High housing costs and a limited stock of low-income units have driven homelessness in New Bedford, and it’s pushing city councilors to consider creative solutions: like, for instance, authorizing a sanctioned short-term homeless encampment.

City councilors voted last week to continue discussing the idea at a meeting with the mayor next month. But most councilors don’t appear to support the creation of the encampment itself, with at least one suggesting instead that the city create temporary shelters in unused churches and fire stations.

City Councilor Shane Burgo, who chairs the Affordable Housing and Homeless Affairs committee, expects this year’s official tally of the city’s unsheltered population to double over last year’s at 67.

Burgo said that no one wants people living on the street, but the city is reaching “a boiling point.”

“It comes down to a failure of government,” Burgo said. “I think it’s important for us as elected officials to do the best to help the most vulnerable population among us and to make sure we’re doing the best for those that we’ve been elected to serve.”

That’s why he proposed considering the temporary homeless encampment following conversations with the Homeless Service Provider Network.

Carl Alves, who chairs the Homeless Service Provider Network and is the executive director of Positive Action Against Chemical Addiction, says the encampment would be a Band-Aid to provide a secure facility with sanitation until permanent housing can be found. Outreach workers could more easily connect with people if they are located in one area.

Alves says that, by local outreach workers’ count, there are already 36 encampments in New Bedford across all the city’s wards.

But he says that homelessness hasn’t been a priority with the local government.

“It bothers everybody, but we’re not allocating new resources to it,” said Alves. “The shelter that we’ve had in place has had the amount of beds for the past eight to 10 years. Access to safe space for a person to sleep and live indoors is at a premium now.”

More older adults are experiencing homelessness, said Alves, which presents mental health, substance use and medical challenges.

“It’s just becoming more and more of a complex issue,” he said. “This has happened relatively rapidly over the last three or four years with the increase in pricing, the pandemic and all that kind of stuff.”

Rents in New Bedford rose 27% between January 2022 and July 2023 — the fastest pace among its Gateway Cities peers in the state, according to the 2024 New Bedford Housing Report.

Joshua Amaral, who leads the Office of Housing & Community Development, said his office is developing hundreds of new homes under the Building New Bedford Plan. Seven hundred units are in the works across 40 projects, ranging from under construction to the idea phase.

But City Councilor Leo Choquette fears an encampment would devolve into a similar situation as seen at Mass. and Cass in Boston and present a public health danger.

Instead, Choquette proposes using shuttered Catholic churches, elementary schools and fire stations, anticipating together these facilities could house about 370 people.

“We’re going to see if the Diocese of Fall River would allow us to utilize some of the closed churches,” Choquette said. “It’s not going to be the most comfortable thing, but there will be a lockable door and running water.” 

In about a month, the City Council will meet with Mayor Jon Mitchell and other groups to discuss options and next steps.