

Caution is Needed When Considering “Sanctioned Encampments” or “Safe Zones” | May 2018

This report from the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness highlights cautions that should be considered before sanctioning or regulating encampments.

It Takes a Village: Practical Guide for Authorized Encampments | May 2018

This guide, written by Evanie Parr, Seattle University Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, summarizes the challenges and opportunities posed by various encampments along the West Coast.

Tent City USA: The Growth of America’s Homeless Encampments and How Communities are Responding | December 2017

The report from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty reviews the rapid growth of homeless people living in tents across the United States over the past decade, as measured by documentation in media reports.

Case Studies: Ending Homelessness for People Living in Encampments | August 2017

This case study from the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness checks in on several communities to learn about their ongoing efforts to refine and strengthen strategies for addressing the needs of people living in encampments.

Ending Homelessness For People Living in in Encampments: Advancing the Dialogue | August 2015

This report from the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness is designed to assist communities in developing an action plan that will link people experiencing homelessness and living in an encampment, with permanent housing opportunities.

State and Local Resources

Please submit resources to [email protected] .

Forced encampment closures: They don’t work and they do harm | January 2018

Baltimore’s Health Care for the Homeless’ position statement on forced enclosure of encampments, released amidst a round of forced encampment enclosures in Baltimore city.

Sanctioned Homeless Encampments Initial Planning and Management Checklists | March 2018

Public Health Department for Seattle & King County checklists to be used in the initial planning and ongoing management of sanctioned homeless encampment sites.


Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.

What happens when a homeless encampment closes.

University researchers aim to find out how encampment closings affect resident health.

Signs on a tree located near the entrance to the Powderhorn East homeless encampment in south Minneapolis. The encampment was cleared by Minneapolis Police on July 21, 2020.

The University of Minnesota is beginning research looking at the health impacts of homeless encampment closures, something Minneapolis has had many of over the past years.

In the early stages of the pandemic, Gov. Tim Walz issued an emergency executive order protecting encampments from disbandment or sweeps by state or local governments. With that allowance, the number of encampments in Minneapolis grew. But the governor’s order ended in July 2021, and city entities cleared several encampments.

Advocates including Southside Harm Reduction Services brought the issue of encampment closings to M. Kumi Smith, Ph.D., an assistant professor and researcher at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.

“A lot of people were like, ‘Can’t you prove that this is damaging health?’ And I realized that one would need data to do so and that data didn’t really exist in any one place,” Smith said.

Article continues after advertisement

Smith’s community partners expressed to her the way sweeps can often be detrimental to survival and health. She wants to see if that is reflected in the data.

“Participants are telling us how sweeps disrupt their access to naloxone (a drug to reverse an overdose), their access to their sort of social support network, so people around them who could help them out if they overdose; their access to trusted sources of drugs that they know are safe,” Smith said.

Smith, along with a core team of three others, will be making a database to track where and when the sweeps are happening and how they connect with health outcomes. The group will first look at the connection between encampment closures to fatal and non-fatal opioid overdoses and may expand to other health measures from there.

Rise in homelessness 

Between 2015 and 2018 homelessness in Minnesota increased by 10%, according to a Wilder Foundation study. During that same time span, there was a 62% increase in the number of people not staying in a formal shelter setting, which was more pronounced in the Twin Cities metro than in greater Minnesota.

Research has shown that adults experiencing homelessness have high rates of chronic physical health conditions, but no research has been done yet in the Twin Cities to look at the role encampments play in sustaining a community’s health, and how their closure could impact health outcomes.

research on homeless encampments

Overdose data from the Minnesota Department of Health, which tracks fatal and nonfatal overdoses, will also be critical to the study, Smith said.

“That allows us to calculate down to a precinct level the amount of overdoses that are happening at any given time. If we know the time and place of these sweeps, then we also know the time and space of overdose rates that are happening at the group level,” she said. “You could almost think of it as spots around the map that are lighting up after each sweep, and if they’re happening in the same place, you might suspect that that’s potentially because there’s a causal relationship there.”

Since 2020 there’s been a 27% decrease in overall unsheltered homeless, according to Hennepin County’s 2023 Point in Time Count, an annual snapshot of people experiencing homelessness. But the majority of unhoused populations in the county aren’t residing in encampments, according to Erin Wixten, a principal planning analyst with the county’s Office to End Homelessness.

“The vast majority of unsheltered homelessness is not in an encampment. It’s on the transit, it’s in vehicles, squatting in a house, sleeping in abandoned sheds, sleeping in the park,” Wixsten said.

