The urban camping/rough sleeping/unsheltered debate in Canada very much predates the COVID-19 pandemic. Community members, service providers, policy makers, and at times orders of government differ on the right approaches to supporting or confronting those who live unsheltered in public spaces. Advocates at times strongly oppose anti-camping approaches, at times are silent on these approaches, or at times privately or publicly support these approaches. Here in London, Ontario the London Homeless Coalition has taken an approach that focuses on key principles. As Chair at the time this approach was authored, I note that it was criticized both for not being explicitly strong enough against anti-camping approaches and conversely as not supportive enough of municipal approaches to by-law enforcement.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought this debate to a renewed forefront from coast-to-coast-to-coast with an over-riding consideration of public health. You see competing narratives, of camping being unsafe and therefore bans should be increased, or of other spaces as being more unsafe therefore camping should be supported with additional supplies. We have seen choice offered for relocation to motels/hotels and we have seen forced relocation with an associated offer of relocation to motels/hotels. The CDC (“If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.

Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”) and the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing have both released statements and guidelines in opposition of removing campsites during a pandemic, while communities throughout Canada have implemented fencing off public parks and creating new no-trespassing zones.

Rather than wade directly into the debate, as I don’t believe I can add to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, what I would like to highlight is what the research tells us about “anti-homelessness” legislation in general.

Marisa Westbrook and Tony Robinson conducted a very large scale survey of 484 people sleeping rough in Denver, Colorado. This was enabled through the use of community surveyors, a promising participatory approach for a population that can be hard to reach for research purposes. While it required 6 months to complete data collection, it creates a comprehensive dataset. The goal was to understand “experiences with “quality of life” policing, and how those policing practices are affecting their personal health and quality of life.”

Here are some key stats:

  • Whereas 74% had police contacts while unsheltered, only 14% received an offer of assistance and only 3% ultimately received contact with a social service worker
  • 68% were very or somewhat concerned about police contact while sleeping
  • While 49.4% noted their preference to sleep in visible groups in the core for safety, 64% of respondents had been broken up from their group by police
    • Those who moved often to avoid police contact were more than twice as likely to experience a physical assault and 39% more likely to be robbed
  • 14.7% of those who had been forced by police to leave a sheltered public space have experienced frostbite or heatstroke
  • Higher rates of police contacts were correlated with a self-assessment of worsening mental health

The authors highlight that there is a narrative around policing of people occupying public spaces related to ‘tough love’. That by-law or police based interventions are to connect people into supports and services, to motivate change, or to support health. However, the findings from this study show quite the opposite: That police contacts rarely lead to tangible supports, that the changes being motivated are to be less safe, and that these contacts reduce mental wellbeing.

These findings are important considerations as we think about various approaches to approaching those who are unsheltered during the pandemic (and afterwards). While this doesn’t necessarily tell us what approaches will work, it does help us understand what isn’t working.

This is part of a blog series by Abe Oudshoorn, which explores recent research on homelessness, and what it means for the provision of services to prevent or end homelessness. See the full series here