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Chico State

New Study Explores Drivers of Homelessness and Impact on Public Lands

Professor Jesse Engebretson is standing on a rock overlooking a valley of trees. He is addressing a group of students during a field trip.
(Jason Halley/University Photographer/Chico State)

In January, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved an emergency declaration over homelessness—a challenge that could be expected in a county with a population of over 9 million. Each year major cities in California experience an increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness, but there is a lesser-known effect of homelessness: the impact on public lands.

Recreation, Hospitality, and Parks Management (RHPM) professor Jesse Engebretson has launched a research project that explores drivers of homelessness, the appeal of public lands to the unhoused population, and how state and federal governments can develop tools to better serve the community.

“We’re interested in the lived experience of being unhoused on public lands, so we want to do a rich qualitative study that is longitudinal,” Engebretson said. “We’re going to try to interview the same people a few times across the year. We want to understand the unique drivers that may contribute to their situation, and we want to understand the movement patterns and other spatial elements of their lives across the year.”  

The research, which began in Tehama County and will be conducted throughout Northern California, is the result of a partnership between the US Department of Agriculture, the US Forest Service, and Chico State. The idea for the project began with Benjamin Gray, District Recreation Officer for the Grindstone District of the Mendocino National Forest. Gray, who manages the recreation lands and facilities on the Grindstone District, was searching for resources to help his staff navigate difficult situations involving non-recreational campers.

Non-recreational campers, in short, means anyone using a campsite as a temporary residence. This can include people who are displaced, unhoused, or housing insecure. The problem Gray faced with non-recreational campers was not their economic condition, but how to navigate challenges that arose during their stay.

“I want to make it very clear that public land is open to anybody at any time to come enjoy, but we sometimes have issues with people failing to pay the recreation fees, or overstaying how long they’re allowed to stay at one time…some challenges with disturbing the peace, messy campsites, maybe out of control animals—things like that,” he said.

The Mendocino National Forest restricts campers to a maximum of 14 consecutive days and 28 days in a calendar year. Gray felt he was faced with limited options when it came to enforcing forest regulations, especially when it involved people experiencing homelessness.

“I had to write a violation notice to somebody who didn’t pay her recreation fees,” Gray said. “I realized as I wrote the ticket, that, while I was seeking compliance with federal regulations, which are meant to protect natural resources for all users, I wasn’t able to help the individual person at that moment. My only tool was enforcement in that case.”

With a desire to help those in need, Gray utilized his background in research and anthropology to investigate the topic of homelessness and non-recreational camping on public lands.

“I was hoping to find some kind of tool to use or bring attention to this issue, and that there might be some kind of intervention or way of offering folks assistance, if they want it,” Gray said.

He came across a journal written by Lee Cerveny, who works for the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station, one of Chico State’s research partners. Gray connected with Cerveny, and then connected her to Emilyn Sheffield, a longtime faculty member in the RHPM department who has worked in partnership with federal land management resource agencies for decades, including the Mendocino National Forest.

“Providing outdoor recreation opportunities is important anywhere, but it’s particularly important in a state like California, with the spectacular range of natural resources that we have, and the importance of those resources to our collective well-being. So as user groups and uses emerge, we need to better understand them, so that we can respond,” Sheffield said.

The project was passed on to Engebretson, who also has a background in anthropology and social science. After a series of conversations, a new joint venture agreement between the Forest Service and Chico State was signed and the project was greenlit.

The first step in the ongoing research will be in-depth, qualitative interviews. Alongside a team, Engebretson plans to interview people who are unhoused, people who work for organizations that assist unhoused populations, and people who work for the Forest Service. Before doing formal data collection, these informant interviews will help Engebretson assess the broader situation and will help the team better understand the unhoused population and what they want out of the research.

“We want to make a big effort to have the research that we do reflect the interests of unhoused people who use public lands, and we want to use their experience to help influence the research itself,” Engebretson said.

A key part of the research will be investigating the drivers of homelessness such as lack of jobs, lack of familial support, mental health issues, and substance abuse. Engebretson also intends to explore more complex drivers like the direct and indirect impacts of climate change and natural disasters.

“For me, and for my fellow researchers, we’re interested in climate change, and its impacts on and its role as a driver of homelessness,” he said.

Chico is one example he uses to demonstrate how climate change can affect homelessness.

“Let’s say, for instance, if there’s a person who’s experiencing housing instability from Chico, and they said that they are living in Red Bluff now because they were priced out at Chico, their lived experience is just getting priced out of the city, and they can’t afford to live there anymore,” he said. “The person experiencing housing instability might say it’s because of being priced out, but we have to think about why—what are the reasons why they were priced out? Part of it would be the indirect impacts of climate change in the form of wildfire refugees from the Camp Fire.”

In 2018, the Camp Fire, one of the most destructive wildfires in California history, swept through Butte county burning nearly 14,000 residencies and displacing around 30,000 individuals, according to PBS. Three weeks after the fire began, drastic floods did even more damage.

Engebretson theorizes that natural disasters exacerbated by climate change will continue to impact homelessness in the years to come and will be a critical part of their research.

“Even though climate change isn’t the main focus of what we’re doing, highlighting the challenges of housing in California and how it’s likely going to cause more homelessness, especially coupled with the direct and indirect impacts of climate change, is really important,” he said.

Sheffield, who helps coordinate a yearly statewide exit survey of national forest visitors on behalf of the Forest Service, has seen a steady uptick of non-recreational, long-term campers.

“Every year we encounter folks that are in campgrounds who’ve been evacuated because of wildfires, or they’ve been evacuated because of floodwaters, or the air quality is better (in parks) than where they live,” she said. “I think (the project) is going to shed some light on the increasing use of public lands at all levels for people that are there for non-recreational purposes.”

Engebretson hopes the research will also help the Forest Service develop tools it can use when interacting with unhoused people.

“There are bigger systemic issues that are causing homelessness…on a small-scale level, what we want to do is provide the Forest Service with a tool or a guide for them to ethically engage with unhoused people, in a way that doesn’t further perpetuate their oppression or their poverty,” he said.

Gray, who will assist Engebretson’s team as they conduct their interviews, hopes the research will pave the way for future conversations.

“Maybe we don’t have a perfect solution that comes out of this that helps people immediately, but it helps people in the future,” he said. “This issue needs attention and have resources applied to it.”

As part of the ongoing conversation, Engebretson is integrating the topic of unhoused populations in parks into his lectures at Chico State. He also plans to record a podcast interview with a Forest Service employee about the management challenges that arise in relation to the biophysical impacts that unhoused, long-term campers can have on public lands. In the fall, he aims to involve his students in the research project through analyzing data.

Overall, the hopeful outcome of the ongoing research will be for anyone who uses public lands (whether for recreational purposes, or nonrecreational) to see the relevancy and urgency of this kind of investigation.