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"They don’t want us anywhere": The impact of anti-homelessness laws on unsheltered residents of Fort Worth, Texas

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Published onJun 18, 2024
"They don’t want us anywhere": The impact of anti-homelessness laws on unsheltered residents of Fort Worth, Texas
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Abstract

Access to public space is not afforded equally amongst the population. Often, the people who must spend most of their time in these spaces, people experiencing homelessness, are barred by local or state law from being there. Fort Worth, Texas, implemented a camping ban in 2019 that prohibits camping on public or private property. This article explores the impact of this ban on unsheltered people experiencing homelessness using semi-structured interviews with 18 people residing in encampments across the city. The findings document the tangible and existential losses endured by this group and the impact on the perception of their place in the city’s evolving social landscape. Keywords: homeless, anti-homelessness laws, camping bans

Mitchell (2003) remarked that “Public space is the space of justice” (p. 235). However, the right to public space is not afforded to all people equally. People experiencing homelessness are commonly excluded from these areas through various anti-homelessness laws that criminalize such behaviors as lying down or sleeping in public, living in a vehicle, and panhandling. Meanwhile, many of these individuals have no private areas to engage in these vital behaviors, essentially making their very existence a violation of city ordinances. Fort Worth, Texas, recently implemented a camping ban that makes it illegal to sleep in public spaces and encourages citizens to report homeless camping to the city’s code enforcement office. This article explores the impact of this ordinance through interviews with people experiencing unsheltered homelessness across the city. The results highlight the harmful effects the camping ban has on these individuals. Participants discuss the disruptions from being forced to move regularly and what they lose in this never-ending process. Interestingly, while they express much frustration with these laws, they tend to report positive relationships with the officers enforcing them.

Literature Review

National estimates put the number of people experiencing homelessness in the United States at over half a million (US Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2022). This number has been increasing in recent years as housing costs rise and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold. In Texas, there are an estimated 25,000 people experiencing homelessness, and over 2,000 of these individuals reside in the city of Fort Worth. Nearly half are unsheltered, generally sleeping on the streets, under bridges, or in wooded areas near highways (Tarrant County Homeless Coalition, 2023).

Unsheltered Homelessness

Unsheltered homelessness, accounting for roughly 40% of all homeless situations nationwide (US Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2022), comes with its unique issues. Unsheltered populations tend to have more prolonged bouts of homelessness, often due to a higher prevalence of mental health and substance use disorders as well as past incarceration history (Levitt et al., 2009; Nyamathi et al., 2000). Many choose to be unsheltered since they view shelter services as unhelpful, not addressing their actual needs, and find the shelters dangerous, dirty, and chaotic places to avoid (Donley & Wright, 2012; Petrovich & Cronley, 2015). It is also common for people to not seek shelter due to the stigma associated with accessing such services, negative interactions with shelter staff, and/or their disagreement with the facility’s rules (Donley & Wright, 2012; Ha et al., 2015; Larsen et al., 2004; Ogden & Avades, 2011; Petrovich & Cronley, 2015). Other barriers to obtaining housing for these individuals are structural, such as difficulties obtaining identifying documents and lacking transportation to jobs or social services (Ha et al., 2015).

Meanwhile, this population is particularly vulnerable to efforts to criminalize homelessness. Activities that housed individuals do in private areas (such as sleeping, cleaning, or relieving oneself) must occur outdoors, often in sight of others. The visibility of their private behavior draws attention to the existence of homelessness and demands a response from the public. This reality makes them common foci of anti-homelessness law enforcement.

Anti-homelessness Laws

Laws criminalizing homelessness gained support in the 1980s, with Seattle being one of the first to pass a law prohibiting panhandling in 1986 (Blau, 1992). While this initial attempt was found unconstitutional on First Amendment free speech grounds, it was quickly replaced by anti-homelessness laws that became a blueprint for other cities to follow. The most recent estimates of the breadth of anti-homelessness laws across 187 cities show that these laws are prolific and expanding (National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, 2019). Nearly three-quarters of cities have a law prohibiting camping in public, and over half specify specific public spaces where camping is forbidden. “Camping” can take on various meanings as some cities define it simply as sleeping in public with a blanket or just sleeping somewhere for a “substantial prolonged period of time” (Columbia, S.C. Code § 14-105(a)(1), 2007).