In 2020, Hennepin County had around 642 unsheltered individuals, meaning those experiencing homelessness who were not in shelter or transitional housing. That number lowered to 487 in 2022 and 469 according to the latest numbers for 2023.

In 2020 encampments in Minneapolis grew significantly in size and quantity. The city defines “encampment” as camp cars, house trailers, automobiles, tents or other structures that are placed or parked on public or private streets or premises and used as a shelter or enclosure of a person for purposes of living inside it.

In June of that year, the superintendent of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, Al Bangoura, said there were 102 known encampments around the city, with two locations having more than 50 tents each. In July, the city reported there were 35 known encampments on park board property, one of which was Powderhorn Park, having over 400 tents.

Following a crime and safety report later that month, the city reported that violent crime in the parks had increased 77% from looking at the same period from 2019 to 2020. As a result, the city issued notifications to vacate those in Powderhorn Park.

In August and September 2020, the city gave notices to vacate some encampments of Peavey, Elliott and Kenwood parks, citing significant crime and safety incidents.

What goes into the decision to close an encampment? 

According to the city, the decision to close an encampment is based upon an objective review of encampment conditions, where the Homelessness Response Team looks at four factors: neighborhood impact, health impact, safety impact and external impact. These combined factors look at things like the number of 911 or 311 calls, the geographic size, hygiene of the location, presence of pregnant people, weather conditions, drug use, violence and accounts from neighbors and people in the area.

Maintaining encampments also costs the city money. Individual encampments require city services costing upward of $50,000 each annually.

When the decision to close the encampment has been made, the city is supposed to post an initial notice of trespass, notice to vacate and notice of the closure at least 72 hours before the closure. But that notice, which can be helpful for finding alternate shelter, is not always required under certain circumstances. Closing an encampment can range between $40,000 to $265,000, according to a report from the city.

Minneapolis, Hennepin County and various service providers will visit an encampment site prior to the closure to do outreach and connect people with resources and services, including shelter. But housing advocates say shelters don’t have enough space and not all shelters work with the lifestyle needs of those formerly residing in encampments.

Smith and the researchers will work over the next two years to figure out how encampment closures can be tracked and looked at in relation to opioid overdoses. She expects to have one year of data and findings completed by 2025.

Republish this article

* Please read before republishing *

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free under an  Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives Creative Commons license  as long as you follow our  republishing guidelines . See our full republication guidelines for more information.

To republish, copy the HTML at right, which includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to MinnPost.

If you have questions, email  [email protected] .

— The Editors

By  Ava Kian  |  Staff Writer

July 31, 2023

This <a target="_blank" href="https://www.minnpost.com/race-health-equity/2023/07/what-happens-when-a-homeless-encampment-closes/">article</a> first appeared on <a target="_blank" href="https://www.minnpost.com">MinnPost</a> and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.<img id="republication-tracker-tool-source" src="https://www.minnpost.com/?republication-pixel=true&post=2120946&ga=UA-3385191-1" style="width:1px;height:1px;">

research on homeless encampments

Editor's Note:  This is an excerpt from WBUR's daily morning newsletter, WBUR Today. If you like what you read and want it in your inbox,  sign up here . 

It’s move-in week across the Boston area — and also move-out week. As Sept. 1 approaches, there’s a new rule to know, especially if your current mattress isn’t making it into that third-floor walk-up.

Curbing mattress waste: Local officials have never been huge fans of people leaving their used mattresses out on the curb for trash pickup (most are recyclable) or for others to take ( bedbugs, yuck ). But under  new state rules that took effect last November , mattress recycling is now the law of the land. That means you’re not allowed to leave your old, unwanted mattress out for weekly trash pickup. For most Boston-area residents, you’ll have to schedule an appointment to get your mattress picked up and taken to a recycling center.

  • What will they recycle for me? Basically all sizes and types of mattress types — including memory foam, spring, hybrid and latex. All box springs, too. (Airbeds depend on the city, but both Boston and Cambridge will take them.)
  • What they won’t take: No futons or mattress toppers, please. Those can still be put out with the trash.
  • How does the process work? Boston offers free, appointment-based mattress pickup for all residents living in a building with six units or less. Just call 311 (or 617-635-4500) to schedule pickup. ( More details on the process here .) Cambridge and  Somerville  also offer free mattress pickup services, while  Brookline  charges a $55 fee per mattress or box spring.
  • What if I live in a bigger Boston apartment building? The city suggests checking with your building manager. They also  have a list of private mattress recyclers .
  • How will me mattress be reused? Officials say around 70% to 90% of your mattress can be recycled. At the recycling center, crews will deconstruct the parts, which will be used to make stuff like insulation, carpet padding, mulch, and new metal items.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu is expected to file an ordinance this week to give city police more power to remove tent encampments from the area known as “Mass. and Cass.” The proposal — which requires approval from the City Council — is part of Wu’s  new plan to deal with homelessness, violence and drug use in the area . If passed, Wu said the changes could take as long as two months to be implemented.

