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



Release Date: 
January 2021 (78 pages)
Posted Date:   
April 5, 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.