Opinion: Cities Must Clear Out Homeless Camps

By John Hood

RALEIGH — Which major urban area in America experienced the largest decline in homelessness last year? According to a recent analysis by the Brookings Institution, it was Wake County — North Carolina’s most-populous. It had a rate of 78 homeless residents per 100,000 population, down 40% from 2022.

If you live in or near the state’s capital city, however, this finding may surprise you. Over the past year, homeless encampments in parks, vacant lots, and forested lands along highway interchanges in Wake County have generated major stories for local media and major headaches for local officials.

Just a few days ago, law enforcement cleared out two encampments south of Raleigh, one along the Beltline and the other near the boundary of Raleigh and Garner. In each case, the police acted only after repeated efforts to notify the homeless that they were camped unlawfully on public property and to connect them with services for substance abuse, mentally illness, and other challenges.

While some in the camps accepted help, others refused such services. In my view, the police had no alternative but to intervene. People camped next to busy highways are a danger to themselves and others. There were also reports of criminal activity and complaints from nearby businesses.

The problem extends well beyond the Raleigh area. Charlotte, High Point, Asheboro, Wilmington, Salisbury, and Asheville are among the many North Carolina localities where legal and policy battles over homeless encampments have made headlines in recent years.

And last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments about a local ordinance in Oregon that forbids unpermitted camping on public property and sleeping in many public spaces. The constitutional question in that case isn’t really whether local governments can police vagrancy on public property but whether the application of criminal penalties to homeless violators runs afoul of the 8th Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

During the proceeding, Justice Sonia Sotomayor seemed to view the plaintiffs’ argument with favor. “If a stargazer wants to take a blanket or a sleeping bag out at night to watch the stars and falls asleep, you don’t arrest them,” she said to the municipality’s attorney. “You don’t arrest babies who have blankets over them. You only arrest people who don’t have a home.”

Justice Samuel Alito, however, expressed skepticism about how local authorities could manage their parks and other public lands if the Oregon plaintiffs prevailed. “The individual police officer would go around and count the number of people who are getting ready to sleep outside for the night, and then ask each one of them whether you’ve tried to find a bed at a shelter, whether that person would be willing to go to a shelter, if a bed is available without any conditions, or whether the bed would have to be available on the conditions that the individual wants?”

Homelessness is a complex problem with multiple causes and imperfect solutions. While the availability and affordability of housing clearly affects its extent, many of those who are chronically homeless suffer from addictions or other mental illnesses. Victims of domestic violence are also disproportionately represented.

In short, while policymakers should make it easier to build and operate housing — including the multi-family units most likely to ameliorate the problem — that’s neither an adequate nor a timely response to the problem of encampments. It’s not adequate because many of the “hard cases” who insist on sleeping and camping outside are in need of medical intervention. And it’s not timely because the encampments are themselves a health and safety threat that simply cannot be tolerated on public property.

“We should worry less about the harms associated with citing someone for camping in a park,” writes Manhattan Institute senior fellow Stephen Eide, “and more about the kinds of victimization to which the street homeless are routinely subjected, such as assault, theft, and rape. Cruelty reigns in encampments, and to an unusual degree; a more civilized society would put up with them less.”

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk, combine epic fantasy with early American history (FolkloreCycle.com).


  1. What an absolutely asinine argument by Sotomayor. People who are stargazing aren’t setting up tents on public sidewalks and harassing passers-by. They aren’t shi**ing on the sidewalk. They aren’t throwing bottles of pi** at people when they refuse to give their spare change. They aren’t impeding foot and vehicular traffic.
    It’s great that many of the people in Raleigh accepted help during the latest clear out. But so many of these people are beyond that. They need serious intensive mental health therapy and addiction recovery services. They have to WANT to change. After decades of fending for themselves, this isn’t a case of simply offering some counseling sessions that will lead to profitable careers and contributing members of society. We don’t have the police, social workers, public resources, housing, money, or mental health professionals to do what needs to be done.
    Section off a park or part of the city and let them stay there. If they want to leave and get help they can do so.

  2. The other help offered was a maybe bed at healing transitions. To be homeless there they kick you out at 7am, make you take all your belongings, and if you miss the 2pm pick up you’re screwed. These people need a place to LIVE. they need real help. This article was obviously written by someone who has been very fortunate in life.

  3. I was so proud to be a Christian when I saw how many local churches stepped up to offer their parking lots and fields to rehome the tent cities.

  4. Maybe Mr. Hood would open up his back yard or house to help a few homeless people. Oh that’s right, Mr Hood would be the first and loudest one yelling NIMBY!!!!

  5. So, what we have here is a conundrum. Our government and society have failed the citizens of this nation.
    Most every adult homeless person once lived in a home. How they became homeless is their story to tell, but many preventatives have been tossed aside.
    Regardless, the problem is growing exponentially and the “solutions” aren’t working. At best, they are temporary in nature and incomplete in their delivery.

    However, allowing homeless encampments in public parks is a NO for me. It’s not a solution and it creates more issues. I’ve grown weary of all the extra burdens placed on law-abiding, hard-working citizens caused by the negative activities of others.

    • I’m sure many that are homeless were and are “law-abiding, hard-working citizens” until some life event happened. I hope for your sake @JoCoProud that you never have an event that makes you homeless.

  6. They should point out the mental health services in NC, probably the whole country, is a pathetic joke with lots of so called professionals that don’t have a clue about mental health. To them its all about blaming addiction for everything. Then they have control, and become tyrants, just like their ENT counterparts. They are all grifters. They’re rich people’s families that go on to get them a fancy degree in order to keep on grifting.

  7. The problem is some choose to be homeless and some don’t. The ones that don’t will take any chance to make their lives better. The one that chose homelessness are the ones where the problem lies, they don’t want help and will resist at all costs. There is no easy solution and never will be. Sadly there are groups that get together to go help people in other countries and yet they miss the neighbor down the street, then wonder why there aren’t any good programs to help people here.

Leave a Reply