Just a few weeks ago in downtown Charlottesville, a scene played out that reflects the impact of a nationwide crisis on members of our own community. As residents of the Market Street Park encampment packed up their tents with nowhere to go, a reporter from the Daily Progress spoke to Redelli Banks about shelter access, the significance of safety in numbers, and the threats from Charlottesville and the Police Department that led to this exodus. In a statement that encapsulates the stark reality and dehumanizing effects of the sweeps, Ms. Banks said, “They can have their park back. It wasn’t about their park; it was about us. It was about us having somewhere to stay.”
The City’s response to the homeless encampment recently took a sudden turn. Earlier in September, the City decided to lift the curfew at Market Street Park due, in part, to alleged acts of police misconduct and the subsequent community outrage at a city council meeting. However, soon after, City Manager Sanders announced a change of course, stating that the curfew would be reinstated on October 21st. Instead of waiting for the reopening of PACEM, the only overnight shelter available for homeless communities in Charlottesville, and reassessing the situation in the park after people had the opportunity to go to the shelter, the City chose to go back on its previous commitment, seemingly succumbing to pressure from irate constituents.
Fortunately, a violent eviction of the encampment did not occur. Many individuals living there were intimidated by police threats of removal as well as the presence of signs indicating the City’s intent to block streets leading up to the park. Rationally assuming this blockage was to prepare for mass arrests, most people in the park packed up and left for various other areas of the city before the curfew took effect at 11 pm.
The response of the City to the growing homeless population in Charlottesville lays bare the refusal by our local government to resolve the true causes of homelessness and provide adequate services that respect individuals’ humanity, privacy, and autonomy. This policy response is not unique to Charlottesville; it plays out each day among growing encampments throughout urban centers across the US. As housing supply and affordability continue to shrink, more and more people are experiencing homelessness, suddenly evicted from their homes due to unexpected emergencies they can’t afford. With this rise in encampments, there has also been a rise in police “sweeps,” where the individuals in the camps are forcibly removed from public spaces and dispersed throughout the city. In the process, police often destroy their tents, supplies, and other belongings– usually the only things people have to their names. Experts and advocates across the spectrum agree that this response does nothing to improve the chances of these people accessing shelter or permanent housing, and instead actively harms these communities, leading to serious reductions in life expectancy due to subsequent increases in overdoses, hospitalizations, infections, assaults, and more. Often, if people refuse to leave the encampment or get “smart” with police, they are regularly faced with aggression and arrests in lieu of de-escalation practices.
Homelessness, despite the sensational claims of Fox News hosts like Jesse Watters, is not a “choice” that needs to be more heavily stigmatized, and its primary drivers are not addiction, mental illness, or “some people just not wanting to work,” though I’m certain edge cases like that exist. It’s easy to look at people struggling on the streets and come to the conclusion that it’s just an issue of the individual’s personal failures. It’s easy to do that because it also allows us to conclude that it could therefore never happen to ourselves. This overwhelmingly widespread rhetoric ignores conclusions from researchers at The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, and even real estate industry leaders like Zillow with a vested interest in maintaining high housing prices. Overwhelmingly, experts agree that the primary driver of homelessness in America is wages not keeping up with rising rents, a rise in people living paycheck to paycheck, and a healthcare system so expensive that a single emergency could have you out on the street. In fact, following the 2008 Housing Crisis, major cities across the US experienced a 1342% increase in homeless encampments over 10 years, showing the impact severe economic downturn can have on people who are already financially struggling, and the direct linkage between affordable housing and homelessness. Rational leaders across the ideological spectrum know that sweeps of encampments do nothing to address these root causes, and are simply temporary solutions to avoid dealing with constituents’ discomfort.
The intensity and aggression of sweeps can differ depending on the local government and police department’s stance towards the homeless population, as well as the presence of journalists or local activists who assist people in packing up and observing the police to prevent misconduct or violence. Still, sweeps have been consistently damaging to the places where they occur. According to HUD, encampments are often the best alternative among an extremely limited set of options, and sweeps of these encampments often do little to increase shelter usage. For example, in the beginning weeks of Mayor Eric Adams’s NYC administration, he engaged in a “total purge” of homeless individuals from public spaces, sweeping over 200 encampments. Only 5 people from those sweeps eventually accepted city housing or shelter.
Many may be wondering why or how someone living outside could reject an offer of temporary shelter, which is why it is vital to understand the shortcomings of existing shelter systems before critiquing that hefty decision. While people sometimes elect to stay in encampments for a stronger sense of safety, community, privacy, and autonomy, the primary reason for the ‘tent cities’ exists in shortcomings in the shelter system. Though there exists a huge range of shelters, staying in them typically entails extreme restrictions on movement, loss of personal belongings, and unclean or unsafe conditions. Take this man’s experience for example: “The shelter where I stayed briefly, you had to be in line. They technically opened at 7:00, but you had to be in line at 4:30 in the afternoon to be able to get your bed back.” In shelters like these, it is nearly impossible for residents to find employment if they want access to a warm bed at night. Specific subpopulations also face unique challenges that may make encampments their only option. Female survivors of domestic violence, for example, often confront a dire situation: shelters catering specifically to this group usually have strict policies prohibiting the presence of males, regardless of age. As a result, survivors may be forced to reject shelter to stay with their children, who they cannot be separated from. This situation and others like it underscore the need for more flexible and accommodating shelter options to address the complex needs of those experiencing homelessness.
Local mayors and politicians have an obligation to protect and promote the health, safety, and well-being of all their constituents. Sweeps are almost always ordered in response to housed residents’ concerns or discomfort, with little consideration given to the well-being of the people in the camps. Despite efforts for years to find one, researchers are still unable to demonstrate a clear link between encampments and increased crime. It’s entirely understandable that fear and discomfort drive these irrational decisions, but this discomfort cannot dictate policy in the face of substantial evidence that sweeps are ineffective and do more harm than good. It makes no sense to respond to homelessness by disappearing homeless individuals from public view, instead of providing them with resources and housing. Rather than reacting out of fear, both policymakers and the public share a responsibility to act with benevolence and generosity to those without shelter. Ignoring someone in distress is profoundly dehumanizing, particularly when we have the means to extend our own resources. It can be as simple as offering a smile or a meal, or as radical as opening your home, but it has to be something. Fostering a stronger sense of community and bridging the gap between housed and unhoused individuals is essential. Failure to do so leads not only to bad policy but to a genuine erosion of our social fabric by refusing to merely acknowledge another person’s existence and pain.
We all share a collective responsibility to oppose the harm caused by sweeps, to safeguard the well-being of everyone living in Charlottesville, and to advocate for policy changes that tackle the underlying factors leading individuals to join encampments. Ignoring another person’s struggle by simply removing them from public view does not enhance safety for any of us, sheltered or not.
The opinions expressed within this piece represent the views of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jefferson Independent.