Fort Worth, Texas, went further and, in 2019, unanimously passed a city ordinance prohibiting camping on private property without written authorization from the owner. The ordinance identifies a wide array of behaviors that fall under this ban, including residing in a motor vehicle, using a tent, sleeping bag, blanket, “or any form of cover or protection from the elements other than clothing” (Fort Worth, TX Ord. 23839-09-2019, § 1 (2019)). It is considered a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500. Two years later, Texas state lawmakers instituted a state-wide ban on camping in public places that mirrored the one already in place in Fort Worth (TX HB1925, 87th Legis., 2021). Cooking, sleeping, or digging are explicitly included as evidence of a person’s intent to camp in such a location. The law also allows the state to withhold grant funds from jurisdictions that fail to enforce the ban. Anti-homelessness laws have been found unconstitutional when an insufficient number of beds exist in a jurisdiction to accommodate the city’s homeless population (see Martin v. City of Boise 2018. No. 15-35845 (9th Cir.); Pottinger v. City of Miami 1994. 810 F. Supp. 1551 (S.D. Fla.)) but have otherwise been upheld.1

These laws exist despite evidence that suggests most people prefer a service-oriented response to homelessness. A recent national survey indicates that, in many situations, respondents prefer that law enforcement assist in hypothetical scenarios (Burkhardt et al., 2023). When an unsheltered person was engaging in behaviors such as sleeping in a tent, burning a small campfire under a bridge, or panhandling, over 70% of respondents preferred that the responding officer connect that individual with services over arresting or ignoring them. Even when the person in the scenario was potentially engaging in trespassing behavior (breaking a chain-link fence to a vacant construction site), they still preferred helping over the other options. Notably, those identifying as Republican or holding more negative views toward the homeless were significantly more supportive of arrest across various scenarios.

Enforcing these laws is a time-consuming challenge. It is one that often forces people out of the cities they have called home for decades (ACLU Colorado & National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, 2018) since it is illegal for them to rest anywhere within city limits. In Fort Worth, law enforcement officials estimated that they receive roughly 1,000 complaints about homeless encampments per year (Sadek, 2022). The same year that Fort Worth implemented its camping ban, the city also created a small, specialized unit of law enforcement officers, partnering with various service providers charged with homelessness outreach. This unit is similar in structure and function to other collaborations nationwide (see Simpson, 2015). The city’s code enforcement officers also respond to citizen complaints about homeless encampments. A person experiencing homelessness in Fort Worth may encounter either one or both entities.

Research on the lived impact of these laws is limited and focused on a few large Western cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, and Denver (Beckett, 2009; Herring, 2019; Herring et al., 2020; Langegger & Koester, 2017; Robinson, 2019; Stuart & Beckett, 2021). These studies, relying on a range of survey data, qualitative interviews, and agency records, show that most people experiencing homelessness have been asked to “move along” by police enforcing anti-homelessness laws, and the majority comply. Although these individuals most often report moving to another (usually more remote) outdoor space, they still risk future police interaction (Herbert & Beckett, 2010; Robinson, 2019). Due in part to the need to move to more remote areas, these relocations have been linked to increased threats of violence, reduced trust in others moving into one’s camp, as well as difficulties accessing social services and maintaining employment (Herbert & Beckett, 2010; Herring, 2019; Robinson, 2019).

