Last night I got an unexpected phone call from a former resident of Springfield's 2004 Tent City. He's in Tennessee now and considering whether or not his city's homeless are ready to organize a tent city. Lots of homelessness but not much leadership, he said-- a not uncommon scenario. Organizing takes time.
Four years ago, on May 15, fifteen tent cities around the country held our nation's first commemoration of International Tent City and Housing Alternatives Day. We here in Springfield, MA didn't know anything about it, though, because we were too busy organizing our city's first tent city!
My organization, Arise for Social Justice, had been working intensively with the homeless community for more than a year. Homeless people had come to events we'd hosted at Arise with the Poor people's Economic Human Rights Campaign and half a dozen had become members. We'd demonstrated outside the Friends of the Homeless Shelter, calling for the resignation of then-director Frank Keough. (Frank is in prison, now, along with many of the other heads of city agencies from that era.) We'd been petitioning Mayor Ryan to give an empty building to homeless people to fix up, and had compiled a list of people and skills. We'd even done a clean-up of the building we wanted, and had met a few times about taking the building over.
Then the Warming Place shelter for single men and women closed on May 9, and circumstances forced our hand in a totally unexpected way.
May 10, ten people slept in our office. May 11, those ten plus fifteen more staked tents on the lawn of St. Michael's cathedral. The next day, 45 people. The next day, most of the 76 who'd been displaced from the shelter plus some who'd come in from the woods. 400 different people over the next six months stayed at Sanctuary City.
What happened from that point four years ago to the present day is a long and bittersweet story, not without its successes but to be told another day. But the picture I want to paint is that in order for desperation and anger to have the chance to become social change, homeless people and organizers (often but not always the same people) have to take small steps together before that quantum leap.
Dignity Village in Portland, OR, established 2000, is getting ready to celebrate International Tent City Day. I imagine Share/WHEEL's Tent City 4 in Seattle, WA will be doing the same-- they've been operating non-stop since 2002. Most tent cities have a considerably shorter lifespan.
What poor people in New Orleans have experienced has provided them with a political education that no one deserves to learn in that way. I've written about some of the housing organizing going on in New Orleans here. but it's hard to know how demoralized the community may be: a tent city set up across from city hall, partly in protest and partly from need, was cleared earlier this year and about 100 tents are now set up under the Claiborne Avenue underpass. Moast have lived there more than a year. In January, Mayor Nagle said he'd be moving everyone into one big tent where they could get help, but it hasn't happened yet.
There's been a tent city in Ontario, CA since last July, which reached a high point of 400 in March. Then the city took control of the tent city, refurbished it, provided sanitation and other amenities, and required everyone to prove they were from Ontario if they wanted to stay in what has now become known as the "Homeless Services Area." More than fifty people were forced to leave. Some people left because of the No Pets policy. Smaller encampments have been set up around the city but are quickly cleared only to be reestablished elsewhere.
Somewhere in these tent cities and in others across the country are leaders. Maybe those men and women lead in a very laid-back way, providing a touchstone of humanity; maybe they lead more explicitly and organize others in the encampments to provide some security . It's a hard way to get experience and people can burn out very quickly, but more leaders spring up. As long as people's incomes can't meet their basic need for shelter and food,as long as people lack power at the top, they will continue to find their power at the base.
Next Thursday, May 15, spare a thought for homeless people in encampments around the world. Wish them unity and power.
intersection of race and poverty