Bramson: The fix for encampments in our backyards
Garbage is piling up around the homeless encampment near Columbus Park after the city removed dumpsters in February 2022. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    Base pandering. Deceptive disinformation. Scare tactics. Impossible edicts. Rhetorical devices we’ve all become far too familiar with as it relates to what to do about the horror and impact of having people live on our streets. Facts are eschewed for flash judgements, while popular sentiment — as opposed to evidence-based solutions — begins to consume all of the oxygen in the room.

    In many ways, encampments sit at the heart of this debate.

    By far the most visible manifestation of homelessness and extreme poverty in our communities, these makeshift settlements are the places where thousands of individuals, families and youth lay down to rest every night. And while many would call these sites locations that are unfit for human habitation, encampments exist in every major city in the country. When people talk about the unhoused epidemic in the United States, images of tent-lined sidewalks, overcrowded nooks in underpasses, and eroded creek bank colonies invariably come to mind.

    All too often, however, we completely forget about the lives, stories, and sufferings of the people that inhabit these spaces. The talk tends toward trash, blight, crime, and so many other dehumanizing elements used to describe what is really just the final destination for folks with nowhere left to go. And this intense centering of the negative impacts in much of the discourse is exactly why we fail to see progress; we need to treat the root of this issue — a lack of affordable housing — if we ever want to see the cure.

    Make no mistake, if safe and stable alternatives were available to the people living there, they would gladly accept them with open arms.

    The RAND Corporation — a global policy think tank dedicated to getting to the core of perplexing societal challenges — recently released a study of unsheltered homelessness in Los Angeles. One of the most comprehensive targeted surveys and evaluations ever conducted, the results were unsurprisingly clear: the people studied were local to the area, had been outside for a while, lost their homes primarily due to economic challenges, and were very interested in getting out of the encampments as quickly as possible. Nearly all respondents indicated an interest in permanent housing.

    It’s worth noting, too, that interim and shelter options were far less desirable for most respondents. No judgment on the quality of those services, it is just a representation of the reality that people weren’t looking for the next stop on their journey of homelessness. They were looking for a final destination to call home.

    What this means for us locally is that we need to continue on the long path of figuring out real housing solutions for every person.

    With that in mind, it’s heartening to recently see the San Jose’s thoughtful approach to resident engagement at sites like Guadalupe Gardens. The council’s willingness to extend the deadline for clearing the large site while the city, county and a host of nonprofit agencies engage with the 100+ people who need housing is a testament to the commitment of our local leaders to focusing on the needs of the human beings who live there first.

    If we can hold on to that principle — the value of putting the resolution of a person’s homelessness in the center of the discussion at all times — it is possible to imagine an encampment-free future where we can simply work to keep every person stably housed and safe.

    So let’s set aside the exaggerations, derisions and hyperbole and keep working on a strategy that will serve us all.

    San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Operating Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at [email protected] or follow @rbramson on Twitter.

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