Right to Public Space

Mitchell’s (2003) Right to the City gives an important lens through which to view these efforts. He argues that public space is an important element of a democracy, yet the right to access public areas is not inalienable and is granted by those in power. The use of public spaces is controlled in the name of protecting order, which often supersedes the needs of unsheltered homeless people to exist in these places. They, therefore, must figure out how to live in the city without having the benefit of access to either private or public property. Mitchell argues that anti-homelessness laws are a way to remove people experiencing homelessness from the rolls of the public. “Although homeless people are nearly always in public, they are rarely counted as part of the public” (p. 135). These laws serve to identify the requisite behavior of people experiencing homelessness as criminal, driving them away from areas frequented by “the public” with the hope of moving them out of the city altogether. Mitchell explains that the proliferation of these laws across the country coincides with an increasingly global society, which requires cities to portray an image of prosperity without social issues to attract wealthy businesses and residents.

Using the lens of Mitchell (2003), the present study explores the lived experiences of camping bans on unsheltered homeless individuals. As the prevailing yet limited literature on this topic comes from large, liberal U.S. cities, the current study assesses the lived experiences of unsheltered people in Fort Worth, Texas, one of the largest and fastest-growing conservative-leaning cities in the United States. Participants were interviewed regarding their interactions with code enforcement and how the execution of these laws affects their daily lives. The results provide insight into the unseen consequences of camping bans, especially on their sense of belonging in a rapidly globalizing city.

Methods

This study was approved by the institutional review board at the author’s institution. The target population for this study was unsheltered people experiencing homelessness in Fort Worth, Texas, who have had interactions with code enforcement related to the city’s camping ban. The county collects annual data on homelessness, which estimates the current target population to be around 900 people (Tarrant County Homeless Coalition, 2023). Using convenience sampling, 21 semi-structured interviews were conducted with people experiencing unsheltered homelessness across the city of Fort Worth, Texas, on the topic of code enforcement and shelter utilization; however, upon transcription, three were found to have no usable data for the current project. One interviewee was considered unreliable due to mental health issues that rendered him unable to respond to the questions posed. Two others reported no experiences with code enforcement and were thus omitted. The data for this study were derived from the 18 completed interviews with unsheltered persons reporting code enforcement interactions. Participants tended to be long-time residents of the Fort Worth area (see Table 1 for demographics). On average, they had lived in Fort Worth for 31 years, ranging from one year to 67 years; the average age was 49. They had been homeless for 11 years, on average, with five interviewees reporting being homeless for less than two years. Half of the sample were women; the majority identified as white, with four respondents identifying as black. These interviews took place from January to March 2023 in various encampments across the city.


Table 1. Participant demographics.

Pseudonym

Age

Race

Gender

Time Unsheltered

Years in Fort Worth

Prison Time

Gavin

58

White

Man

13 years

32

No

Megan

53

White

Woman

10 months

53

No

Rose

40

White

Woman

22 years

30

Yes

Rob

--

White

Man

13 years

13

No

Kayla

40

Black

Woman

--

20

Yes

Melissa

32

White

Woman

4 years

32

No

Matt

--

White

Man

1 year

1

No

Dee

38

White

Man

22 years

20

No

Victor

53

Black

Man

2 years

53

Yes

Jackie

54

White

Woman

45 years

45

No

Emily

48

White

Woman

6 years

--

No

Jerrett

53

Black

Man

1 year

2

No

Renee

65

White

Woman

5 years

67

No

Hannah

65

White

Woman

8 years

59

No

Donald

60

Black

Man

30 years

30

No

Michael

41

White

Man

6 years

--

No

Travis

36

White

Man

9 months

13

No

May

58

White

Woman

--

--

No


The author conducted these interviews after a local non-profit street outreach team provided introductions to participants. Their regular service-oriented visits to the various encampments across the city made them ideal gatekeepers for this project, as the trust imbued in the team was more readily extended to me by camp residents. Outreach team members were not present during the interviews, and they would serve other people at the camps after introducing me to a potential participant. Still, securing interviews was a complex process for several reasons. First, while many of these encampments were quite large (ranging from half a dozen to a couple dozen people), few were present when we visited, and some were completely empty. We tried to minimize this possibility by visiting in the early morning hours when most people were waking up. Still, often, several people had already left the camps for their pursuits of the day. Others were still sleeping or unable to leave their tent due to illness or injury. Additionally, mental health issues are common in this population, and some individuals were divorced from reality and thus unable to be reliably interviewed. Finally, despite the presence of the outreach team, some individuals were still wary and declined to be interviewed.

