Homelessness rates are rapidly rising across Canada, and encampments, as one of the most visible manifestations of homelessness, have become a focal point for discussion. Unfortunately, these debates often focus on safety risks (for both encampment residents and neighbours) rather than on rights, housing, and supports. And responses to encampments typically involve sweeps, which displace residents without solving the issue.

In an evidence brief produced for the Canadian Alliance for Social Connection and Health, Erin Dej, Kaitlin Humer, and Kiffer Card consider encampments from another perspective, seeing them as communities that help meet people’s needs. “Advocates recognize that encampments are not the solution to homelessness,” they write, “but until such time as there are housing solutions to meet unhoused people’s needs, encampments act as a means for people who are otherwise excluded from the housing continuum to assert their human right to housing.” In this, she echoes Farha and Schwan’s 2020 report on encampments and Estair Van Wagner who wrote in 2022: “Encampments are a prima facie violation of the right to housing. Yet, they are simultaneously a way of claiming rights in the face of profound exclusion.”

Social and Psychological Benefits

“Despite the constant struggle to meet basic needs and the regular threat of sweeps and displacement, encampments allow unhoused people to meet a vital social need that is regularly denied to them in other settings,” the authors continue. They point out that encampments can have immense social and psychological benefits compared to other experiences of homelessness.

In 2022, Lisa Boucher and her colleagues conducted a study on mutual aid among encampment residents in Toronto. “Some residents described how this community connectedness and solidarity was a natural consequence of their exclusion from larger society. They said it helped to find others experiencing similar struggles, including shared material deprivation, isolation, and oppression.” The study makes clear that these experiences, despite the material deprivation of encampments, can actually have a positive impact on mental health.

Finding Connection

Dej and colleagues describe how the factors that make people vulnerable to homelessness also result in small, fragmented social networks, and this worsens the forms of social exclusion that come along with homelessness. However, in encampments, this experience of exclusion is also the foundation of a new community. In 2018, Marlee Bower and her colleagues made a similar argument, that encampment residents’ “social networks are both constrained and enabled by marginalization.”

In fact, these forms of marginalization and isolation continue during the transition to housing and can be an obstacle to housing security. As Dej and her colleagues wrote in 2023, hardship, trauma, and systems barriers mean that young women and gender-diverse people in particular can end up even more isolated while transitioning to housing. Shelters are not accessible to everyone and can be a “risky or unreliable option” that can limit people’s ability to maintain social connections or form new ones.

In their evidence brief, Dej, Humer, and Card write that, “Not only do encampments offer the opportunity to keep people together, they provide a practical source of mutual aid and resource sharing that is essential to surviving homelessness. […] The relative stability in people staying at an encampment creates the conditions where people get to know one another and often work together to meet their basic needs.” Boucher emphasizes that this working together is fundamentally different from service provision because there is no distinction between the helper and the one being helped. Dej and her colleagues add that this “creates a sense of obligation and responsibility among encampment residents that builds social bonds and a sense of community.”

Safety in Encampments 

Despite how the mainstream narrative makes it seem, Dej, Humer, and Card explain that encampments can in fact be safer than other experiences of homelessness, such as accessing emergency shelters or living outside alone. These structures can sometimes be formal but are most often informal, with people simply looking out for each other. 

Although women and gender-diverse people face specific risks, this is not unique to encampments, and many feel encampments are safer in this regard than staying in shelters or returning to abusive relationships. In fact, encampment demolitions expose women and gender-diverse people to an increased risk of violence by removing their informal safety systems, a conclusion that the Federal Housing Advocate also reached in her review of encampements.

“Safety for encampment residents also comes in the form of privacy,” Dej, Humer, and Card continue in their evidence brief. “While community is built on being together, strong relationships come from having space to be alone and build relationships on their own terms rather than constantly having to share space with strangers.” This builds on Dej and colleagues’ 2023 work, where they wrote that youths experiencing homelessness “described loneliness as not an absence of people, but a lack of strong, meaningful connections.” Shelters are often congregate living spaces, where people are constantly around others while being only loosely connected to them.

Community Needs Stability

The safety described above depends on stability, though. “Stability looks like providing people with autonomy, access to resources, and the practical components that make surviving homelessness more bearable,” the evidence brief says. Encampments offer more self-determination than shelters, which tend to have strict rules and schedules. 

This is made possible by the presence of others: “It is the connections and relationships developed in the encampment that create the conditions for people to assert their independence and feel more control over their lives than in other settings.” Dej, Humer, and Card borrow from Olson and Pauly, who describe this as “precarious stability,” where staying in one place improves health but that stability is under constant threat from sweeps, displacement, and criminalization. 

The research on encampments is clear that, when they are stable, encampments offer a sense of belonging, friendship, and connection that can outweigh the support offered by the shelter systems. Although encampments are not a substitute for permanent, affordable housing, “until that housing is available to everyone, encampments provide a much-needed community of care.”

For more details about the research on community in encampments, check out Erin Dej, Kaitlin Humer, and Kiffer Card’s full research brief for the Canadian Alliance for Social Connection and Health, “Is There Community in Encampments?”