Opinion | Legal Encampments: A Tool in the Arsenal of Solutions to End OC Homelessness

Encampment at Maxwell Park in Anaheim, taken by David Freeman.

By Anita Coleman, Ph.D.

The views and thoughts expressed by author(s) in the opinion section represent theirs only and do not reflect InSight Magazine as a whole.

There is no quick fix for a complex social problem like homelessness.  Housing-First is the idealized solution, but access to permanent supportive and extremely poor to very low-income affordable housing takes time and isn’t always possible. Despite being considered inhumane by many housing advocates, legal encampments that adapt a community-integrated transitional village model called ‘Safe Organized Spaces’ (SOS) can be a valuable tool in the arsenal of solutions to end homelessness.  

A homeless encampment refers to ten or more people living unsheltered, in public spaces not meant for human habitation.  The City of San Clemente’s newly sanctioned campsite for its people who are experiencing homelessness can be considered a legal encampment.  Safe Organized Spaces is a policy framework and toolkit that legal encampments can follow to become a humane and community-integrated solution that also meets the December 2018 California state standards for emergency shelter responses in a crisis.   

The Orange County (OC) homelessness crisis is in reality a set of crises of mental health, substance use, and affordable housing.  These crises have been exacerbated by a slow economic recovery after the 2008 Recession, which followed three decades of stagnant, low incomes that have not kept pace with rising living costs.  Only 6% of rental units in OC are affordable for low income workers.   In the meantime, unsheltered people suffer biological and psychological consequences, such as early aging, inability to manage existing health conditions, and trauma.  Some die. Homelessness also harms the environment. Legal encampments, like emergency shelters, are not meant to be  permanent solutions; dignified, fiscally efficient, and environmentally responsible (human, solid waste management), standards and services exist.  A compassionate, pragmatic society and its government will prudently include them as tactical tools in their efforts to end homelessness.  Advocates will support them as temporary measures, get communities engaged, and keep city leaders and officials accountable. Temporary legal encampments may even serve as a first step into housing for homeless people who are labeled as “service-resistant” or “choosing their homeless lifestyle.”

Homeless encampments have many names and take different forms.  ‘Tent city’ is one of the more derogatory of the names that have emerged in the last few decades.  The tents, lean-tos, and cardboard shelters huddle together under freeway bypasses, by railroad tracks, riverbeds, canyon slopes, and parks, all sorts of places that are not fit for human habitation.  More and more people also live in cars and RVs, parking on quiet cul-de sacs. In LA, there is a street that is full of homeless people’s RVs – as many as 50 to 75. Tent city, like the time immemorial names for homeless people, reveals stigma and bias:  bum, hobo, squatter, tramp, traveler, vagabond, vagrant. These stigmatizing names highlight that homeless people move a lot but fail to acknowledge the human spirit behind a desperate people’s attempts to sustain their daily lives in makeshift shelters amid public hostility.  Resilient homeless people’s efforts to build their ‘village’ - a community of support - are feared and resisted by domiciled residents.

During the Great Depression in the 1930s, hundreds of homeless encampments emerged built by unemployed, destitute people.  Evicted after they lost their jobs, homeless people built shantytowns and slums, also called Hoovervilles, “a deliberately politicized label emphasizing that President Herbert Hoover and the Republican Party were to be held responsible for the economic crisis and its miseries.” Hundreds of Hoovervilles came into being all across the nation, on the outskirts of cities.  The people living in them were diverse, and often loosely organized. The largest and longest lasting Hooverville in Seattle, from 1930-1941, even had its own unofficial government and ‘Mayor.’  Seattle police burnt this Hooverville in its early years twice but it re-emerged in 1932 and soon after grew to 1,200 people strong, with some tolerance and support from a new City Mayor.  

Today, the most common responses to the rising numbers of homeless people and encampments is eerily similar across the country.  The tendency has been to criminalize homelessness, pass municipal ordinances also known as anti-homeless laws, and break up the encampments, i.e. clean people’s homeless camps periodically.  

Resilient homeless people’s efforts to build their ‘village’ - a community of support - are feared and resisted by domiciled residents.

The law enforcement approach to homelessness is often seen as the only solution and inevitable for public safety.  Also called the public safety approach, here is how it usually works: A homeowner, resident, or business owner sees a homeless person in the park or in the shopping center and calls the local police department.  Police, by law, are required to show up when somebody calls them. The police come and talk to the homeless person. If there is no emergency shelter in their city – as is the case with the cities in South OC, with the exception of Laguna Beach, – and the homeless person is willing, the officer will take them to the shelter in the county seat, Santa Ana.  The shelter may be full or have policies that screen out the most vulnerable, leaving them without a way to get back to their home city. This is one reason why there are so many homeless people in Santa Ana.