Interviews were recorded with the participants’ permission on a handheld digital recording device and later transcribed verbatim by the author. Before starting the interview, participants were informed of the purpose of the research, the voluntary nature of their involvement, that they could terminate the interview at any time, and that they were free not to answer any questions. The average interview length was 20 minutes, ranging from about 10 minutes to 50 minutes in length. Beyond the natural communication styles of the participants, the winter weather in the earlier interviews may have also impacted their length as these interviews tended to be shorter and their answers more succinct. After transcription, interview data were analyzed using inductive coding to identify common themes, views, and practices across interviews (Rubin & Rubin, 2005). This process illuminated several interesting ways unsheltered persons respond to code enforcement officers and how these interactions impact their lives and future outlook.

Results

Several themes emerged from these interviews and aligned with those from previous research. First, respondents spoke of their impressions of the code enforcement officers who imposed the camping ban. While some held negative views, as expressed in prior studies, most held these officers positively. Second, they tended to speak about the impact of the camping ban in tangible terms of important items lost in this process. Third, respondents spoke deeper about the physical and existential struggles of being constantly forced to move, often without notice. Finally, they relayed dismay over not knowing where to set up camp next and the ever-collapsing space they were allowed to occupy within the city.

Interactions with Code Enforcement

While some positive interactions are noted in previous literature, most reported negative interactions between unsheltered residents and law enforcement (Beckett, 2009; Herbert & Beckett, 2010; Herring, 2019; Robinson, 2019). In the present study, how these exchanges were interpreted seemed to depend upon whether the person was given time to vacate or was told to leave immediately. Fifteen people expressed being directly approached by code enforcement and given ample time to leave the premises with their belongings—typically three to ten days. They tended2 to view code enforcement officers as kind and sympathetic to their circumstances, harboring no ill-will towards the code enforcement officers. The following quote from Jerrett3 exemplifies the compassion displayed by some code enforcement officers:

In my opinion, I don’t think they want to continue to tell the homeless that they can’t be here. I don’t think they want to do it. I don’t think they get a kick out of it. I don’t think they like it. They have to show the respect and the integrity of what they are to protect and serve. But, when they get the call and they come and tell us, “Someone called. You guys can’t be here,” I’m pretty sure they want to ask: “Are they breaking into anything? Oh, no they’re just using the Wi-Fi or the plug to keep our phones charged.” And the officer would politely tell us we couldn’t be there. Not one of them that I looked in their eyes…. they don’t want to do that.

An experience described by Travis highlights the patience displayed and the ample opportunity to move extended by officers in many of their encounters. He relayed a time when he and other residents in a large encampment in the woods were given months to move before the area was cleared to build a hotel:

So, we got a visit from the homeless liaison officer, who’s a very nice man. I was surprised how lenient they were with everyone. It took two months for everyone to sort of move out and find other places to stay… We had left and hidden the tent because we didn’t know where to put it and snuck back [into the campsite].

Despite immediately defying the officer’s request to vacate the encampment, Travis continues to explain that the officer was still quite civil with them when he discovered they had not left: “All the sudden, [he] shows up one morning and says, “Come on guys. I gave you two months. You gotta go. They’re here to bulldoze your stuff today.”” Fourteen of the unsheltered people in this study viewed code enforcement as somewhat cold but professional. They felt they were respected in the process and extended this respect back to the officers. As Renee put it:

We haven’t had a major problem with them, but they come in, they state who they are, they state their business. It’s very business-like. Very abrupt. They mean what they say. You know, we haven’t really had any trouble with them, so I’m going to say they were kind enough. It’s just that they weren’t overly friendly. Do their job and leave.

