Should Homeless Encampments be Legally Formalized?

Homeless encampments are becoming more prevalent throughout the greater Los Angeles area. Up until about five or six years ago, homeless encampments were a phenomenon of downtown Los Angeles and Skid Row.  In this day and age, homeless encampments literally can be seen just about anywhere in Los Angeles county, including in the most upscale communities in the area.

What to do with and about homeless encampments has become the subject of intense debate in recent times. One issue that is being discussed is whether or not homeless encampments should be legally formalized.

Definition of Homeless Encampments

The Center for Problem Solving Policing has crafted a widely utilized description of homeless encampments. This expansive description of homeless encampments is a useful starting point when it comes to discussing whether or not they should be legally formalized. The Center describes homeless encampments as:

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. Obviously, the more established the encampment, the better constructed the “housing” is likely to be.

Arguments in Favor of Legally Formalizing Homeless Encampments

Arguments in favor of legally formalizing homeless encampments are not only being made by some homeless people but also by their advocates. For example, the American Civil Liberties Union has pushed for the formalization of homeless encampments, at least to some degree.

There are several specific arguments that have been utilized by individuals and organizations that advocate for the legal formalization of homeless encampments. First, the contention is made that in order to respect the inherent humanity of those individuals who are homeless, some encampments should be legally formalized.

This contention is event taken to the point that the constitution supports the idea of legal formalization. In this regard, the argument is made that the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to assembly and congregating in homeless encampments is a type of assembly.

Second, an argument is made that some homeless encampments should be legally formalized because it will enhance the safety and welfare of individuals and families that have been consigned to living in these camps. Through formalization, encampments will become stabilized. In addition, when formalized, toilet and shower facilities can be installed at homeless encampments which render the camps more sanitary and humane.

Arguments Against Legally Formalizing Homeless Encampments

The primary argument against formalizing homeless encampments is that doing so will lessen the incentive of some homeless people to find a meaningful solution to their situation. In other words, some homeless people will not avail themselves of resources to break the cycle of homelessness of living in an encampment becomes legally formalized.

Another argument against legally formalizing some homeless encampments is that doing so will institutionalize certain types of criminal and antisocial activities. These include:

  • chronic public intoxication,
  • panhandling,
  • loitering,
  • trespassing,
  • shoplifting,
  • drug dealing

On a related note, an argument against legally formalized homeless encampments is that doing to harms the surrounding neighborhood. Not only does a homeless encampment in a neighborhood bring down property values, a camp renders a neighborhood more dangerous when it comes to an increase in crime and when it comes to health hazards associated with homeless encampments.

For example, even in sanitary facilities are installed at a legally formalized homeless encampment, drug use will still continue. Oftentimes, drug usage involves needs. Contaminated needles are disposed of in a haphazard fashion, exposing people in and out of an encampment to the danger of being stuck.

In the final analysis, those opposed to legally formalizing homeless encampments seem to be prevailing in the debate. On balance, the legal formalization of homeless encampments doesn’t appear to provide a meaningfully long-term solution to the homeless problem in a community. Legal formalization doesn’t appear to advance the interests of either the homeless population of the community at large.