Studies show that the public safety approach to homelessness costs much more than originally estimated.  The 2017 United Way-Jamboree-UCI study showed that in 2014/2015 over a twelve-month period the County, municipalities and non-governmental agencies spent ~$23 million on homeless people’s criminal justice contacts such as on police enforcement and imprisonment of homeless people.

Cities in California are increasingly passing anti-homeless laws such as ones that criminalize panhandling, loitering, distributing food, and encroachment.  Businesses are one of the central drivers for passing such municipal ordinances. Studies show that local merchants, though, fail to find significant reductions in problems with homeless populations after law enforcement.  Many scholars and practitioners now are agreed that this approach to homelessness costs more and does not work. Increasingly, police departments have added behavioral health officers to their teams in an attempt to educate the public as well as help homeless people.

In the OC, the results of the  January 2019 Everyone Counts Point in Time show that of the 6,860 people who are homeless, only 42% of them i.e. 2,899 are living in shelters.  The rest, 53%, 3,961 of them are unsheltered, meaning they live on the streets. Seven hundred and sixty three of the 3,961 unsheltered homeless people live in South OC and most of them — 538 — sleep outside.  Like the rest of us, homeless people are human beings too, who need the security and comfort of being with other people.  Community is important for all of us — none of us can do everything we need to live and thrive. The same is true of homeless people.  Their encampments give them safety and community.

As more and more people are becoming homeless, encampments too are increasing.  According to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, encampments are rising because of a lack of  both permanent housing as well as emergency shelter beds. This is certainly true of OC as well. In South OC there is only one emergency shelter, the Alternative Sleeping Location on Laguna Canyon, which can shelter 45 people but has over 200 people enrolled.  Statistics about encampments nationwide show the following:

  • 1,342% increase in media reports since 2007
  • 50% of the encampments had 11-50 residents;  17% had 100+ people
  • 2/3 been in place 1+ year; 1/4 for 5+ years
  • 4% legal; 20% semi-legal (tacitly sanctioned)

A number of homeless people also suffer from mental and physical diseases; they will not go to shelters because of unsanitary conditions, lack of storage space for personal belongings, or unreasonable hours of operation.  A petition by Father Dennis Kriz (Fullerton) written out of his direct experience with the homeless encampment on his church grounds makes very instructive reading about shelter conditions.  Additionally, there are people with jobs who are camping out in the church property because of unhygienic conditions in the shelter as well as to save money.  They cannot afford to pay high rents from low wages, amid the lack of low income affordable housing.

Homeless encampments in OC  have been found and cleared, at great cost, from the Santa Ana Riverbed, Santa Ana Courthouse, Anaheim Maxwell Park in August and December 2018, near the railroad tracks in the cities of Santa Ana in 2019, Fullerton, and Anaheim, canyons and beaches including most recently, San Clemente.  Soon after the police clear them, homeless people move back and the encampments appear.   Sweeping or cleaning encampments is another aspect of the law enforcement approach to homelessness that is costing taxpayers millions of dollars.  The cleanups take days, not hours. Cleanup crews are often accompanied by advocates and one or more peace officers. Offers of housing and services are extended. But soon, the camps form again.  Recently, NBC reported that nearly 15,000 homeless encampment cleanups were conducted in 2018 in Los Angeles costing a total of $35.7 million; law officers were paid $ 4.7 million and sanitation workers $31 million for removing the trash and other items.  Residents who live near encampments reported that homeless people move back into the area, soon after. In fiscal 2017 alone, CalTrans estimated spending $10.04 million, cleaning 7,000 camps on 254 highways and since 2012 has spent ~$29.2 million cleaning homeless sites.  CalTrans has created a statewide manager to guide its response to homelessness on state property, is establishing regional homeless liaison positions to manage and mitigate encampment impacts, and also working with some cities to locate transitional shelters within state’s rights of way.  

Some homeless advocates in OC have put forward proposals for humane, legal encampments, namely Alfresco Gardens. The gardens which are “low cost outdoor living” for the “service resistant” homeless, however, did not gain any traction.  