Still, six of the people interviewed held negative views of these officers. This was the case when discussing interactions where officers gave them less than an hour to vacate a camp. Kayla relayed this experience:

They had the trucks with the clean-up crews. Watched them go all the way down on that side. Watched people grabbing stuff and begging to get they stuff back. They were told it was already on the truck and you can’t get it. I tried to ask them not to grab people’s stuff—that they were coming—but I was told, “It’s already on the truck. It’s trash.” They’re not nice about it in any manner at all. They pull up and do what they do, and they leave. That’s why they have police escorts.

These interactions were often characterized by threats of arrest, as in Jackie’s circumstance of being told to vacate an abandoned warehouse: “We were told if they had to come back here, they would take everyone to jail. He was a real crabby ass motherfucker, too.”

Respondents’ views of these officers covered the spectrum, but for the most part, they considered these individuals decent people just doing their jobs. Understandably, when told they must move immediately, their perceptions of these officers were more pessimistic. From here, participants spoke of the loss of personal property accompanying these relocations.

Personal Losses

Herring (2019) explained that people experiencing homelessness viewed property loss to be their “greatest threat to survival” (p. 790). Participants here also spoke about the stress of losing their belongings because of having to leave their camps. Especially in short-notice circumstances with officers present, the unsheltered must prioritize what they take with them. Should they have one, they are limited to what they can carry on their person or in a shopping cart. Victor, who lived in a large tent intricately constructed from black garbage bags, totes, and rope, put it this way when asked what he has lost: “Clothes, phones, ID’s. It all depends on how much time they give you because if they give me 10 minutes how can I get all this stuff [gestures at tent] down in 10 minutes?”

In other circumstances, they aren’t home when code enforcement comes through and clears the area, so they lose everything they had—from personal mementos like their grandchild’s photo album or their deceased mother’s jewelry to bicycles, wallets, and important documents. Dee describes just such an experience when he returned to his campsite to find it completely razed:

I lost everything that time. Tent, clothes, phone, radio, IDs, birth certificate, jail paperwork to get benefits… I haven’t gotten the documents replaced yet. I try not to keep valuable things anymore.

Seven people reported losing essential items such as government-issued ID cards, birth certificates, and social security cards, which can impede their ability to gain employment and exit homelessness. Three people also relayed that life-sustaining medication, such as diabetes and/or heart medication, had been lost in these sweeps. Kayla expressed her dismay at watching her elderly neighbors beg to retrieve their medication off the code enforcement trailer during a sweep:

A lot of these elderly people, especially the ones who are older and have a lot of medication, they trying to get they stuff and they bags that’s got all their medicine in it. And you telling them they can’t get in the truck and get they medicine? Come on…

Three people reported that they had yet to lose anything in a sweep. Sometimes, they limited their possessions to what they could easily carry. For the most part, though, they seemed more risk-averse than others. They would leave a camp as soon as code enforcement told them they would sweep the location (as Rob put it: “When they say go, I go.”). Donald shared his strategy for avoiding these circumstances:

If I see them coming and messing with people, I pack up and leave. If I’m sleeping on the street, I’ll put myself in the middle of people so that if code starts coming from either side, I have time to move. They mess with this guy or that guy on either end—that gives me time to pack up my stuff and go.

Regarding physical items, respondents reported losing important personal documents and cell phones, both of which are important tools for transitioning out of homelessness. Their repeated loss—along with the arduous cost and process of replacement—has led some to stop attempting to replace them at all, which only further ensnares them into homelessness. These tangible losses are impactful but can pale compared to the emotional drain of near-constant relocation.

