Survey Identifies Connections Between Criminalization of Homelessness and Environmental Injustice

An article in Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, “Intersecting Hazards, Intersectional Identities: A Baseline Critical Environmental Justice Analysis of Homelessness,” describes how the regulation and criminalization of homelessness can magnify the environmental hazards to which people experiencing homelessness are exposed. The author interviewed people experiencing homelessness who described concerns about being forced into campsites affected by soil and water contamination, air and noise pollution, severe weather events, fire, and pests and rodents.

The author draws on seven years of participant observation in Portland, OR, and a national phone survey of 47 “houseless community” representatives across the country. The participant observation was performed with Right 2 Survive, a Portland-based advocacy organization that has established two “self-governed houseless communities.” These communities are self-organizing encampments with communal areas and shared services for people experiencing homelessness. For the national phone survey, the author identified 385 organized houseless communities throughout the country and conducted structured interviews with 47 community leaders in 19 states. The interviews focused on the nature of these communities, environmental hazards that affect residents, and strategies used to address such hazards. (Right 2 Survive refers to people living without shelter as “houseless” rather than homeless because home is where the heart is, and just because someone lacks shelter does not mean they lack a heart.)

Environmental justice scholarship focuses on the fairness of environmental and health laws and policies—whether equal efforts are taken to protect everyone from environmental hazards and provide equal access to healthy environments. The author draws two major conclusions from interviews with houseless community representatives. First, the regulation and criminalization of homelessness increases the environmental hazard exposure risk for people experiencing homelessness. Second, a careful analysis of these environmental hazards should take into account how exposure risk varies for people of color, women, people with disabilities, and people with mental illness.

The interviewees identified a number of environmental hazards that people experiencing homelessness encounter. Among those environmental hazards were soil and water contamination, air and noise pollution, and exposure to severe weather events. Residents of houseless communities were also concerned about fire risks, mold and mildew, landslides, exposure to pests and rodents, and the threat of police or vigilante violence. In many cases, the lack of access to infrastructure (e.g., shelter, stormwater management, water and sanitation systems, electricity, heating, trash services) exacerbated their environmental hazard exposure. Over and above the everyday hazards created by lack of basic infrastructure, interviewees noted that people experiencing homelessness were exposed to greater environmental hazards during natural disasters. Interviewees described being denied FEMA assistance and refused emergency services after wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods.

Interviewees described ways in which the regulation and criminalization of homelessness exacerbated these environmental hazards. Prohibitions on camping in safer public spaces and “move-along” orders reportedly drove some houseless communities into more dangerous areas. Interviewees reported having an easier time camping on federal land near railroad tracks, due to reduced police presence, though they expressed worries about pollution and noise in such spaces. Other interviewees reported similar experiences of being effectively encouraged to camp near subway tracks or in underpasses. Interviewees described how the seizure of belongings such as tents further limited their options and drove some to areas such as underpasses. Beyond driving them to less desirable locations, police interaction was itself described as an environmental hazard by interviewees—move-along orders in the middle of the night were described as noise pollution that deprived them of sleep.

Interviewees identified another connection between environmental justice and homelessness—namely, the way environmental justice concerns are used to justify evictions and sweeps. The author describes a 2016 incident in which an encampment was directed to City of Portland-owned land, only to be evicted after a belated discovery that the site had been a dumping ground for carcinogenic substances. Interviewees described other cases where they believed concerns about hygiene, public health, or environmental justice were used as a pretext to evict houseless communities, rather than to provide forms of support that could mitigate environmental hazards.

The paper is at: