The crisis of the unhoused is no longer a hidden issue. We have seen an unprecedented proliferation of transient encampments with related trespassing, property damage, illicit and hazardous waste exposures. Law enforcement agencies are reporting increases in both violent and non-violent crimes attributable to the unhoused population.
School campuses can provide attractive locations for the unhoused to set up camp, find shelter from the elements, and potentially gain access to water and electricity. Though many unhoused persons are not violent or destructive, the use of campus property by such individuals poses significant safety hazards to school district facilities and the students and staff:
- Debris abandoned by the unhoused often includes human and animal waste, drug paraphernalia, other illicit materials along with garbage.
- Unhoused persons may be under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or suffer severe mental health issues. Some are found to carry weapons. There can be an immediate threat of violence.
- Fires started for cooking or warmth can quickly get out of control, causing injury, death and property loss.
How can you protect your pupils, staff and facilities from exposures to hazards created by unhoused encampment on campus? First, you need to assess your vulnerabilities.
"Unhoused persons on campus create safety hazards for students and staff."
If your campus has continuous perimeter fencing, you are at far less risk of unhoused trespassing. Ensure your fencing is not damaged and that access gates are secured when school is closed. Regular security patrols present a strong deterrent to unauthorized access. Remote monitoring using conspicuous camera equipment and signage also reduces your risk.
Good exterior lighting is among the best deterrents against campus crime at night. Besides discouraging unhoused sheltering, lighting is very effective in reducing theft, vandalism and violent assault because of the visibility it provides. Maintain landscaping to eliminate areas of possible concealment.
Outdoor power outlets and water valves are tempting targets for access by the unhoused. Shut off devices, lock boxes and hardware to prevent unauthorized operation reduces utility theft and potential property damage due to flooding and fire. Trash, waste paper and cardboard must also be inaccessible, so it won’t become fuel for campfires.
Any intrusion by unhoused persons and material left behind must be treated with utmost caution. Contact law enforcement to protect students and staff if unhoused persons are found on campus. Any debris left behind should be considered hazardous and cleanup should be performed only by qualified individuals wearing appropriate personal protective equipment. Safety and security of students and school personnel are your top priority!