The enduring harm of unhoused encampment sweeps

Displacing camp residents is costly, doesn’t address the issue of homelessness, and can even lead to increased illness, hospitalization and death.
Two police officers stand by while volunteers gather a camp resident's belongings to pack into a moving van.
Two police officers stand by while volunteers gather a camp resident's belongings to pack into a moving van. Jaelynn Grisso

Amanda spends most of her days at Camp Heer alongside her dog, Doobie, a Siberian Husky/Australian Kelpie mix who has been her most loyal and sometimes only companion since her husband died two years ago. “He’s my best friend, my saving grace,” Amanda said of Doobie in mid-September. 

For the last 10 years, Amanda has lived on the streets of Columbus – a majority of that time spent in places like Camp Heer, a tent encampment near Heer Park on the city’s South Side. She said she initially gravitated toward these camps because she considers shelters unsafe, especially as a single woman, describing fears of  theft and the threat of assault. Additionally, shelters can be restrictive, forbidding pets and limiting residents to a set number of belongings. There might also be hours when the shelter can’t be accessed, creating hurdles for residents who work overnight on graveyard shifts. And many have requirements for residents to adhere to sobriety, which can be especially difficult to achieve for those in recovery living absent stable housing.

Encampments, in contrast, afford Amanda a degree of freedom, while also allowing her to live alongside people who make efforts to look out for one another. 

“It’s often missed, but there are rules in camps – especially ones like ours, which have been in existence 10, 12, 14 years,” said Emily Myers, founder and director of Heer to Serve, an advocacy organization for unhoused people living on the South Side. “If you steal somebody’s stuff, the likelihood is your shit is going to go up in flames. So, there are consequences, right? This is a community. When somebody’s in need, you help them. … Because at the end of the day, the only people that are going to be there for you are your fellow residents.”

At the same time, Amanda conceded that life in the camps can be dangerous and plagued by uncertainty. Whether established on public or private land, the encampments are frequently subject to remediation, or sweeps, in which Columbus officials posts notice – typically two to three weeks if the camp is on public property and significantly less on private tracts. Authorities then move in to clear the land, disposing of any remains of the encampment, including unclaimed tents, clothing and personal belongings. (According to the Columbus Department of Development, no arrests have ever been made on remediation day.)

In the time Amanda has made her home in these encampments, she said she has endured “four or five” sweeps, each of which has displaced her from a known community and left her struggling to regain a sense of footing. “It tears everything apart, and you lose pretty much everything you can’t carry on your back,” she said. “And that family that you’ve established and you’re close to, the people you trust, it all gets torn apart. Everybody gets separated and you don’t know what’s going to happen. And once you move somewhere else, you’re scared, like, okay, are they going to come back in and do this again? And then you don’t want to get comfortable, so there’s anxiety, you lose sleep.”

Critics say that encampment remediations are costly and don’t reduce homelessness. “The idea of forcibly sweeping people, criminalizing the presence of human beings, doesn’t actually solve the problem policymakers are trying to address,” said Barbara DiPietro, senior director of policy for National Health Care for the Homeless Council (NHCHC), who authored a December 2022 brief that measured the impact of sweeps on the unhoused in which she described the practice as “counterproductive, costly, and harmful.” Columbus, for one, spent $173,776 on remediation at a dozen sites through August this year, according to public records obtained by the advocacy group First Collective. “In every corner of the country, sweeps are undermining health and safety.”

An April study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association expanded on the potential harms of the practice, concluding that encampment sweeps, move-along orders and similarly styled clean-ups that forcibly relocate individuals can lead to an increase in life-threatening infections, hospitalizations and death.

“We did thousands and thousands of simulations across 23 different cities worth of data, and what we showed is that in no scenario were encampment sweeps or involuntary displacement neutral or beneficial to the health of a person experiencing homelessness,” said Joshua Barocas, associate professor at Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine and the author of the study. “At the very least, municipal leaders have a responsibility to not harm their citizens. … And what the data shows is this policy is not achieving even that bare minimum.”

