NCHJ Statement on USICH Encampment Guidance

June 2024

Everyone needs a safe and affordable place to live and no one should have to live in encampments. But clearing out encampments without ensuring residents have housing is cruel and ineffective. The recently issued guidance on managing homeless tent communities from the US Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) misses the mark in key areas. Among the strategies outlined in the document, this guidance concerningly supports two specific strategies that cause harm to people experiencing homelessness: encampment closures without requiring that housing be available to all residents, and the use of police in an encampment response. 

There are several strategies included in the USICH guidance that could be implemented locally to respectfully engage and house people currently living in encampments. Shame on communities who use guidance like this instead to justify forcefully and violently removing people from their living situations.

The bright spots in this guidance are darkened by the Biden Administration’s own ongoing police-enforced evictions of 90 unhoused people in Washington, DC. The guidance does not assuage the pattern of increasing violence against unhoused people at the hands of federal agents, including the forced displacement of more than 50 people from DC’s McPherson Square and the shooting and subsequent paralysis of a homeless individual by federal police during his forced removal from National Forest land in Idaho in May 2023.  

We agree with the USICH that housing is a basic human need. Unfortunately, some local communities are using portions of USICH’s guidance as cover for prioritizing displacement and police over housing and services. Two overarching concerns include:   

  • Green light for encampment raids: The USICH strategies include significant loopholes that cities can and will use to justify harmful encampment closures and raids without making alternative housing and services available. The USICH guidance provides cover for cities to close encampments for numerous broad, and poorly defined reasons, such as “safety” and “health” without offering solutions to the clear and persistent violence unhoused people experience at the hands of police and the broader community. Closing encampments without moving people into housing makes people unsafe and unhealthy: housing is healthcare.
  • The use of police in the response to homelessness: Police have no role in addressing homelessness. The USICH report states that law enforcement should not lead the public health response to encampments, and even goes further to explain the reason behind this statement: “Many people experiencing homelessness—especially people of color—have suffered traumatic experiences involving law enforcement.” Yet, by suggesting that police involved in encampment response wear “plain clothes” as a mediation severely overlooks the power and threat of police to the people living in these communities. Again, USICH provides cover for localities that want to use police as a primary response to encampments through harassment or criminalization – a practice that, like the use of fines and arrests, redirects resources away from strategies that solve homelessness to activities that make homelessness worse. The solution to homelessness must include the removal of all police from homelessness response.

    In response to continued violence against unhoused people, the National Coalition for Housing Justice has been in ongoing conversations with the Biden Administration to share specific recommendations that the administration should adopt now to address homelessness without arrests, bulldozers, or fines.   

    The Administration’s eviction of the McPherson Square encampment – conducted by the National Park Service and with agreement by the USICH – has been cited as a justification for harsh policies by other municipalities (i.e., if the federal government can do it, why shouldn’t we be able to do it?). It was also referred to as a “gold standard” during this year’s Supreme Court arguments in favor of criminalization. It was nothing of the sort.

    No matter our race, gender, or income we all want to get and keep a roof over our heads. It is dangerous for the Biden Administration, including the USICH, to publish any guidance that offers policing solutions as part of the mix. And with one in four adults reporting feeling concerned about potential homelessness because their incomes are too low to reliably pay skyrocketing housing costs, the Biden administration should move quickly to address the growing housing crisis and hold true to the promises of universal rental assistance made during the last Presidential Campaign. 

    Cities must not use the new iteration of USICH guidance as justification to forcefully close encampments and harm homeless communities.  

    About the National Coalition for Housing Justice 

    The National Coalition for Housing Justice’s (NCHJ) vision of housing justice guarantees opportunities for everyone in our country to have affordable, safe, accessible, stable housing. We take an approach grounded in racial justice, economic justice, and equity for all who have been marginalized or minoritized. 

    NCHJ members include national organizations and experts on affordable housing and homelessness, including four at-large members, A Way Home America, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Corporation for Supportive Housing, Funders Together to End Homelessness, Housing Justice Collective, National Alliance to End Homelessness, National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, National Coalition for the Homeless, National Health Care for the Homeless Council, National Homelessness Law Center, National Low Income Housing Coalition, True Colors United, and Youth Collaboratory.