  • Meanwhile, Boston City Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson said she was mugged this weekend while observing conditions at a tent encampment in the Mass. and Cass area.  According to the Boston Globe , Anderson said a man “charged” her and took her cell phone while she was taking pictures Saturday night. (Anderson, who was uninjured and eventually got the phone back, said she was there to do research ahead of the vote on Wu’s ordinance.)
  • Tune in: Wu was on  Radio Boston  immediately after unveiling the Mass. and Cass plan Friday to discuss the change in approach, which also includes 30 additional shelter beds. Listen to  the full interview (or read the highlights) here .

Time is running out on  the MBTA perk  that lets riders flash their CharlieCard to use the commuter rail for free from certain Boston-area stations. MBTA officials say that this Thursday will be the last day that riders can take advantage of the benefit. Starting Friday, they’ll have to pay commuter rail fares as normal.

  • The MBTA  rolled out the perk   in March  to give riders an alternative to the widespread slow zones that have since plagued the system. However, a T spokesperson said they’re ending it as part of the larger shift back to normal fares Friday  when the Sumner Tunnel reopens  — even though slow zones persist across  more than a quarter of the MBTA subway system .
  • What else changes Friday: When the Sumner reopens, the Blue Line and East Boston ferry will no longer be free, and prices for the Lynn and Winthrop ferries will go up from $2.40 to  $7  and  $6.50 , respectively.
  • But there is some positive news for MBTA riders: Under  the new fall schedules starting this week , the average weekday wait times on the Orange and Red Lines are going down by a minute or two.

PSA: Don’t go to ChatGPT for information on cancer treatment. That’s the big takeaway from  a new study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital . WBUR’s Priyanka Dayal McCluskey reports that the study found ChatGPT’s answers were often incorrect when asked questions like “What is the treatment for breast cancer?”

  • Remember, while ChatGPT may sound increasingly fluent on the topic, researchers say patients should always consult with (real, human) medical experts for their treatment options.

P.S.— Speaking of move-in week, make sure to  check out our moving-to-Boston checklist  if you’re new to the city — and then  sign up for our soon-to-launch newsletter  with an easy-to-follow series of guides to everything Boston newcomers need to know. (If you’re someone who’s already settled in, consider forwarding this email to a new-to-Boston friend, family member or colleague who could use the free tips!)

  • Get that mattress off the curb! Here's what to know about Massachusetts' new waste bans
  • Boston officials unveil new strategy for 'Mass. and Cass'
  • WBUR Today: Boston’s Morning Newsletter

research on homeless encampments

Nik DeCosta-Klipa Newsletter Editor Nik DeCosta-Klipa is the newsletter editor for WBUR.

research on homeless encampments

An official website of the United States government

Here's how you know

Official websites use .gov A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS A lock ( Lock Locked padlock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

HUDUser Email Icon

Exploring Homelessness Among People Living in Encampments and Associated Cost: City Approaches to Encampments and What They Cost

Report Acceptance Date: January 2021 (78 pages)

Posted Date: April 05, 2021


As of 2019, homeless encampments were appearing in numbers not seen in almost a century. The growth of encampments mirrored the increase in unsheltered homelessness overall and seemed to reflect a complex set of societal factors, including a lack of affordable housing and the persistence of deep poverty and chronic homelessness. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, nationwide, communities were struggling to respond to public pressure to relocate people living in encampments and prevent the formation of new encampments with only a weak knowledge base on which to structure that response.

