Imagine that you’re eating cookies in the kitchen. No plate, no napkin. Standing over the counter, a dusting of crumbs forms under you. Using one hand, you collect them and form a pile. Now you have a choice. Do you make a little cup with your other hand and sweep the crumbs in? Or do you brush them all over the floor?
Proposing encampment sweeps in the absence of structural changes to the housing, employment, health care and justice systems is like flicking the counter crumbs onto the floor and saying you cleaned the kitchen. They’re not gone — they’re just harder to see. And yet officials, and those hoping to be elected, do this all the time.
Tent encampments make housed neighbors uncomfortable. In part, this is because the human brain doesn’t like to be reminded of scarcity and the fact that we live in a society that would allow human beings to live in tents made of pallets and tarps. Many housed people just want them gone, and that’s the extent of their plan. Any lawmaker who promises to make the tent encampments disappear gets their vote.
But any thinking person knows that removing the tents and flushing the residents out does precisely nothing to help people or to prevent a new encampment from organically growing out of the ashes of the last one.
People living in tents aren’t there because they love getting free rent in an unused greenbelt, lulled to sleep each night by the sound of freeway traffic. They aren’t building Hooverville-style shacks of harvested wood and the refuse of housed people because it’s a fun adventure. They’re there because it’s the last stop. There is nowhere else. And sweeps don’t provide a next destination.
Sweeps don’t make new, supportive housing available. They don’t help people establish bank accounts and sign up for services and get a job. They don’t provide treatment for the very legal prescription drugs many people got hooked on thanks to a doctor’s note. They don’t provide long-term therapy.
When we allow lawmakers to get away with calling sweeps a comprehensive plan, we feed into the narrative that “gone” is a solution. But it’s not a solution. And as long as we keep going back and forth over the issue of sweeps, those of us who know better need to continue to be loud.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer living in Portland.
Read more of the Nov. 2-8, 2022 issue.