Tent cities are now so common that advocates are campaigning to make them semi-permanent settlements of micro-housing. But is this a genuine solution or merely a quick fix?
In December 2014, the city of San Jose shut down what was then America’s largest homeless camp — a shantytown that stretched for sixty-eight acres along Coyote Creek where a few hundred men and women were living in tents, shacks, treehouses, and adobe dugouts. Happening during the midst of the holiday season, the event captured widespread media attention. News stories like “In Wealthy Silicon Valley, 300 Evicted from Homeless Camp” and “Hanging out with the Tech Have-nots” portrayed the camp, also know as “the Jungle,” in terms of the polarized urbanization that characterizes contemporary Silicon Valley, where the headquarters of some of the richest corporations in the nation co-exist with rapidly growing homeless populations. As KQED News, a local NPR station, wrote in its coverage of the eviction:
Nearby companies like Google, Apple, Yahoo, eBay and Facebook have amassed incredible wealth as the tech sector roars back to life following the recession. The growth has driven up home prices in the Bay Area, and many available units are unaffordable for low and middle-class residents. “To not be able to house our people in the richest place in the world at the richest time in its history shows us that something’s completely broken about our city,” [housing advocate Sandy] Perry said.
This is, of course, the “tale of two cities” narrative that has become depressingly familiar in what many are calling a new gilded age. But to view the camps simply in this light is to overlook the deeper and more durable history of encampments for the homeless in the United States, and of the campaigns both to dismantle and defend them. Like many informal settlements across the country, the Jungle had existed for more than a decade; it was a product of neither the Great Recession nor the uneven recovery.
Homeless camps can be found in cities rich and poor, big and small, liberal and conservative.
Indeed, mass encampments, with fifty or more residents, have become increasingly common across America. Since the turn of the millennium, more than three dozen cities have accommodated camps of this scale for a year or more. 1 Homeless camps can be found in cities rich and poor, big and small, liberal and conservative; they range from the tech corridors of San Jose and Seattle, to the post-industrial outskirts of Detroit and Providence, to the college towns of Ann Arbor and Eugene. The settlements are diverse both socially and formally, including self-described eco-villages, political occupations in city hall plazas, and makeshift campsites in church parking lots. And if many cities have sought to remove the informal settlements, often forcefully, others have responded with toleration, sometimes legalizing the camps through zoning ordinances. 2
“Weed-thatched enclosures, paper houses, a great junk pile”
To understand the resurgence of mass encampments, it is useful to recall that homeless camps have been more or less permanent fixtures within U.S. cities since the rise of modern industrialism in the latter half of the 19th century. Before then vagrants might be sent to the almshouse or penitentiary, or to police stations, which in the 1840s began to provide overnight lodging for the destitute. Only after the Civil War, with the expansion of the national rail system and the new markets it opened up, did cities witness the emergence of large squatter camps on their outskirts — so-called tramp colonies or jungles. 3 Often located near train stations or along roads, many jungles became deeply rooted, serving as way stations for a new proletariat of migratory and seasonal workers. Though camps usually had a handful of longtime residents, or “jungle buzzards,” who took on the task of running things, most of the hobos — including veterans of the Union and Confederate armies — were passing through. Nels Anderson, who was not only a protégé of sociologist Robert Park at the University of Chicago but also, in the years before World War I, a hobo himself, described the transience of these encampments:
Jungle populations are ever changing. Every hour new faces appear to take the place of those that have passed on. They come and go without ceremony, with scarcely a greeting or “fare-you-well.” Every new member is of interest for the news he brings or the rumors that he spreads. Each is interested in the other so far as he has something to tell about the road over which he has come, the work conditions, the behavior of the police, or other significant details. But … there is seldom any effort to discuss personal relations and connections. Here is one place where every man’s past is his own secret. 4
Starting around the turn of the 20th century, during the Progressive era, migrant camps became places of political action. 5 Some were hotbeds of radical and socialist organizing, where representatives of the newly formed union, the Industrial Workers of the World, or “Wobblies,” sought to recruit members. Other camps were incubators of protest. In the midst of the depression that followed the Panic of 1893, Coxey’s Army — several thousand laid-off rail workers from the Midwest led by an Ohio businessman named Jacob Coxey — marched to Washington to petition Congress to create public works projects to put the unemployed to work, camping along the way. In 1932, tens of thousands of jobless World War I veterans formed the “Bonus Army” and marched to Washington to demand advances on promised bonuses for their military service. Many camped in a self-governed tent city on the banks of the Anacostia River, with makeshift streets and sanitation facilities, that lasted for several months until they were forcibly removed by troops commanded by General Douglas MacArthur. And as the Great Depression deepened, throughout the ’30s, the seasonal jungles of transient workers became entrenched shantytowns of the chronically unemployed, widely known as Hoovervilles, after President Herbert Hoover, whom many blamed for the financial crash.
