Richmond mayor makes case for ‘managed homeless encampment’

Richmond mayor makes case for 'managed homeless encampment'
Images used by Mayor Tom Butt to illustrate his idea for a "managed homeless encampment."

By Mayor Tom Butt (from the mayor’s e-forum newsletter)

No city has really solved the homeless problem. It remains intractable.

What happens when a “pop up” homeless encampment is abated by a public agency? Maybe 20 to 25 percent of the campers who are offered access to a shelter or other program that can take them off the streets accept.

The rest simply move on to some other location (or simply return the next day) and the problem starts all over again. Why does this happen? The reasons include:

  • Mental problems
  • Drug abuse
  • The three Ps:
    • Pets
    • Partners
    • Possessions

For these reasons and more, most homeless people do not want to go to a shelter that restricts their lifestyle.

On Monday, June 25, 2018, the City of Richmond, assisted by Contra Costa CORE (The Coordinated Outreach Referral, Engagement) Team,[1] abated an encampment with about 25 people located adjacent to the 22nd Street grade separation.

About three people accepted an offer to move to a County shelter. The remainder dispersed, and the site was cleaned up. The next day, June 26, the encampment was reestablished. Whatever money the City of Richmond spent was totally wasted.

While permanent housing, successful mental health and drug abuse treatment and even jobs remain long term goals, they are expensive and take time, at best. At worst, they are simply not going to happen.

Encampments come with significant problems for the surrounding community, including health, blight, crime, drug abuse and fear. They also foster an image that the neighborhood is declining with an effect on property values.

Encampments are political flashpoints with no solution. Neighbors and other community members want them to go away. Others argue that compassion should prevail, and the City should support and nurture the camps. You can’t really argue that either position is wrong. We have to find a solution.

Currently, there is little funding to move homeless persons into housing, assuming housing is even available due to a low vacancy rate. The average rent for a studio apartment in Richmond is $1,400, or $16,800 per year, and there are not enough to house Richmond’s 270 (2018 PIT – Point In Time) homeless persons. It would cost $4.5 million per year just to house Richmond’s 270 homeless persons (not including supportive services) in studio apartments if enough units were even available.

Until funding becomes available for permanent and long-term solutions, providing managed homeless camps in carefully selected locations may be the only solution. A number of cities have gone down this road, and success has been mixed. All have been expensive and complicated. Some have failed and eventually been removed. Alternatives for shelter typically include “tiny homes,” “tuff sheds” and recreational vehicles. It costs a minimum of about $1 million a year, or more, to outfit and operate a managed encampment.

Oakland has two “tuff shed” camps, each with 20 sheds that accommodate two persons, for a total of 40 persons per site. The City rents the site, provides portapotties and contracts for a mobile shower paid for by Kaiser to visit the site. According to City sources, the cost to the City is about $600,000 a year. The rest of the costs and services, which brings the total to well over $1 million, are donated with the mayor as the main fundraiser. That’s at least $25,000 per person per year, probably closer to $37,500, more than twice the cost of renting a studio apartment in Richmond.

Oakland Tuff Shed community

Realistically, the only way for Richmond to move away from the pattern of scattered homeless encampments is to provide one or more managed encampments that provide the same level of freedom as unmanaged encampments.

If Richmond were to get into the managed encampment business, here is how it might work:

  • Find a site that is visually isolated from main streets but is reasonably near transportation and other services such as a grocery store. A two-acre site could handle at least 100 people.
  • Provide the basic infrastructure such as water, toilets, handwashing and trash disposal. Provide a “day-room” for eating and service providers.
  • Provide one or more cargo containers for secure storage of large possessions.
  • Provide tents and a layout that at least looks organized. Maybe footlockers for secure storage of small possessions, camp beds, table and chair. Tents are cheap. Despite any intent to designate “tuff sheds” or other structures as temporary, they will become permanent.

Figure 2 – Ozark Trail Tent – $278 at Walmart
Used travel trailer, $6,000 on Craigslist

  • Provide parking spaces for recreational vehicles, including travel trailers.
  • Mental health, physical health, substance abuse, job search and permanent housing search would be handled by Contra Costa CORE Team or contracted to a non-profit..
  • Operation of the camp would be contracted to a non-profit that may employ some campers to assist in cleanup and other operational tasks.

Why tents or recreational vehicles? Any other structure is subject to regulation by the California Building Code and the State Housing Law and found in Division 13, Part 1.5 of the California Health and Safety Code (HSC), Sections 17910 to 17998.3. A legal residential structure can be very expensive, running from tens of thousands of dollars for a tiny home or dormitory to hundreds of thousands of dollars for an affordable housing unit.

Any camp for homeless should be seen as only temporary, with the ultimate goal to provide permanent housing for everyone, but the reality is that a five-year plan for a camp may be required.

Even a “tuff shed” village is a violation of state law governing occupied structures. There are much fewer regulations for camping.

RV parks and campgrounds are under the authority of the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD). Campground regulations are pretty basic, focusing on safety and sanitation.

California law governing mobile home parks is entitled the “Mobilehome Parks Act” and may be found in Division 13, Part 2.1 of the California Health and Safety Code, commencing with Section 18200 . California law governing Special Occupancy parks is entitled the “Special Occupancy Parks Act” and may be found in Division 13, Part 2.3 of the California Health and Safety Code, commencing with Section 18860 . Local jurisdictions may apply to HCD to assume authority and manage Special Occupancy (RV) Parks Act or SOPA within their boundaries.

According to Lavonna Martin, MPH, MPA, Director – Health, Housing and Homeless Services, Contra Costa Health Services, delivery of services to a large encampment requires a minimum of 3-4 case managers, 40/hours per week (each with a caseload of 25–33 persons) to connect people to the behavioral health care and long-term housing solutions they need. Deploying the CORE teams to provide the case management would remove the outreach service from the City in its original intended capacity and would require two teams to handle this level of case management and care coordination required.  This is separate from the required base staffing that is required for general milieu management of the encampment. 

Having a non-profit manage operations 24 hours/day, 7days/week would require as much as $600,000.  For the Brookside shelter operated by Contra Costa County, (which is comparable to the size the proposed project), it costs $600,000/year for just food and basic staffing (this doesn’t include blankets/linens required, utilities, case managers, etc.).

Below is what an annual budget might look like:

Annual Budget for 100-Unit Tent Camp

Land Rent


Gravel, fencing, etc


Portapotties and handwashing


Mobile shower rental


100 tents


100 footlockers


Bedd (or cots) and bedding for 100[2]


Water and electric service, including night lighting


Trash Service


Admin/Day Room Tent or structure rental


Management by non-profit


Food service





That comes to $15,400 per person for a 100-bed managed homeless tent camp.

Where would the money come from? The City of Richmond cannot afford this without significantly reducing City services that serve everyone, such as parks and street maintenance, libraries, recreation or even public safety.

I suggest we look for help private sector partners and foundations. BNSF (the Railroad) just spent nearly $800,000 removing a homeless camp along its right-of-way in Richmond. Despite the huge sum, the campers just relocated. In time, they will probably be back to BNSF right-of-way. This money could have been spent to fund a managed camp instead of a wasted abatement action.

If the ten largest employers in Richmond kicked in $154,000 each, we could fund one managed encampment for a year. If half the cost came from foundations, as in other cities that have managed camps, the cost per employer would drop to $77,000 per year. We could also raise money with a “go fund me.”

What do you think?


  1. Opportunity Village in Eugene is just one example of a successful and extremely affordable response to homelessness. It is possible to mimic their strategies in Richmond and provide an arguably healthier and more stable environment to that of most shelters.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here