Our recent experience working with downtowns in the state of New York and in North Carolina this past year has brought to our attention a spike in stakeholder concerns over homelessness downtown. The homeless population is often referred to as the people who “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence". In downtowns, the homeless are often seen occupying public or private places that are not designed to be regular sleeping accommodation including parking lots and garages, storefront stoops, transit stations, vacant buildings/ lots etc. In addition to this group, there are also the homeless who live in substandard buildings that lack sanitation, cooking facilities or heat, who are often disregarded.
Seeing the rising concern over homelessness in our own projects led us to dig a little deeper into the trends happening elsewhere. As it turns out, homelessness is indeed spiking in cities all across the country, and particularly in downtowns. In San Diego, for example, tent cities have begun proliferating downtown near freeway on-ramps and commercial districts and homeless service centers. On a recent trip to Seattle, WA, I witnessed the same trend occurring under the on-ramp to I-90 by the CenturyLink Field and Chinatown District.
A myriad of factors contribute to the rising homeless population downtown but many leaders are increasingly placing blame on criminal justice reforms, which have downgraded some felonies to misdemeanors and therefore keeping some people out of prison or drug treatment and instead leaving them on the streets.
The more popular reason for the rise in homelessness downtown, however, remains the increasing cost of rents and disappearance of residential hotels. As more people look to live in convenient and vibrant downtowns across the nation, the high demand for downtown apartments and houses is slowly driving prices up for all housing stock. Meanwhile, homeless advocates are also pointing to the significant loss of single-room occupancy units, or SROs, as a key factor in the homelessness crisis. Many SRO units that still remain are unfortunately uninviting and unaffordable.
Why do homeless people gather downtown?
While those who can afford to live in downtowns are moving to these areas for comfort, convenience, and entertainment, homeless individuals on the other hand are coming in droves because downtown is often the best place to seek day service centers, social service centers, and basic amenities such as bathrooms and water fountains. Downtown is also the place where homeless folks can get a meal, a shower or a shelter bed – resources that often cannot be found elsewhere.
During a stakeholder interview for our work in Middletown (NY), Director of the Thrall Library, Matt Pfisterer informed us that the homeless population there was particularly active around the library because they needed bathroom access in the day when they were not in shelters. Later in the afternoon, he reports, the homeless crowd migrates towards the soup kitchens and other downtown homeless service centers as they start to compete for safe and comfortable night time lodging. The Thrall Library, as do many other libraries across the nation, does its best to accommodate this group by ensuring bathrooms are monitored and maintained constantly throughout the day by staff and personnel to ensure that all library users can continue to use the bathrooms hassle-free.
Bathroom lines and litter are hardly issues when it comes to dealing with homelessness downtown. Many cities are facing harder problems such as drug use in public, rise in reported theft, and overall, a perceived lack of safety amongst residents and visitors. This overall unwelcoming atmosphere is not only discouraging some from living and investing in downtown, but also discouraging customers from shopping and visiting downtown. In our experience, we have heard from business owners and property owners that homelessness downtown has negatively impacted foot traffic and in turn, sales. In some cases, the homeless population has been driven to spend nights on storefront stoops and use back alleys as latrines, giving store employees additional work in the morning when they return to open and operate businesses.
Lower patronage downtown has even resulted in businesses closing in Portland, OR. A dance studio in downtown Portland, OR experienced dwindling class attendance from out-of-towners who felt scared walking to and from parking lots and dance class in the evenings as a result of the spike in the homeless population there.
Whether perceived or real, this lack of safety experienced downtown can be managed by downtown organizations. The first step in managing homelessness downtown is counting, keeping track, and being aware of the current situation. After all, you cannot manage what you don’t know. By keeping count of your homeless population, you will be able to determine the actual size and scope of the issue and at the same time identify hot spots with high concentrations of homeless folks and their peak visiting times during the day.
A common way to count the population is to use the ‘point-in-time’ method. This method requires that the count take place on one day every year across the city or downtown and therefore provides a Point-In-Time snapshot of the homeless population. This can be conducted by public or private sector volunteers including, of course, the downtown organization. This information can then even be registered with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to become a part of a nationwide database for understanding homelessness across the country and will be required to be considered for federal funding to combat homelessness.
The limitation with this method, however, is that volunteers counting are only limited to what they can see by eye. In essence, they count the number of homeless people seen in cars, and on foot and if there are those who are hidden in tents, an assumption is made that there are two people per tent and may therefore be undercounting. Keeping a consistent counting method throughout the months and years is crucial for comparing data over time accurately and as long as this limitation is recognized, downtown organizations will be able to make informed decisions.