This study lays out a novel framework for approaches to encampments in cities around the country: clearance with support, clearance with little or no support, tacit acceptance, and formal sanctioning. Local officials in the four cities that were the main focus of this study – Chicago, Houston, Tacoma, and San Jose – generally converged on a common strategy for responding to their most visible encampments “clearance and closure with support.” In this approach, clearance (removing structures and personal belongings from the encampment) and closure (preventing people from returning to the encampment) have followed resource-intensive outreach to help connect encampment residents with needed services to try to ensure that every resident has somewhere to go at the point of encampment closure. Annual spending in fiscal year 2019 related to community responses to encampments ranged from $3,393,000 in Houston to $8,557,000 in San Jose. The cost per unsheltered homeless person ranged from $1,672 in San Jose to $6,208 in Tacoma. Across the four cities, the greatest expenditures related to encampment-related activity were for outreach, while efforts related to cleaning, clearance, and shelter/housing placement varied considerably based on local priorities and approaches. This study was not designed to measure the relative effectiveness of approaches to encampments. However, these findings demonstrate that permanent resolution of any given encampment (resolving homelessness for the people in the encampment, and preventing formation of a new encampment at that site) requires substantial investment, both in services and housing/shelter options, but that mitigation, management, and removal efforts in isolation all come with considerable costs.

This report is part of the Exploring Homelessness Among People Living in Encampments and Associated Costs study . Click here to learn more about this study .

All Publications


  1. The Death and Life of a San Francisco Homeless Encampment

    research on homeless encampments

  2. California lawmakers approve ‘homelessness czar’ bill

    research on homeless encampments

  3. Dozens of homeless people will be forced off a Northeast Street this

    research on homeless encampments

  4. Against CDC Guidance, Some Cities Sweep Homeless Encampments

    research on homeless encampments

  5. CDC Urges Cities To Stop Clearing Homeless Encampments, Saying It Could

    research on homeless encampments

  6. Controversial homeless encampment under I-240 bridge is back

    research on homeless encampments


  1. PDF Understanding Encampments of People Experiencing Hoessness andmel

    This paper documents what is known about homeless encampments as of late 2018, based on a review of the limited literature produced thus far by academic and research institutions and public agencies, supplemented by interviews with key informants. This paper is part of a larger research study

  2. Homeless camps are often blamed for crime but experts say it's ...

    The methodological problems were so daunting, quantitative sociologist Charles Lanfear at the University of Oxford had shelved his research into it — until he discovered a meticulous census of...

  3. Understanding Encampments of People Experiencing Homelessness and

    This paper documents what is known about homeless encampments as of late 2018, based on a review of the limited literature produced by academic and research institutions and public agencies, supplemented by interviews with key informants. This paper is part of a larger research study, sponsored jointly by the U.S. Department of Housing and ...

  4. Homelessness Among People Living in Encampments

    As of 2019, homeless encampments were appearing in numbers not seen in almost a century. The growth of encampments mirrored the increase in unsheltered homelessness overall and seemed to reflect a complex set of societal factors, including a lack of affordable housing and the persistence of deep poverty and chronic homelessness.

  5. Homelessness in the US: How should cities address tent encampments

    People living in tents has become one of the most urgent issues in American politics. By Rachel M. Cohen @rmc031 [email protected] Mar 8, 2023, 7:00am EST. A woman eats soup she cooked ...

  6. PDF Impact of Encampment Sweeps on People Experiencing Homelessness

    1 A "sweep" is defined here as the forced disbanding of homeless encampments on public property and the removal of both homeless individuals and their property from that area.

  7. Homeless encampments News, Research and Analysis

    If cities don't want homeless encampments they should help people, not punish them. Penny Gurstein, University of British Columbia. Cities are clearing homeless encampments, sometimes violently ...

  8. Research

    To learn more about encampments and cities' approaches in responding to them, Abt Associates conducted the study Exploring Homelessness Among People Living in Encampments and Associated Costs for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

  9. Beyond revanchism? Learning from sanctioned homeless encampments in the

    Learning from sanctioned homeless encampments in the U.S. Jade N. Orr a College of Architecture and Planning, University of Colorado Denver, Denver, ... Register to receive personalised research and resources by email. Sign me up. Taylor and Francis Group Facebook page. Taylor and Francis Group Twitter page.

  10. An Overview of Homeless Encampments

    Homelessness is first and foremost the result of a severe shortage of affordable housing, poverty and insufficient resources. Encampments are a visual representation of the lack of those resources and of policy failures. This overview provides local leaders with an understanding of the complex network of factors that lead individuals to live in ...

  11. Homeless Encampments

    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.

  12. Impact of a Homeless Encampment Closure on Crime Complaints in the

    However, no empirical research on homeless encampment policy actions exists. Methods . This study utilized interrupted time series to estimate the impact of the 2017 closure of "the Hole"—a longstanding encampment of homeless people who use drugs in the Bronx, New York City—on crime complaints. Daily crime complaints originating from ...

