Lafayette, Indiana city workers demolished a homeless man’s encampment this week without giving him or the outreach team that had been working with him any warning.
The man and his cat weren’t there when it happened, and when he returned all that was left was an empty space where his shack had been and a white plastic bag in a tree that had served as a marker in the woods. The city workers had cleared his belongings along with the trash.
Kurt Harker, who leads an outreach team for the unsheltered homeless, told the Journal & Courier that it had a huge impact on the homeless man. “I think the word devastated’ is not too strong to describe his emotional response to these recent events,” he said. The man now no longer has a sleeping bag, clothes, or other personal items. He’s in temporary shelter and has been placed on a priority list to get more permanent through a city program but it’s unclear how long that will take.
The city workers didn’t follow protocol, which requires them to first contact Harker and Adam Murphy, the point person at the city’s development department for supporting the homeless. The encampment was cleared after a photo of it was published in an earlier Journal & Courier story on the city’s point-in-time headcount of its homeless population. “They thought it was an abandoned site,” Murphy told the paper. “A mistake was made in removing it, but we’re actually doubling down to make sure camps aren’t removed without talking to the (outreach) team first.”
There were 182 homeless people in the county during last year’s point-in-time count, although that is likely an undercount given that it’s estimated 900 residents experience bouts of homelessness during the year. Nationwide, more than 578,000 people experience homelessness on a given night, with more than 153,000 going unsheltered.
Cities take different approaches to their homeless populations. Some have gone similar routes of demolishing camps or closing the parks where they sleep, while others have criminalized aspects of homeless life, such as sleeping in public, having belongings in public, and panhandling. Some have simply tried to move them elsewhere with one-way bus tickets.
But others have focused instead on moving the homeless into housing. Three cities — Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and New Orleans — have found shelter for entire portions of their homeless residents. It’s a much more cost effective approach, as it significantly reduces spending on homeless people’s police encounters and trips to the emergency room. It also reduces the dangers that face people living on the streets, which are more than just the risk of losing one’s belongings — they are often at risk of losing their lives.