This month the National Coalition for the Homeless began a campaign to spread awareness about the increasing prevalence of tent cities. Its first report, "Tent Cities in America: A Pacific Coast Report," looks at nine tent cities, ranging from the 10-year-old, 60-resident, city ordinance-protected Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon to the two-year-old, 55-resident unsanctioned Nickelsville encampment in Seattle.
Forty-four percent of America's homeless are "unsheltered." Since we know that the Department of Housing and Urban Development's substandard definition of homelessness does not include people living in motels or sleeping on friends' couches, where are those other 66 percent of homeless individuals? Many are in tent cities.
The Coalition's report is a series of case studies, and coincidentally, a fascinating read. It explains how each tent city formed and grew, and in the case of many of the examples, how its residents withstood police and community pressure and fought for legal recognition from the city. It even includes practical information the types of dwellings and sources of funding. Many of the encampments are established enough to deserve the title of "city" and include things like elected officials, publicity campaigns and background checks for residents.
Executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, Changemaker Neil Donovan, says that tent cities are America's "de facto waiting room for affordable and accessible housing." The fact that more and more people are living in tent cities doesn't say anything about the people (people haven't changed) -- it says something about the state of affordable housing in our country.
That's what struck me most about the Coalition's report. It never judged the people in these tent cities, of course, but it presumed that living in encampments was not what was right for the residents. It held up the permanent supportive housing model even while including Dignity Village, a high-functioning community made of wooden homes that began as a tent city, in its report. I tend to side with Donovan, but I also think that these tent cities feel more like homes than waiting rooms to an awful lot of people.
Photo credit: Glasto_2009