From Rejection to Legitimation: Governing the Emergence of Organized Homeless Encampments

By Stephen Przybylinski (Michigan State University)

In April 2021, the City of Portland, Oregon legalized sanctioned, self-managed houseless encampments. It did so in a very pedestrian manner, by amending its land use ordinances that regulate houseless camping in order to make encampments amenable with the city code. This is a big deal! Currently, the regulatory responses by municipalities experiencing high numbers of unsheltered houselessness is quite varied. There does seem to be support for the idea that organized encampments provide more dignified spaces of respite for unhoused people than those offered by mass shelters. Cities like Seattle and Oakland, for example, have permitted organized houseless encampments for years now. At the same time, municipal governments have targeted encampments for decades, dispersing the tent sites and taking individuals’ possessions. This punitive response continues today. In February 2023, for instance, the Culver City Council (Los Angeles) banned unhoused people from sleeping in tents in public (Solis 2023). In reality, these two approaches often operate hand-in-hand; organized encampments may simultaneously be tolerated or even permitted for some time by a municipality, while less organized sites are quickly disbanded by them. Portland’s recent land use amendment substantiates the city’s shift away from its longstanding opposition to homeless camping toward legitimating self-managed communal living. Whatever one thinks of this decision, Portland’s move to legalize self-managed encampments presents an interesting policy pathway for providing alternatives to mass shelters or rough sleeping in public spaces.

Why did such an unorthodox land use amendment materialize? My new paper in Urban Affairs Review addresses this question. In it, I argue that the city’s land use amendment would likely not have happened, had the City of Portland not declared a State of Emergency on Homelessness and Housing (SOE) in late 2015. The SOE has been a critical moment for experimentation (it is slated to end in 2025), allowing the City to develop not only a social justification for, but the legal infrastructure needed to create this type of alternative shelter. To show this, I trace the shifting positions of the government officials toward organized encampments, identifying how regulations surrounding camping in the city changed at critical moments and with key political actors. I suggest that the SOE provided the time and space to learn from organized encampments already present in the city, an experimental moment enabled by capacity of the government to suspend normal land uses regulating camping. Critically, when the Covid pandemic began in March 2020, the City Government turned to, what I refer to as the “Portland Encampment Model” (PEM), in order to house hundreds during this second emergency.

In tracing the history of Portland’s camping ordinance decisions, and to stress the significance of the SOE in facilitating this decision, the paper engages research concerned more broadly with “the camp.” Much critical scholarship examining government regulated encampments has focused on the awesome capacity of sovereign power to rid encampment residents of political rights and privileges. I agree with these arguments. Yet, I find in the case of Portland an illustrative example of how emergency governance has other political outcomes, outcomes offering potentially positive actions which support unhoused people in their search for housing stability. Conceptually, therefore, I suggest it is important to think about how emergency governance, or “governing-through-emergency,” provides an opportunity to legitimate the lived experiences and desires of unhoused people residing in sanctioned encampments. This is important, as it suggests that a shift in governance approaches could lead to more humane and effective solutions to complex social problems. Empirically, the paper’s findings are particularly relevant as the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities, forcing cities to offer a response. The City of Portland’s decision to legalize sanctioned homeless encampments through the SOE was not its only procedure to mitigate unsheltered houselessness, but the use of emergency governing powers to amend land use ordinances to create space for encampments is certainly its most significant outcome.

With this said, I find it necessary to position my arguments with caution. I do not see how legalizing houseless encampments through emergency measures is the solution to ending houselessness. Far from it. The suspension of land use norms through emergency governance enables quick responses to imminent threats. But it is no panacea for ending houselessness. Encampments are band-aids, temporary reprieve from ongoing and larger structural issues producing houselessness in the first place. The case of Portland’s recent land use decisions, however, provides a illustrative example of how government power is relationally employed. The City’s decision helps us re-think the role of the encampment, for good or bad. And this is a conversation needing to happen as municipalities’ governing strategies otherwise vacillate between mass sheltering or criminalization.

Read the full UAR article here.

Cover Photo: Original location of Kenton Women’s Village, Portland, Oregon. Source: Stephen Przybylinski

Author Biography

Stephen Przybylinski is an assistant professor of Geography at Michigan State University. Currently, his research examines how property mediates the political subjectivity of people living without housing, how property rights and relations challenge “progressive” policy making for unhoused populations, and how theories of housing justice are limited within liberalism.