  13. Encampments

    Encampments Homeless encampments are highly visible and troubling reminders of the housing crisis in our country. Encampments occur because there is a pervasive lack of affordable, permanent housing in our communities.

  14. Crime Risk near Reported Homeless Encampments: a Spatial Analysis

    assessing the overall risks associated with areas near homeless encampments. Further, the City of Portland can utilize these research strategies to help prioritize communities for resource assistance, and other cities can adapt this model accordingly to best support the needs of members of this marginalized population.

  15. A Methodology for Collecting Data on Encampment Responses and their

    The research documented the ways in which communities are working to broaden the reach of their homeless systems by highlighting responses that guide encampment residents toward permanent housing solutions, including programs using the Housing First model, through outreach and other services.

  16. (PDF) Homeless Encampments

    Homeless Encampments Sharon E Chamard University of Alaska Anchorage Abstract This problem-oriented policing guide addresses homeless encampments, also know as transient camps. It begins by...

  17. Did Calling Encampments "Homeless Hot Spots" Change the Policing of

    In 2015, New York City began publicly targeting homeless encampments—or groups of two or more people experiencing homelessness in public spaces—to reduce the visibility of unsheltered homelessness. Officials cleared encampments in neighborhoods across the five boroughs. When doing so, they shifted from using the term "encampments" to ...

  18. Dunn Proposes Mapping, Removal of Unsanctioned Homeless Encampments in

    The plan to remove homeless encampments would include a strategy to connect the residents of the encampments with available shelter and services; a timeline for removal; a method to prevent the encampments from reoccurring; and recommendations of policies that King County could implement for encampment removal in the future.

  19. What happens when a homeless encampment closes?

    The University of Minnesota is beginning research looking at the health impacts of homeless encampment closures, something Minneapolis has had many of over the past years. In the early stages of ...

  20. NFPA Journal

    In 2016, 32.1 percent of the US homeless population lived unsheltered; in 2020, that share had risen to 38.9 percent. Globally, an estimated 150 million people are homeless today, compared to about 100 million in 2005—a 50 percent increase in the past 17 years. Sources: The National Alliance to End Homelessness, United Nations

  21. Research Homelessness

    This report - the only national report of its kind - provides an overview of criminalization measures in effect across. the country and looks at trends in the criminalization of homelessness, based on an analysis of the laws in 187 cities (including Modesto) that the Law Center has tracked since 2006. National Alliance to End Homelessness.

  22. Homelessness

    Homelessness or houselessness - also known as a state of being unhoused or unsheltered - is the ... Research into Women's Homelessness in London has found that the situations people face may vary based on their background and/or experience. ... A homeless person's shelter under a fallen willow tree in Australia Abandoned transient ...

  23. Tensions high in San Francisco as city seeks reversal of ban on

    Tensions flared Wednesday as lawyers for San Francisco argued in appellate court that the city can no longer maintain safe, clean streets while trying to get homeless people indoors after a federal judge banned the city from clearing tent encampments until there are more shelter beds than homeless individuals. San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu said people are refusing offers of shelter ...

  24. How to navigate the new rules for old mattresses in the Boston area

    Boston offers free, appointment-based mattress pickup for all residents living in a building with six units or less. Just call 311 (or 617-635-4500) to schedule pickup. ( More details on the ...

  25. Homelessness in Israel

    Homelessness in Israel is a phenomenon that mostly developed after the mid-1980s. Homelessness increased following the wave of Soviet immigration in 1991. As many as 70 percent of homeless people in Tel Aviv are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, nearly all of them men. According to homeless shelter founder Gilad Harish, "when the ...

  26. Homelessness in Russia

    Homelessness in Russia has been observed since the end of the 19th century. After the abolition of serfdom, major cities experienced a large influx of former serfs who sought jobs as industrial workers in the rapidly developing Russian industry. These people often lived in harsh conditions, sometimes renting a room, shared between several families.

  27. City Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson mugged while visiting tent

    Boston City Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson was mugged as she stopped near Atkinson Street Saturday night to observe the conditions at a tent encampment in the area known as Mass. and Cass, the ...

  28. Exploring Homelessness Among People Living in Encampments and

    The cost per unsheltered homeless person ranged from $1,672 in San Jose to $6,208 in Tacoma. Across the four cities, the greatest expenditures related to encampment-related activity were for outreach, while efforts related to cleaning, clearance, and shelter/housing placement varied considerably based on local priorities and approaches.