America’s mayors have a problem. In the wake of the 2008 financial/housing crisis, homeless people have been gathering in encampments in greater numbers. Mayors, indelibly associated with their cities, do not like to be associated with homelessness, and their rich, influential constituents don’t like having to walk between tents or see their neighbors who live in them. One by one, city leaders have embraced a hardline strategy of “sweeps,” relying on police to drive unhoused people from the camps and destroy their belongings. New York City’s new mayor, Eric Adams, is making his political bones with a total purge. Attacking the homeless for personal gain is the most despicable thuggery I can imagine, and we shouldn’t let it happen without a fight.
Though it’s a hard thing to measure, there’s strong evidence that these encampments are an increasingly common part of urban life. Researchers at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty tracked a 1,342 percent increase in reported camps nationally between 2007 and 2017, for example. These camps have been around long enough that social scientists have a decent idea about their origins. A review of the literature commissioned by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found three primary (proximate) reasons people join them: shortcomings in the shelter system, a sense of safety and community within encampments, and a desire for autonomy and privacy. For those who choose them, “encampments may be the best alternative among a limited set of options,” the report concludes.
US homeless encampments are also established well enough that we have a good idea of what happens after a sweep. The Los Angeles–based After Echo Park Lake Research Collective studied the outcome data for 183 displaced residents after hundreds of LAPD riot police descended on a public park and destroyed their camp. Though Mayor Eric Garcetti claimed at the time that over 200 people were “housed” as a result of the raid, the Research Collective found that a year later more displaced Echo Park Lake residents had died (seven) than had become permanently housed (four), with a scarce 13 in temporary housing. These results reinforce the HUD report, which found solid evidence that “sweeps of encampments do little to increase shelter usage or otherwise resolve the problem of encampments.”
When politicians claim that they’re siccing the police on homeless people and throwing all their stuff in dumpsters to help them, they are lying. If they don’t know any better, then they’re negligent. Experts and advocates agree that the encampments are sometimes the best option people have; sweeps aren’t for residents’ own good. Politicians who initiate them are reacting to their housed constituents, who don’t “like” the encampments, even though researchers haven’t been able to find a connection with increased crime.. Pushing around some dozens of homeless people is easier than building public housing or dealing with pissed-off commuters and homeowners, which has made it a popular choice among mayors across the country—who are, it’s worth noting, mostly Democrats.
No one has proven themselves as pro-sweep as New York’s Mayor Adams, an erstwhile cop, who recently declared his intent to clear all New York City’s encampments. Within weeks, the city claimed credit for clearing over 200 camps and dispersing their residents; Adams conceded that only five individuals accepted beds in city shelters, but that wasn’t the point. These already vulnerable people will be worse off until they form new encampments to protect themselves and each other—and all evidence suggests they will—at which point the cops will come back again with batons and dumpsters.
On April 6, the NYPD cleared a handful of tents off the sidewalk near Tompkins Square Park in the heart of Alphabet City, a neighborhood whose cachet comes from the precariously housed punks who sheltered there in decades past. Residents of the small encampment and supporters faced down the police for hours, locking arms and forcing the authorities to arrest at least six. One reporter on the scene observed “several members of the NYPD appear visibly upset and shaken over what they were being asked to do—some even cried.”
Good. They should cry. And we should take pictures. Let everyone know what kind of people they are, what they’re willing to do for a paycheck. There’s no such thing as doxxing a cop—they wear their names on their badges because they are personally responsible for their actions in uniform, and if they can’t stand behind their orders and their names at the same time, they should quit. Police morale is already low, but it can go lower.
If shame can’t stop America’s municipal stormtroopers, then they leave few choices for those of us who find encampment sweeps unacceptable. In Los Angeles and Philadelphia, hundreds of supporters formed rapid-response groups to protect camps, frustrating eviction attempts for months. That’s the kind of action the situation demands, nothing less than old-fashioned “we shall not be moved” civil disobedience.
Analysts of all stripes agree that the only solution to our multiple concurrent housing crises is to build a lot more low-cost housing, particularly in cities. That has proved uniquely difficult for a number of reasons, and no alternative or experimental solution—such as “tiny house” communities—has shown much silver-bullet potential. When I started researching this column, I assumed defending encampments meant forcing city authorities to negotiate nonviolently to house residents. But the more I read, the more I came to think that some people will prefer to live in tents, even if there are other options. I believe they are unconditionally entitled to those options, including dignified shelter and whatever health care they might require. And if someone still wants to stay outside, then they deserve to be left alone—with access to a bathroom.
Gathering in camps is not an antisocial act; on the contrary. And a city that has unhoused residents, as all of America’s cities do, should hope they form camps, which provide some measure of community and constancy compared to life on the street alone. If politicians and their fanciest voters don’t like the look of tents, well, some of us don’t like the look of luxury condo developments. It doesn’t mean we’re allowed to drag the sobbing residents from their beds and toss their Pelotons in a garbage truck.
Elected leaders who use the police to sweep the streets sign a deal with rabid dogs, but once they’re off the leash there’s no such thing as “your” rabid dog. These politicians may be too shortsighted to realize it, but they’re writing a playbook for how this country will deal with the many people thrown from their homes in the coming years thanks to climate change and its consequences. Those who aren’t willing to fight for their neighbors now shouldn’t be surprised if there’s no one left to stand up for them when their time comes.
Mayors think it’s politically cheaper and easier to send armed squads to drag poor people away than to respect the camps and remedy the housing shortage; it’s up to us to change their minds, by whatever means are necessary.
• The Twitter account @SweepAlertNYC notifies followers of sweeps being planned and resistance in progress, as well as other ways to support the city’s unhoused population.
• Emilio Estevez’s post-Occupy social realist drama The Public didn’t receive much attention, but the story of a librarian (Estevez) working with his homeless patrons (including Michael K. Williams) to take over a Cincinnati public library is an effective vision of solidarity between the housed and unhoused, streaming free on Peacock.