An estimated 3.5 million people now experience houselessness each year.* Today’s crisis is a direct result of ongoing cuts to federal funds for affordable housing and mental health programs that began in the early 1980s. Black and Native people are especially hard hit, due to landlord discrimination, racist policing practices, legacies of redlining, and other types of ongoing segregation and oppression. People living on the streets contend with a host of issues, including lack of access to food and hygiene facilities, police violence, harassment by local vigilante groups, illness and disease, and exposure to the elements.

In response, a powerful grassroots movement centered around houseless-run communities has emerged over the last decade. A growing number of houseless people in cities across North America have joined together to construct cooperative spaces for sleeping, cooking, eating, gardening, conducting other daily activities—and fighting for change. Over 300 tent cities, tiny house villages, and encampments exist, 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”.

Communities run by and for houseless people reduce crime, give people a safe place to rest, and provide a place for residents to “feel human”.

Yet, houseless community residents congregated together, like people “sleeping rough”, independently on the streets, remain extremely vulnerable to environmental hazards. Air pollution, soil toxins, rodents, floods, landslides, harsh winter weather, drought, mold and mildew, fire danger, and more exacerbate the difficulties of surviving without stable housing. When communities are built on polluted sites -- often the only urban land not slated for development or planned green space -- people are exposed to dangerous contaminants. Many communities are in a catch-22: speak up, and appeal to local public agencies to assist in remediating hazards, and risk eviction. Stay silent, and continue living in dangerous conditions.

A community-controlled solution is necessary, one that allows houseless communities, themselves, to diagnose and reduce exposure to harm. A project of Right 2 Survive, 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 and communities.

RESTING SAFE takes the intersection of police violence and environmental hazards, rather than housing, as its entry point. In addition to popular education materials, reports, articles, and a book, one important product of this project is a collectively created, environmental justice-focused “RESTING SAFE Toolkit”. So far we have created a pamphlet with tips and tricks for preventing mold and mildew, and are in the process of developing a poster focused on fire safety and a pamphlet on dealing with rodents and pests. We are also developing protocols for collecting spider webs to test levels of diesel particulate matter, and have long-term plans for developing soil testing protocols and support.

This project is tapping into the deep expertise that houseless communities have already developed in response to dangerous living conditions, pooling collective knowledge to enable people to learn from each other across geographies. It is also arming communities with information about their sites' precise types and levels of pollution, and is providing tools for communities to reduce risks, themselves, or push government agencies to do so. Finally, it is contributing to Right 2 Survive and other groups’ efforts to build a national movement for Sleep Not Sweeps, House Keys Not Handcuffs.

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



Herring C. and M. Lutz (2015). The roots and implications of the USA's homeless tent cities. City, 19, 689-701.

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.