Multiple people interviewed said the practice of remediating camps also serves an unspoken function: removing from public view the visual reminder of how our society fails to provide for its most impoverished. “So instead we sweep people away, oftentimes one to two blocks,,” said Barocas, who noted that most people displaced move less than a quarter mile. “Many policy makers seem to think that simply doing what is expedient will get rid of the problem. … It’s literally sweeping the issue under the rug.”

Replying via email to a request for an interview, Sheldon Goodrum, a spokesperson for the Department of Development, said that “Columbus doesn’t engage in camp sweeps.” Rather, he said, the city has adopted a process of remediation, which “addresses the conditions and challenges of homeless encampments while working towards sustainable solutions.” 

Under remediation, when the city is informed of an encampment, a Homeless Advocacy Liaison reaches out to offer assistance to the camp and community partners such as Maryhaven and the Community Shelter Board are engaged. These organizations can then inform camp residents of alternate shelter options, in addition to providing food and personal hygiene products, mental health and substance abuse support, case workers and legal assistance. Camp residents are also aided year-round by nonprofits and mutual aid groups such as Heer to Serve and First Collective, among others, and on Saturday, Sept. 30, activist (and Matter board member) Liz Andromeda will lead a “Solidarity Ships” cargo bike ride from Goodale Park to Heer Park, with riders carting supplies to be donated during Heer to Serve’s weekly service.

After being made aware of a camp, the city will continue to conduct wellness checks at the site at least once a week, urging residents to take advantage of available services. “However, when progress is no longer being made and an appropriate time has passed, if a resident is unwilling to engage further with advocates and support, they will be asked to leave the premises,” Goodrum wrote in a subsequent email. He then pointed to the example of an earlier Heer Park encampment that was reported to the city in June 2021 and was cleared a year later on June 20, 2022.

“I do appreciate that the city invests a good deal of time and energy into engaging with the folks at these camps, connecting them with resources, making sure they know what’s going to happen, and in some cases connecting them to housing before the camps are disturbed,” said Mike Premo, executive director of Community Development for All People. “Some [cities] just show up with bulldozers and cops and no warning.”

But Daye, a volunteer with First Collective, said there aren’t always places where people living in the encampments can go. When Heer Park was cleared in June 2022, for instance, it fell amid one of the hottest stretches of the year, and Daye said camp residents were provided the number for a shelter whose waiting list exceeded more than 250 people every day. “There just aren’t any beds,” Daye said.

Premo is acutely aware of the resource scarcity those experiencing homelessness run up against, noting Columbus has a shortfall in availability everywhere from affordable housing units to beds in emergency shelters.

“We have to do a better job with how we provide emergency shelter in the city and in Central Ohio, and I’m joined in that by the people who run the shelters and the CEO of the Community Shelter Board (Shannon Isom),” Premo said. “It breaks my heart that people are getting displaced from these camps, and we talk to a lot of those people every day at Community Development for All People, and we hear their stories, and we hear how all of their things got thrown away, including their ID, and how they’re now starting over from square one.”

These losses can have devastating consequences for the unhoused. Amanda said all of her identifying paperwork was discarded in a past sweep, and she only recently obtained a new copy of her birth certificate. Now she’s working on getting a new social security card and state ID, at which point she’ll finally be able to provide her Southeast Healthcare case worker the documentation needed to take the next step in a move toward permanent housing. Collecting these documents is not an easy process, either. Amanda doesn’t have a phone – “Trying to get a government phone has been like pulling teeth,” she said – so calling her case worker or the DMV for updates or information isn’t an option. And even if the location rests on or near an existing line, public transportation to and from offices can be unreliable for in-person visits. Even a seemingly simple task such as making it to a scheduled appointment can be a hurdle with no reliable way to tell the time.

