Homelessness policy experts recently spoke with The Dallas Express about City officials’ recent proposal to explore implementing “sanctioned encampments” in Dallas.

They suggested that sanctioned encampments can be a useful first step in helping homeless people and vagrants get off the streets but should not be implemented as a “permanent solution” and should account for the risks of concentrating many people who suffer from drug abuse and mental illness in one location.

As reported by DX, members of the Dallas City Council directed staff last month to develop a plan for City-sanctioned homeless encampment sites after being briefed on a report by the HOPE task force.

The “sanctioned encampments” would serve as designated sites where homeless people would be permitted to live without the “barriers” put up by homeless shelters, such as sobriety. Council members said the policy would provide a location for individuals who decline shelter and other City services to camp so they are not living on public land.

Michele Steeb, homelessness policy expert and author of Answers Behind The RED DOOR: Battling the Homeless Epidemic, told DX that she supports sanctioned encampments as long as they are a first step to something greater rather than the end goal.

“I wholeheartedly support sanctioned encampments as a step towards something else, not as a permanent solution,” she said. “I wrote about them in my book and talk about them often as a step, especially for those who have been living outdoors, and for them, it’s perceived [as] ultimate freedom.”

“[They are] living with tremendous trauma, which is one of the reasons they love their pets so much and one of the reasons they don’t want to be around other people,” she continued. “I wholeheartedly support that as a step, as long as it doesn’t become a permanent solution.”

Steeb added that sanctioned encampments in different cities require differing sets of rules tailored to the circumstances of the homeless population in their city.

“There’s a great program that I wrote about in my book called Pinellas Hope out of Florida … but they have different rules than a sanctioned encampment in Oakland, California,” she said. “You don’t want to think about it as a one-size-fits-all.”

“The most important thing … is that they are not a permanent solution,” she continued. “The other really important criteria for any sanctioned encampment to be successful is the obedience to civil law within that encampment and the participation that’s required.”

Steeb said many people working in homelessness recovery “have forgotten” about requiring obedience to the law.

“I think we’ve done it out of this sense of compassion, but it’s so ridiculous when you exclude the homeless from basic civil law,” she said. “What you’re basically telling them is you’re not good enough to follow the rules that we all follow. … It’s ridiculous.”

Another important element of sanctioned encampments is instituting a community, according to Steeb.

“Giving them a chance to play a role in the community, which is a fundamental need that we all have,” she said. “We all have the need to be productive and be a part of something bigger than ourselves. I’m very supportive as long as those criteria are in place.”

John Bonura, a policy analyst with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, told DX that he also supports the implementation of sanctioned encampments if they are managed properly and account for the unique struggles of the homeless population.

“It could only really be a first step. It could never be something permanent,” he said.

However, Bonura added that officials must be aware of the unique issues that can arise in sanctioned encampments.

“The only issue with the [sanctioned encampments] in Dallas is that you’re going to have this huge concentration of people who are doing drugs [and] who are mentally ill, mixed in with families who don’t have drug problems, who aren’t mentally ill, but are still also homeless,” he said.

“It could be problematic having all of that in one single area, but it could be a first step,” he continued. “There are some dangers definitely in having those kinds of sanctioned encampments. It can’t be a permanent solution, but if you could have that kind of low barrier entry, just to make the streets a bit safer, and then have services and housing built around that for people who really don’t belong in those kinds of encampments, then it could be a great help.”

Bonura pointed to the nonprofit Haven for Hope in San Antonio as an example of how the “low-barrier” shelter idea can be implemented successfully.

“I just have to keep going back to Haven for Hope because they have a similar area called The Courtyard,” he said. “It’s a similar kind of thing. It’s not necessarily a camp where people are sitting there with tents, but it’s a low-barrier area adjacent to their Transformational Campus — no questions asked.”

As reported by DX, Haven for Hope’s “one-stop-shop” model for homeless services has been credited with a 77% reduction in unsheltered homelessness in downtown San Antonio.

In Dallas, more than three-quarters of City residents remain dissatisfied with the state of homelessness, vagrancy, and panhandling in their neighborhoods and throughout the city.

The “one-stop-shop” model has polled favorably among Dallasites, and some local stakeholders are now working to bring it to Dallas, as previously covered on The Dallas Express Podcast.

However, it remains to be seen whether this effort will be supported by the City government.