Research Article

Unsheltered Homelessness in Public Natural Areas Across an Urban-to-Wildland System: Institutional Perspectives

Publication Date:

Authors: Monika M. Derrien, Lee K. Cerveny, Gregory N. Bratman, Chaja Levy, Paulo Frank, Naomi Serio and Dale J. Blahna


This article conceptualizes homelessness on public lands within a social-ecological systems framework, exploring dynamics in public natural areas in the Seattle metropolitan area (USA), a system with a compact urban-to-wildland gradient. While prior research has studied the dynamics of unsheltered homelessness within particular parks or cities—often in areas where camping is prohibited—our interview-based study makes integrated considerations of these dynamics across a range of jurisdictions. We present a thematic analysis that examines professionally diverse perspectives on the dynamics, stressors, and outcomes of public natural area usage by unsheltered individuals. We found a generally uncoordinated system in continual motion, in which considerable resources were expended for short-term, site-specific solutions that yielded system-wide detrimental outcomes perceived for unsheltered individuals, social service and environmental institutions, and ecosystem health. We discuss how improved institutional coordination and mutual understanding about intersecting governance systems could sustain better public land, public health, and social outcomes.