Residential Instability

A reasonable question at this point might be: why does everyone not follow Donald’s lead and leave immediately? Two common themes in these interviews make this clear, and they speak to the frustrating nature of camping ban enforcement. First, when unsheltered people are given less than an hour (typically reported as 15 minutes) to leave a campsite, it is often because code enforcement gives notice to previous residents who vacated the area. Therefore, the current residents have no knowledge of the impending sweep. Victor explains:

They just told someone to move from this place and then here you set up because nobody’s there. But you don’t know that it’s already been summoned…. It’s like a never-ending struggle because here it is. You caught up with someone who’s already been told, and then you move there and set up. And then you the one who get victimized because they come take your stuff.

Commonly, these unsheltered respondents expressed frustration with the constant relocation. Three people even reported having to move just about every month. All but four participants lamented the exhaustion they felt from the continuous moves. Rob expressed the never-ending cycle of complying with the ban:

I’m tired of this. I’ve been told to move in the last 3 years probably 8 or 9 times. You just try to find another place. Ironically, you go from one place to a place that people have just been kicked out of before. It sits idle for about 2-3 months at the most and then you move in, and it starts over.

Renee, when asked how it makes her feel to have to move so often, had this to say through tears:

It’s been very frustrating when you find a place, and you set up your tent, and everything is going fine, and someone comes and says you have to leave. [starts crying] I move with friends from place, to place, to place, and it’s just very unsettling. I’m 65 years old, and you get settled in your ways as you get older, and to get uprooted nearly constantly… [sobbing and unable to finish]

In a city enjoying considerable population growth, these individuals expressed a sense that the areas they can inhabit are becoming fewer as construction removes more green spaces and undetected camps inevitably get discovered. Travis, who has lived at his current camp for a record two months, put it best:

I anticipate them coming soon because that hotel is just the beginning. They’re not just going to put up a random hotel right behind [a business] and leave it at that. This whole area’s getting renovated, so the wooded areas are going to get smaller and smaller. So, we gotta take this private property safe haven as long as we can. I’m concerned about where we’re gonna go after this because it’s really only a matter of time.

A sense of exhaustion and despair permeates their discussions of being forced to move. Their words also suggest a concern that it will only get worse from here. For all the struggles of being consistently forced to move, the respondents expressed exasperation over not knowing where to move next and shared their strategies. Underlying all of this is a sense that they feel they don’t belong anywhere in the city.

Knowing Where to Go

With so many moves, I asked them how they knew where to go next. The answer was always: you don’t. Melissa answered the question this way: “You don’t. You don’t know where to go because you don’t know where they are hitting next…I think of places I’ve stayed before and try to go there.” Victor had the same mindset but a different strategy:

You don’t. You just find the next available spot. You can’t walk too far when you’ve got a lot of [gestures at stuff]. So, it’s here, there, back, and forth. I don’t go back to where I once was. You do what you gotta do when you’re out here as far as that.

Travis, who has spent the least amount of time unsheltered of the interviewees (9 months), spoke of relying upon the kindness of the unsheltered community when he has to move:

I’m still new to being homeless. So, I really don’t know where to go. So, I just kinda follow everyone else’s lead. I’ve been fortunate enough so far to find a place to land every time. In this area… there are so many homeless people that you’ll almost never be the first one or the only one encountering a problem. So as long as you don’t make a lot of enemies, if you’re really hard up you might spend a night or two without a comfy place to sleep. But eventually you’ll find somebody who’s set up a camp somewhere. Who’s got a place that you can crash until you figure something out. I’ve just been following everyone else’s lead so far.

While three people discussed moving in isolation, most interviewees described a communal process where all able-bodied camp members would search for what they hope is a longer-term residence. Renee spoke about the concerted effort to find a new place to live when a campsite is flagged for demolition:

As soon as we get the notice we fan out and start looking for a different place. And then, pack up and move. Don’t stall around. Everyone goes to the same place, if they like it, and if it’s near enough to the resources they need.

