By Karyn Cooper – Director of Programs and Services
It appears we find ourselves in a period that is encouraging self-reflection and calls to action. At the same time, I know that there is a global pandemic resulting in significant challenges for many. What we cannot forget as we individually and collectively face adversity, is that we all have a right to human rights and dignity.
One of the issues that seems to be a hot topic currently is the issue of homelessness. COVID 19 responses had to include the inherent risk of transmission in overcrowded shelters as well as encampments. What this did was shine a light on systemic issues that have been around for a long time. Front line workers do the best with what they have but systemic issues significantly impact the population that they are serving.
While solutions to shelter overcrowding came together, the issue of encampments seemed to escalate as more encampments appeared in communities. Encampments could sometimes take a backseat to other issues, but as they become more visible in communities there is often more people who come to the table to discuss strategies to handle them.
What is sometimes lost in the discussions is that an encampment is an area where a group established itself. Encampments often become a hub of resourcefulness not to mention a space where relationship building, and service provision can occur. As anyone who does or has done front line outreach work, this is the key to outreach work.
Another thing that is sometimes lost in the discussions is that residents of encampments hold rights and are the experts in their own lives. Judgment and stigma cannot inform an effective encampment strategy. Engagement and participation of residents along with the resources of community must inform an effective encampment strategy on an individual basis.
We must also recognize that we do not have adequate housing solutions for people who are experiencing homelessness. This is a systemic issue that should not be put on encampment residents. Often, front line outreach workers do not have the tools (i.e. resources) they need to provide longer term solutions to individuals.
The dismantling of encampments by forcibly evicting people, removing their possessions, ticketing residents, and other means to discourage the establishment of encampments works against the front-line outreach efforts of community groups, organizations, and individuals. It impedes the trust-building, relationship-building and service coordination that occurs in these spaces. It enhances the challenges that already exist for people in encampments and/or experiencing homelessness such as criminalization and discrimination. It also violates basic human rights while often not giving an alternative that is aligned with the self-identified need or want of the individual.
I encourage community to stay rooted in the need for fundamental human rights and dignity when informing our own personal or organizational positions on homelessness and encampments. Stay informed, consider the issue from a broader systemic lens, and remember that a participatory individualized approach is key.