Downtown San Diego Partnership takes counting a step further by organizing a monthly survey instead of an annual one. Homeless outreach workers with the Downtown Partnership cover 275 city blocks between midnight and 5 a.m. on the last Thursday of every month and they have been counting since 2012. This has enabled them to see changes year-on-year and the data has helped the Partnership determine what actions need to be taken to manage the spike in homelessness and also to determine factors that may be affecting the numbers.
There are a number of actions that can be taken by downtowns to manage their homeless populations depending on size and scope.
First, developing a Vulnerability Index has been critical to many downtowns and cities in order for them to identify and prioritize the homeless population on the streets that should qualify for housing. A Vulnerability Index typically measures length of homelessness and mortality risk and is a practical application—a person-to-person survey—that is “revolutionizing the speed at which … chronically homeless population is placed into permanent housing”.
In some cities, non profits are stepping forward to create diverse housing stocks for the formerly homeless and low-income residents. Mixed-income permanent supportive housing is becoming a popular strategy to house the homeless population in larger cities such as DC and NYC.Often these buildings also feature community spaces such as rooftop terraces, gardens, lounges, gyms and laundry rooms that help the residents get out and engage with neighbors – a holistic environment for recovery from homelessness or any other dire situation.
While providing housing stock may be a longer term strategy, other short to medium-term strategies are also in place in many downtowns across the country. Libraries, as mentioned earlier, are becoming top community spaces that support the homeless population. The DC public library, for example, now provides an innovative outreach program for the homeless since its first hire of a Health and Human Services Coordinator. A Knight Foundation grant in 2015 enabled DC Public library to create an online interface of health and human services data and train librarians in homelessness outreach so that when homeless folks come up to a librarian, he/she is able to direct them to the right service providers and give the correct referrals. This is a simple yet essential tool for supporting homeless folks and getting them back on track.
In other instances, business improvement districts have partnered with existing homeless-serving organizations to carry out supportive programs. In Los Angeles, CA, Downtown Center Business Improvement District funds homeless outreach teams to contact, interview and assist homeless people living in the west side of downtown. Over $255,000 has been funneled from the BID to two social services agencies in order to hire staff to do this outreach work. PATH, or People Assisting the Homeless, is one of the organizations that provides services, including street outreach, shelter and housing construction. Chrysalis, a skid row program, then provides job preparation and temporary work experience, and also has been tasked with picking up litter in areas heavily-trafficked by homeless folks. In the first year of funding from the BID, outreach workers completed 196 assessments, and placed 36 people in permanent housing and enrolled 56 in PATH’s housing services.
Downtown San Diego Partnership, on the other hand, has set up a Clean and Safe Program and DowntownDC BID partnered with the city government and 20 local service providers in order to facilitate various efforts to end homelessness. This includes a partnership with Pathways to Housing DC that has deployed a 4-person, clinically-based outreach team that provides street-level intervention to move individuals beyond homelessness to independence. In addition, DowntownDC BID’s Safety/ Hospitality and Maintenance employees have 12 specially-trained members, known as the Homeless Outreach Service Team (HOST), who work closely with the Pathways to Housing DC Team and are trained to recognize and engage individuals with mental and addiction challenges. The smallest yet most impactful effort made by DowntownDC BID, however, remains the brown bag discussions that help educate the public on homelessness and raise awareness.
Installing public bathrooms is another potential strategy that might mitigate instances of public urination/ defecation. Although not all instances of this offence is carried out by the homeless, the compassionate approach rather than law enforcement approach has been widely praised by residents of the city of Denver, CO, where a pilot program of mobile public restrooms was established last year. These mobile facilities cost $12,000 per month to lease and are cleaned nightly and rotated regularly to different locations. Public bathrooms are basic amenities that should be made available to all users of downtown.
Given that vacant lots are often targeted for homeless camps to set up, downtown organizations may mitigate the situation by requiring or ensuring that private property owners have reliable property management companies in place to monitor compliance with zoning codes.
Finally, as downtown organizations plan ahead the annual schedule of events, they might start thinking about organizing events in partnership with homeless groups and shelters to accelerate and coordinate the move-in process. These processes normally take 60 days to happen but can be expedited in a single all-day event that serves as both outreach to homeless folks and also one that raises awareness amongst the general public.
Take a Comprehensive Approach
Overall, it is important to acknowledge that ignoring the homeless population downtown will not make it go away. A comprehensive approach must be taken by downtowns, in partnership with city, state or even federal agencies, and nonprofits and local community groups. Addressing the full range of issues faced by the homeless including housing/shelter, employment services, meals, and rehabilitation is crucial to managing the problem. It is also important to remember to count and measure the scale and scope of the issue first before taking any mitigating steps. This ensures that the response or strategies implemented directly serve those in need rather than simply blanket the problem.