Office Hours: Donald Whitehead

“Every time you break up a homeless encampment, you force people into isolation.”

Jesse Rabinowitz
May 3, 2023
Illustration: Allan C. Carandang

The number of homeless encampments across the country grew by a staggering 1,300% between 2007 and 2017. Encampments are the most visible manifestation of America’s failure to address the homelessness crisis. Instead of funding the known solution to homelessness—housing—cities have responded by making it a crime to be unhoused: A 2019 report on 187 cities found that nearly three-quarters had laws against camping, while many also banned people from panhandling, living in vehicles, or sitting, lying down, or “loitering” in public space. This wave of criminalization has continued despite the Covid-19 pandemic, as has the brutal public spectacle of encampment clearings—which mayors from the East Coast to the West have ordered in contravention of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance that, to avoid the spread of Covid, encampment residents should be allowed to remain in place.

These sweeps often endanger the unhoused people that city governments claim to be trying to assist. In Washington, DC, an unhoused man was injured when he was bulldozed along with his tent in October 2021. Since August 2021, local and federal agencies have closed at least seven encampments in the district, displacing dozens of people; this fall, the National Park Service put into motion a plan to evict many more encampments, despite the onset of hypothermia season. While some encampment residents are offered housing, the district’s approach—which involves eviction first and housing later—has produced uneven results, leaving many displaced from the protection of their tents and the safety of their communities.

Activists and organizers around the country are pushing back against the assault on unhoused people. Donald Whitehead, the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), is a leader in this fight. Formerly unhoused himself, he has become a foremost advocate for housing that ends homelessness, serving on advisory boards for four presidents, testifying before the US Congress, and receiving a Congressional Black Caucus distinguished service award for his work. I first met Whitehead in 2011, as a student at the University of Maryland, when he spoke to a group of Jewish students interested in social justice about his experience of homelessness. His presentation, and the conversations and relationships that resulted from our encounter, propelled me into a career working to end homelessness in Washington, DC.

I sat down with Whitehead to discuss the increasingly draconian conditions facing unhoused people, the near impossibility of resting while homeless, and the necessity of providing housing to end homelessness.

Jesse Rabinowitz: When you were experiencing homelessness, what did rest look like for you?

Donald Whitehead: It is almost impossible to rest in a congregate shelter. At the shelter I was in, our beds were six inches apart, so I was impacted by whatever was going on with the people around me. At most shelters, you have to be up at 6:00 am; at the best shelters, you don’t have to get up until 8:00 am. Many are either on busy roads or in industrial areas. There are streetlights. It’s always noisy.

People from marginalized groups are often victimized in shelters. Seniors are robbed; women face sexual exploitation by residents, and also by staff at times. Mentally challenged individuals are assaulted. The LGBTQ+ population is abused. People don’t have doors to lock. They have no ability to protect themselves.

If you’re unsheltered, it’s almost impossible to rest; you’re always worried about your safety. At one place where I slept outside, they turned the sprinklers on us every day at 4:00 am. And if you live in an encampment, you’re under constant threat. Raids can happen at any hour. Sometimes it’s in the afternoon. Sometimes it’s in the middle of the night. Sometimes early in the morning. That means that there’s a looming fear, no matter the hour, that all of your possessions might be taken away—and that inhibits people’s ability to sleep. We’ve heard of raids where medical devices that were necessary for people to sleep—like CPAP machines [to treat sleep apnea]—were thrown away.

JR: Sleep deprivation is incredibly harmful; it’s literally used to torture people. How does the lack of sleep that people experience during homelessness impact them?

DW: If you’re sleep deprived, everything’s kind of jumbled in your mind. It may make you more angry, more agitated. It inhibits forward movement. Sleep deprivation can also lead to serious, long-term health issues; it puts you at higher risk of diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and memory loss, among other things. People need rest; homeless people are not treated like human beings.

JR: In DC and across the country, we’re seeing a rapid proliferation of “no-camping zones” and other measures that criminalize homelessness. What is happening?

DW: In the current environment, municipal governments have largely given up on solving homelessness with affordable housing, and have resorted instead to using law enforcement as the primary point of contact for those without housing. We’re seeing a broad trend in which, if unhoused people are offered any kind of assistance or social service, the mere fact that they rejected that help becomes a justification for local governments and law enforcement to penalize them or threaten to withdraw their liberty.

We can see that conditions are getting more draconian. In Tennessee, it’s now a felony to camp in public, with a penalty of up to six years of jail. Missouri also has a ban on camping. In Miami, city officials wanted to move the homeless population to an island. Organizations like Cicero, an interest group for wealthy people that advocates for the forced institutionalization of unhoused people, are sending out model legislation to states that criminalizes homelessness and conditions funding for shelters on the employment status of the people they serve, reversing decades of best practices. Even in more progressive communities, there are organized efforts to expand criminalization. The California CARES Act, a program to provide services to people dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues, proposes to involuntarily commit people to psychiatric institutions and doesn’t offer long-term housing on the other side of treatment.

JR: How is NCH responding?

DW: We are working with communities to help them organize. We’ve pushed the White House Domestic Policy Council to ask the president to release a moratorium on criminalization. We’ve met with mayors and governors to stress the importance of looking at other options besides criminalization—above all, the provision of housing, which is what actually ends homelessness.

One of the things we’re pushing back against is the movement to promote “sanctioned encampments”—places where unhoused people are permitted to camp in public. Sanctioned encampments are an inadequate—and often expensive—alternative to building housing that would actually serve people’s needs. Moreover, by identifying a “sanctioned encampment,” cities are declaring by default that there are also “unsanctioned” encampments, which increases harmful interaction between unhoused people and police while also decreasing individual choice on where to live.

JR: When I talk to people living in encampments, they tell me that encampments provide them with a sense of safety. When I talk to housed neighbors who don’t want to encounter visible signs of homelessness, they say encampments make them feel unsafe. What’s your response when someone expresses the latter view?

DW: Encampments provide a level of security. If people are forced to live on the street—and they should not be, but if they are—it is better that they live in a community where they can protect each other. Every time you break up an encampment, you force people into isolation. This can make people more vulnerable to violence: In the past year, serial killers have targeted unhoused people in DC and California, always attacking people who are isolated.

There have always been encampments in our society. Escaped slaves camped out in the mountains so that they wouldn’t be captured. Native Americans camped out in order to get away from people who were stealing their land. People living in the United States have always cherished the freedom to live where they want, not where the government or government-funded organizations dictate. No one should be forced by an authority to choose between being criminalized for being homeless and being coerced to live in a congregate shelter where large numbers of people are packed together.

JR: In DC, organizers won a tax on the district’s wealthiest residents, which led to a budget with funding to house more than 2,000 single adults. In that vein, what are the most promising solutions that people who want to combat homelessness should be organizing for?

DW: We have to dramatically increase housing production in this country. We have tons of abandoned buildings across the US, and we need to adapt those for housing. We also need to address the fact that housing costs have gone through the roof, while minimum wage hasn’t changed much. I don’t care what kind of housing it is—it can be a tiny home, a full-fledged house, an apartment—as long as it has a lock on the door and protection from the elements so people can rest at night. We have to mobilize people with lived experience of homelessness alongside other people who care about the issue to force the powers that be to make those changes.

Jesse Rabinowitz works to end homelessness in Washington, DC. He is the Social Action chair for DC Minyan, a traditional egalitarian minyan. In his free time, Jesse enjoys baking challah, playing music, and fighting for justice.