In May 2019, the City of San Clemente has proposed a sanctioned campsite for its 96 or so unsheltered homeless people.  The process of moving the unsheltered homeless people from North Beach to the city parking lot officially began on Friday May 24.  An attorney in the lawsuit filed against the city has condemned the move as illegal. In finding public land on which to locate their homeless people, City leaders, however, have taken an important first step.  Housing advocates and activists, especially those who are SC residents, should encourage them to take the next step: Ensure that the sanctioned campsite meets the December 2018 California building code revisions and the guidelines for ‘Safe Organized Spaces’  (SOS).  SOS is described below as well as the actions concerned citizens can take, to help the City of San Clemente treat its homeless people with dignity.

In December 2018, the state of California permanently adopted building code standards for emergency shelter response that include guidelines for tiny home “emergency shelter cabins”, insulated tents on platforms, and baseline services for transitional villages.  This State code allows California cities/counties to activate/lease/sublease public land for community-integrated ‘Safe Organized Spaces’ as an additional crisis response tool during a declared shelter shortage crisis.

‘Safe Organized Spaces’ refers to a community-integrated transitional village model developed in the SF Bay Area by a diverse set of stakeholders that at minimum:

  • Meet CA State codes for emergency shelter buildings and service standards;
  • Operate in partnership with property owners, neighbors, village residents, and service providers in coordination with existing City services;
  • Activate underutilized public/private land with interim permits, license agreements, Insurance, baseline health and safety standards, a built-in process for multi-stakeholder input & evaluation, and site-specific agreements

Safe Organized Spaces utilize “tiny home” shelters or insulated tents that meet California Codes and provide essential services, gathering spaces, on-site support staff, participatory management structure and support, pathways to stable housing and jobs, and a community-integration team.

Given the increasing numbers of homeless people (over 2,000 in 2 years), skyrocketing deaths of people experiencing homelessness in the OC (over 250 in 2018 and 71 already in the first four months of 2019), and the complaints about the poor quality of service and conditions in the current OC emergency shelters, SOS offers a way forward.

The Community-Integrated Transitional Villages concept addresses the concerns about the lack of much needed privacy and dignity as well as community safety, health, aesthetics, environmental, and fiscal responsibility.  20 mobile Single-Room Occupancy (SROs) costs $231,800 a year for village of 20 residents, $11,590 per resident a year, $965 per resident a month, $32 per resident day for costs such as set up for water, shower and food trucks. For 20 to 100 residents, the cost is $292,800.

Typically, SOS transitional villages have no time limit imposed on their shelter stay; however, the SOS policy framework and toolkit can be used to make the San Clemente sanctioned campsite a more humane albeit temporary solution.   

The only thing more controversial than homelessness itself is solutions to it.   There are no easy answers. Plus, the problem of homelessness can seem so overwhelming that we just check out.  After all, if our local leaders and experts working in this area cannot solve homelessness, what can you or I, a single person, do? Well, there are lots of things we can do such as donate money, clothes, foods, hygiene kit items, and other things on the wish-lists of nonprofits working with homeless people.  We can volunteer in a soup kitchen, offer career development services, or lead other meaningful activities for homeless people in emergency shelters. The most important thing we can do however is to become a voice of peace and harmony that brings disparate sides together. Instead of denouncing interim and temporary solutions like safe, legal encampments and emergency shelters, we can  use our voice and connections to support the city staff and elected officials, keep them accountable, following state codes and guidelines such as the Safe Organized Spaces. By thinking outside the box to using an array of solutions like legal enactments temporarily, and in ways that are collaborative, engage multiple community stakeholders in a participatory model, and including people who are living unsheltered, is how we will solve homelessness in OC.


Amy Farah Weiss, Founder/Director of SaintFrancisChallenge.org for SOS; much of the language comes from her.  

As a longtime resident of Irvine, Anita Coleman is an independent scholar whose grassroots initiative and digital library, I4E, empowers residents who support the full spectrum of housing in Irvine.


  1. Excellently written history of homelessness in the past and how Orange County cities are currently reacting to increasing numbers of homeless folks. I’ve become aware of Safe Organized Spaces and have researched their efforts to provide transitional housing with wrap-around services for the homeless in San Francisco. We all know that permanent affordable housing is what the homeless need, but in the interim, SOS is a great way to get the community involved in finding ways to solve homelessness in their neighborhoods, getting folks on their feet again and giving them hope once again. Thank you for this comprehensive and well-researched article about homelessness in Orange County.

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful and well researched summary of options to reduce the suffering of our neighbors in need. It is so easy to focus on the end goal of permanent supportive housing and lose sight of what is happening in the meantime. The issue of housing needs in our communities requires all of us working together to solve. Being open to temporary humane solutions is so critical. Thank you for opening my mind to these new options.

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