Saturday, December 29, 2007

Number of homeless encampments is increasing: crisis and opportunity Part One

Tent Cities: What they're like, why they're growing, and how they're a part of the burgeoning international movement for housing..

I've been tracking the growth of homeless encampments and tent cities across the country ever since 2004, when homeless people and Arise for Social Justice organized our own "Sanctuary City" in Springfield, MA. Our tent city, which came about to meet the crisis of a shelter closing, lasted six months and sheltered 70-80 people a night-- some 400+ people over the course of the encampment's lifetime.

On a disorder to order scale of one to ten, Sanctuary City ranked about 7.5. Run by homeless people themselves with training and material support from Arise and others, it was visible, political, and absolutely essential to people's wellbeing. Sanctuary City closed when the Warming Place shelter was able to reopen in November.

The intent of my research, initially, was to look for existing models of organization that could be used to help Sanctuary City residents self-manage and survive. I couldn't find much but I did find Dignity Village in Portland, OR and ShareWheel in Seattle, WA. ShareWheel had put up a page at about tent cities that was particularly helpful.

How things have changed in the last three years! Like other social issues, I know that increased reporting may account for some of my perception that tent cities are becoming more common. On the other hand, the forces that create homelessness certainly haven't diminished. In any case, there is never a day that I can't find a new mention of tent cities and encampments.

Unless you live in a gated community, or an extremely affluent town surrounded by other affluent towns (and maybe not even then), you have people without homes sleeping rough all around you.

  • Sometimes people throw up a tent or a tarp or two in public parks, riverbanks or behind abandoned stores. Survival there depends on remaining absolutely unnoticed, or noticed by only a few people who, for whatever reason, leave them alone.
  • Larger, more visible communities often spring up in semi-public places-- under a bridge, in a field, in the parking lot of a deserted mall. People wind up there because they've seen or heard about it. Some people have been kicked out of a shelter while others wouldn't be caught dead in one. Mostly these encampments operate with no structure, little structure or with a set of standards that are hard to enforce.
  • Other, more structured tent city communities often are started by homeless people with some political awareness or who work in conjunction with a sympathetic, organized group or church. These communities, like the recent New Orleans tent city, often have political goals as well as meeting the immediate shelter needs of their residents.
But whether residents have political goals or not, I have never seen an encampment of homeless people develop solely for political purposes.

At yesterday's Arise meeting, I heard about a woman who was kicked out of the Friends of the Homeless shelter for three days because she allegedly was turning tricks behind the building. She was banned from the overnight shelter too, because that shelter is also run by the Friends. So that's it for homeless women in Springfield-- nowhere else to go, now that the Warming Place has closed. The next two closest shelters that take women are fifteen and twenty miles away and may or may not have room, and whatever you may or may not think about her behavior, being unsheltered is especially dangerous for women. If she knew any of the people tenting out last night, that's probably where she went.

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