Renee’s comments speak to a struggle endemic to the camping ban. When told to move, this population is highly limited in where they can go. While they cannot live on any public land, and they are limited by the private property owners that allow their presence, they must also be cognizant of their proximity to resources. Rob, who said he has moved 8 or 9 times in the past 3 years, asked: “Where are people supposed to go? Do you want them going too far away? They like to come around here because they know they can get something to eat. They gotta eat.”

Outcasts Without Advocates

Commonly, participants expressed a disconnect from society that extended beyond the camping ban and directly impacted where they could set up camp. Discussions often diverted from the actions and demeanor of the code enforcement officers to the impact of the behavior of city residents. People described non-homeless community members as having no interest in them as people and often causing the problems they experience from the camping ban. When discussing where to go, Dee had this to say:

Some of the neighbors don’t want us around. We’re not made for society, so society pushes us off, further and further out of the city... It’s hard for the people that’s helping us with food and water to come to us. Society’s also cutting water off, and certain electrical boxes that we keep our phones on, and it makes it harder on us, too. It’s not only code compliance that’s doing it, but society’s doing it, too. But they don’t want no part of the homeless. Some of them don’t even care about it.

Meanwhile, Jerrett explains the complexities of trying to stay somewhere that meets their needs while adhering to the community’s requirement for them to be invisible:

It’s hard to be stable somewhere, even when it’s out the way of the movement of the public. The public goes back and forth to work, and we understand ‘be out the way’ since we don’t have jobs. The more we move around, and since we can’t camp anywhere, it makes it hard to connect with our resources. We might be too far away. Most of us have illness. I have sciatica. She [a friend] has rods in her back… The ban, it really hurts. It hurts. We’re always far away from the resources, where we have to sleep.

Again, Renee sums it up nicely through tears: “The situation nowadays, they don’t want us anywhere.”

In summary, these interviews shed light on the impact of camping bans on people experiencing unsheltered homelessness. Respondents generally did not blame the officers but understood them to be enforcing a law they may disagree with. Despite this, these interviews spoke to the unseen impact of these bans on a largely invisible population. Beyond physical losses, they spoke of the alienating and emotional toll that accompanies having to regularly move and having virtually nowhere else to go.

Discussion

Roughly half a million people in the United States are currently homeless, and around 40% are unsheltered (US Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2022). After enjoying a slow and steady decline for over a decade, this number has been climbing again in recent years as housing costs and the COVID pandemic put stable housing out of reach for a growing number of Americans. Camping bans, which drastically reduce the places where unsheltered populations can be, have been a popular answer across cities to deal with the increased presence of homeless people.

This study builds upon previous literature through semi-structured interviews with 18 unsheltered people experiencing homelessness in Fort Worth, Texas, to elaborate on the lived experiences of these bans. These findings illuminate the often-courteous relationship that exists between many people experiencing homelessness and those enforcing anti-homelessness laws, a point highlighted in past research while often focusing on negative interactions. This study also speaks to the universality of many of the outcomes of the bans reported in previous literature (losing documents, employment) while expanding upon peoples’ accounts of the frustrations and difficulties of near-constant displacement across a city many have called home their whole lives.

Participants described a cyclical process that does little if anything to address homelessness and instead keeps code enforcement officers locked in an endless routine of shepherding people through the few places in town near their resources, where the unsheltered have been able to stay for more than a few hours or days in the past. It is a dance that those interviewed described as exhausting for themselves and one they think the officers recognize as futile. It is more than an annoyance on both ends, though, as enforcing these bans has real implications for those impacted by the laws.

First, and most simply, the tangible items lost create a real barrier to their future health and wellness. Almost every person interviewed reported losing their personally identifying documents, such as ID cards, birth certificates, and social security cards, in code enforcement sweeps. Replacing any of these documents generally requires the presentation of one or more of the others—to do so otherwise is a long and confusing process to navigate. The loss of these items and the time required to replace them can create barriers to gaining employment and housing, the very things needed to end one’s bout with homelessness. Also troubling is the loss of life-sustaining medication. The medications reported to be lost in these circumstances were daily prescriptions that fend off the potentially fatal effects of conditions such as diabetes, congestive heart failure, and high blood pressure. While some unsheltered people live near the county hospital and can get these medications replaced within a day, others are far from this resource or have mobility issues that make this journey long and hazardous.