Hoovervilles were found coast to coast, often along rivers, which offered access to food and water, or near soup kitchens. In New York the homeless set up camp in Central Park and in alleys and along the rivers; in Los Angeles they occupied a vacant site near Watts. “There was a Hooverville on the edge of every town,” wrote John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, his Depression epic about tenant farmers who journey from Oklahoma to California. Here Steinbeck describes a camp in the Central Valley:
The rag town lay close to water; and the houses were tents, and weed-thatched enclosures, paper houses, a great junk pile. The man drove his family in and become a citizen of Hooverville — always they were called Hooverville. The man put up his own tent as near to water as he could get; or if he had no tent, he went to the city dump and brought back cartons and built a house of corrugated paper. And when the rains came the house melted and washed away. 6
To offer alternatives to the “rag towns,” the new administration of Franklin Roosevelt set up the Federal Emergency Relief Agency, which opened several hundred camps in rural counties and “transient centers,” or lodging houses, in cities. But the funding was insufficient; ultimately it was not social policy but military action that put a real end to the Hoovervilles. With the entry of the United States into World War II, and with the conscription of military-age men and the vast mobilization of the economy, the homeless colonies faded away. 7 And they would not return for decades. For the veterans of World War II there would be no need for bonus marches. During the fat decades of postwar prosperity and low unemployment, tent cities largely vanished from the American landscape. To be sure, there were occasional protest demonstrations — like “Resurrection City,” the temporary tent colony of the Poor People’s Campaign, organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and erected on the National Mall in spring 1968 — but these were short-lived and exceptional.
The contemporary era of chronic homelessness in America began with the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s.
Whether the long postwar boom ended because of the oil embargo and recession of the mid 1970s, or because of competition from rebounding European and Asian economies, is open to debate. But few dispute that the contemporary era of chronic homelessness in America began with the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s. Dedicated to lowering tax rates and shrinking the size of government, and more broadly to deregulation and privatization, the administration of Ronald Reagan slashed federal subsidies for low-income housing and psychiatric health centers and deinstitutionalized thousands of mentally ill patients. The all too predictable consequence was a dramatic rise in the ranks of the homeless, and the return of encampments to the streets and open spaces of American cities. 8 In 1982, to call attention to the growing problem, the D.C.-based Community for Creative Non Violence pitched a group of tents in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, and called it “Reaganville,” with a banner reading: WELCOME TO REAGANVILLE / REAGONOMICS AT WORK / POPULATION GROWING DAILY. Around the same time, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, staged tent cities, called “Reagan Ranches,” in cities across the country. 9
But most homeless camps were not agit-prop; most were zones for bare survival. On Skid Row in central Los Angeles, the Justiceville camp, consisting of plywood and cardboard houses and even a few portable toilets, lasted for five months in 1985, sheltering several dozen people until it was bulldozed by police. On the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the notorious tent city in Tompkins Square Park lasted for several years and sheltered hundreds in rough conditions before being removed by police in riot gear in 1991.
Tompkins Park and Justiceville were, in their size and prominence, exceptional; most of the encampments that proliferated in the ’80s and ’90s were small, rarely larger than a dozen people, and usually in out-of-the-way locations like highway underpasses, vacant lots, or remote corners of public parks. 10 Increasingly the homeless sought to remain out of sight, which is not surprising, given the violence with which urban camps were dismantled. Describing the 1991 Tompkins Park raid, the New York Times reported that “more than 350 police officers, some in riot helmets, converged on the park shortly after 5 A.M. in a show of force that gradually pushed out about 200 homeless people who had set up tents, lean-tos and shanties in the southern portion of the park.” Little wonder that homeless people in New York have sometimes sought shelter underground. Some of the most tenacious — and out of sight — homeless colonies in New York are located in the rail and subway tunnels that crisscross the metropolis. Journalist Jennifer Toth’s account of the “mole people,” first published in the mid ‘90s, remains relevant:
New York City’s underground homeless live in the secluded tunnels that run beneath the busy streets in an interconnected lattice of subway and railroad train tunnels, often unused now, that in some areas reach seven levels below the streets. Often shunned by the street homeless, the underground homeless are outcasts in a world of outcasts. … Some go down for safety, to escape thieves, rapists, and common cruelty. They go down to escape the law, to find and use drugs and alcohol unhassled by their families, friends, and society. Some, ashamed of their poverty and apparent “failure” in society and impoverished appearance, go to escape seeing their own reflections in passing shop windows. 11
