Ever since dramatic cuts to HUD’s budget for affordable housing in the late 1970s, the number of unhoused people in the US has grown steadily. An estimated 2.5 to 3.5 million people now experience houselessness each year.* People of color are especially hard hit, due to factors such as landlord discrimination, racist policing practices, legacies of redlining, and other types of segregation and oppression. In response, a powerful grassroots movement centered around houseless-run “rest areas” has emerged over the last decade. Distinct from publicly funded highway rest areas, over 300 “tent cities”, “tiny house villages”, or “encampments” can be found, in all 50 states. With a 1,342% increase in unique encampments reported in the media since 2007, houseless communities now exist on a scale “unprecedented since the Great Depression”.

Rest areas, tent cities, and tiny house communities run by and for houseless people reduce crime, provide people a place to “feel human”, and give folks a safe place to rest.

Yet, rest area residents, like other houseless people, remain extremely vulnerable to environmental hazards, such as air pollution and soil toxins. When rest areas are built on polluted sites -- often the only urban land not slated for development or planned green space -- people are exposed to dangerous contaminants. If residents express concerns, landowners often evict them.

A community-controlled solution is necessary, one that allows houseless communities, themselves, to diagnose and reduce exposure to harm. RESTING SAFE brings together houseless community leaders and activist-researchers to investigate and intervene in environmental hazards in the places where houseless people are building homes. 

This project will arm houseless communities with information about their sites' precise types and levels of pollution. It will provide tools for communities to reduce risks, themselves, or push government agencies to do so.

Ultimately, this project aims to ensure that houseless communities establish greater control over urban space, emerging better equipped to fight for more just land use, housing, healthcare, and police systems.

* We follow the lead of houseless-led activist organization Right 2 Survive in referring to people living without shelter as “houseless” rather than homeless: home is where the heart is, the thinking goes, and just because someone lacks a home, does not mean they lack a heart.



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National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (2017). Tent City U.S.A: The Growth of America’s Homeless Encampments and How Communities Are Responding.

Pellow, D. (2018). What is Critical Environmental Justice? Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Pulido, L., E. Kohl, and N. Cotton (2016). State regulation and environmental justice: The need for strategy reassessment. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 1-20.

Schmid, T. (2018). No link between homeless villages and crime rates, Guardian review suggests. The Guardian.

Sparks, T. (2017). Citizens without property: Informality and political agency in a Seattle, Washington homeless encampment. Environment and Planning A, 49(1), 86-103.

Western Regional Advocacy Project (2010). Without Housing: Decades of Federal Housing Cutbacks, Massive Homelessness, and Policy Failures.