The hidden loss is that of one’s status as a member of the city. There is a strong “othering” effect that takes place between the unsheltered homeless population and the rest of this growing community. The common rhetoric is to “get them out of our city,” yet almost everyone in this study was a long-time resident of Fort Worth or at least Texas at large. Some of the people interviewed, like Jerrett, have internalized this mindset and no longer view themselves as a member of the public that the city has a duty to serve. The average time of residence in this sample was over 30 years, and several had lived their entire lives in Fort Worth. These are not outsiders who randomly hopped off a train to end up here. They are long-time residents who fell on hard times for various reasons along the way—and many of them have been homeless for 2 years or less. As quoted by Mitchell (2003), “Human beings have no choice but to occupy a space: they just do” (Smith, 1994, p. 151). Camping bans place extreme limits on the spaces people experiencing homelessness can occupy, criminalize their need to do so, and dehumanize them in the process.

As in all studies, this one is not without its limitations. The findings presented here may not be generalizable beyond the admittedly small sample size in a single city. Unsheltered individuals in different cultural climates may have an altogether different experience with camping bans and the officers that enforce them. Further, several individuals were unable to be interviewed due to physical or mental health concerns. These issues may undoubtedly impact their experiences with officers, as well as the burdens they endure from being regularly forced to move. Despite these limitations, common themes quickly emerged among those who were interviewed. And their experiences give an important look into the impact of these camping bans in a region not traditionally included in such research.

As Mitchell (2003) points out, such ordinances do little, if anything, to reduce crime or increase public order because they do not address the root causes of homelessness. In fact, they serve to exacerbate them by creating further barriers to housing and employment while destroying whatever liberty these individuals have left. These laws serve to “Annihilat[e] the spaces in which homeless people must live” and “seek simply to annihilate the homeless” (p. 167) in order to attract businesses and investors to a growing city trying to stand out in an increasingly competitive and global marketplace.

Implications

There are no easy solutions to the issue of homelessness, which plagues virtually every city in the country. Previous research shows that people experiencing homelessness report a lack of affordable housing and insufficient income as the main contributors to their circumstances (Firdion & Marpsat, 2007; NLICH, 2023)—issues that have both been exacerbated in recent years. The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC, 2023) reports that nationally, there is a shortfall of about seven million affordable housing units to meet the needs of the lowest-income families. In Texas, this equates to the availability of 25 affordable housing units per 100 such residents. Local efforts to create affordable housing and to improve the function and perception of shelters may be among the most promising answers to this chronic problem (see Wusinich et al., 2019).

The findings presented here also speak to a larger societal issue that likely influences rates and experiences of homelessness. Respondents alluded to a physical and relational disconnect between themselves and non-homeless city residents. This separation is likely fed by stereotypes of the homeless as dangerous, lazy, and “crazy” (Phillips, 2015) that foster fear, as well as a lack of concern, from the rest of the public toward their plight. Efforts to increase community understanding of the true nature of homelessness and to foster interaction between these two groups have been shown to be effective in changing attitudes toward homelessness (DeMarco & Kretzschmar, 2019; Gardner & Emory, 2018; Mullenbach, Pitas, & Hickerson, 2023; Stuart & Beckett, 2021), which may go a long way toward shifting public policy. Certainly, we can find more humane methods to reduce homelessness that address proximate causes and ensure individuals the liberty and dignity afforded to them as members of the public.

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Contributor

Brie Diamond, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Criminology & Criminal Justice at Texas Christian University. Her research interests include criminological theory, program evaluation, and criminal case processing. Her work can be found in the Journal of Criminal Justice, Intelligence, and Criminal Justice and Behavior.

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