So while Amanda started the process of locating permanent housing “four or five months ago,” she said she doesn’t feel any closer to a resolution today, leading her to describe the relentless pull exerted by the streets as “gravitational.” 

“Once you’re there, you feel like you can never get out,” she said. 

Both DiPietro and Premo said it was incumbent on the federal government to provide additional funding to combat the growing housing crisis, which continues to worsen, fueled in part by the expiration of pandemic protections that in recent years helped keep more renters in homes. 

Franklin County experienced a record 20,897 eviction filings in 2022, according to data from United Way of Central Ohio, and earlier this year the Columbus Dispatch reported 2,144 people were evicted in Franklin County Municipal Court in June – up from 1,617 in June 2022. 

“We don’t have a strong pipeline off of the street, but we do have a strong pipeline on to the street. And I’m very worried about what the trajectory of this looks like in three years, in five years. Where are we headed as a nation when we have so many people living on the street?” DiPietro said. “I will never say that an encampment is an awesome place to be. … They can be dangerous, scary, violent places. At the same time, what is the alternative? This is the culmination of decades of doing nothing. … We've chosen to not fund housing. We've chosen to allow communities to shut down affordable housing programs. The system isn't broken. The system is working exactly as it was designed.”

DiPietro said the largest responsibility for stemming the tide falls on the federal government, which she said controls a majority of the funding available for housing. This is part of the reason Columbus City Council recently received significant criticism after the Dispatch reported that members voted earlier this month to return more than $1.1 million from a previous, COVID-related rental assistance grant because the city didn’t spend all the money by December as required. “It’s going to take real political will at the federal level,” DiPietro said, “and right now we aren’t seeing any more appropriations coming from Congress to help our communities.”

“City and county leadership are on the same page with the reality that this is an important issue and we need to do more,” said Premo, who also stressed the importance of connecting the unhoused with immediate addiction and mental health aid in those needed moments of lucidity. “But unfortunately there are people on the state and federal level who are hostile to development of affordable housing, to helping people lift themselves out of poverty, to helping people get off the streets. And that’s where we get hamstrung, because those levels of government are ineffective at best when we’re doing the work.

“If it was just Columbus that would be one thing, but it’s happening all over the country, so all levels of government need to get some skin in the game. … The camps are a symptom of a larger problem. And the question becomes how do we deal with that larger problem?”

Earlier this year, Columbus piloted a new transitional housing program that offered individuals who had been residing in an encampment – in this case Camp Shameless – a room in a Far East Side motel and individual case management to help them identify housing. Goodrum said the Department of Development hoped to take lessons learned from the experience to expand on the program in the future. 

But these resettlements aren’t without their own challenges. The motels are generally located miles from the city center and the neighborhood with which the person is familiar. And by their nature hotel rooms tend to be isolated settings, leaving residents cut off from the community that can make encampments feel like home.

“I struggle to imagine anyone being like, ‘We’re going to tell you where to live. And we don’t care about your friends, your social connections. Now go live in this room in this place you have no roots in.’ How many people do you know that would stay?” DiPietro said. “We have absolutely no problem telling poor people what they should do, where they should live. And it just strikes me that these liberties that we hold so sacred are only as good as your pocketbook.”

But despite the endless bureaucratic hurdles, past broken promises from case workers and city officials, and the near-constant reminders of how fragile life can be for those living in encampments – Amanda and Myers briefly struggled to recall how many Camp Heer residents died or went missing in the last year – Amanda has managed to preserve hope that her current application for permanent housing will finally free her from a life on the streets.

It helps, of course, that she spends all of her days in the company of someone whose existence offers proof that abundant patience and kindness, combined with having one’s most basic needs met, can have a potentially transformative impact.

“When Doobie first came around, he was so scared and skittish, and it was clear whoever had him had been horribly mean to him,” Amanda said. “But for three weeks I showed him, I’m not gonna hurt you. I’ve got you. … Now his tail’s not tucked and he’s bright-eyed and jumping everywhere. And he hasn’t left my side since.”

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