“A world in which a whole class of people have no place to be”
By the late ’90s, homeless encampments were becoming semi-permanent, increasingly visible, and growing to scales unseen since the Hoovervilles of the Depression. And so they remain; they have persisted, no matter the cyclical fluctuations of the economy, no matter housing costs or poverty rates, rising or falling rates of unemployment or even homelessness. Indeed, to fully grasp today’s tent cities, we need to dig into policies that date back decades. It was in the early 1980s that homelessness — or to be more specific, the basic daily actions of people who cannot afford to rent or own a place to live — began to be increasingly viewed in criminal terms, and since then the trend has only accelerated. As the authors of No Safe Place, a recent report on the criminalization of homelessness in America, put it:
Imagine a world where it is illegal to sit down. Could you survive if there were no place you were allowed to fall asleep, to store your belongings, or to stand still? For most of us, these scenarios seem unrealistic to the point of being ludicrous. But, for homeless people across America, these circumstances are an ordinary part of daily life. … Homeless people, like all people, must engage in activities such as sleeping or sitting down in order to survive. Yet, in communities across the nation, these harmless, unavoidable behaviors are treated as criminal activity under laws that criminalize homelessness. 12
In the majority of U.S. cities, it is illegal, in certain areas, to camp, rest, loiter, sit, lie, or loaf in public places, or to share food or sleep in cars.
No Safe Place documents the rise of so-called “quality of life” laws that push well beyond the more typical vagrancy laws, which prohibit panhandling. The majority of U.S. cities have now passed ordinances making it illegal, in certain areas, to camp, rest, loiter, sit, lie, or loaf in public places, or to share food or sleep in cars. Citywide bans of these activities increased sixty percent in the past five years, the fastest growth since the early 1980s. Another recent study focuses on the criminalization of “efforts to feed people in need.” In Share No More, the National Coalition for the Homeless describes municipal laws that “restrict or eliminate food-sharing” — for instance, by prohibiting individuals or organizations to share food with homeless people without a permit, and by requiring that groups that distribute food meet strict safety regulations. Such laws against sharing food with a destitute person — surely one of the most basic acts of civic compassion — constitute the fastest growing anti-homeless campaign in the country. 13 The urban geographer Don Mitchell has characterized such policies as the “annihilation of space by law.”
The anti-homeless laws being passed in city after city in the United States work in a pernicious way: by redefining what is acceptable behavior in public space, by in effect annihilating the spaces in which people must live, these laws seek simply to annihilate homeless people themselves. … We are creating a world in which a whole class of people simply cannot be, entirely because they have no place to be. 14
To a significant degree today’s tent camps are a response to these intensifying efforts to rid streets and parks of the evidence of homelessness — the evidence of our collective social failure. And since these efforts are usually enforced most vigorously in prime downtown areas, by both metropolitan police and private security forces, the illegal camps usually crop up on the edges of town. During visits to a dozen West Coast cities, I invariably found that encampments were set up following laws banning sitting or lying on sidewalks or camping in public parks. In Fresno, California — one of the poorest cities in the U.S. — the sidewalks and railyards near the rescue mission had long been the site of small camps. It was not until the city passed aggressive laws to crack down on loitering and panhandling — laws designed to safeguard the central business district and its investment in a new minor league baseball stadium, and which required offenders to serve six months in jail or pay fines of up to $1,000 — that a tent city of over 300 emerged on the edge of downtown. 15
If downtown vagrancy is a police problem, the illegal camps are to some extent viewed as police solutions. 16 A few years ago I lived for a summer in Fresno’s tent camp, and as the city’s homeless policy manager explained to me, “The tent city has taken pressure off the downtown parks and pedestrian mall. Since the police stopped chasing homeless people around, which is ineffective and inhumane, we’ve gotten fewer complaints from business owners and residents.” On my second day at the camp, I met Alan, a thirty-seven year-old white man from Merced, who was surviving by selling recycled scrap metal. He explained how he came to live in the tent city:
I don’t naturally gravitate to large groups. My first night I slept out in Courthouse Park and a number of spots near downtown, but I could never stay anywhere longer than a few nights. Then I hooked up with a couple of guys who I recycled with. We wanted to avoid the craziness of the tent camp, and set up camps behind abandoned shops — I mean really out of the way. Still the police would roost us out every week. One night an officer woke me up with his boot. I had no idea he was a cop and drew a knife on him, just instinct you know, which ended me up in jail. After that, I wasn’t gonna mess around anymore and just did what the officers had been telling us for months — “go south of Ventura and no one will bother you.” 17
I heard similar stories in the other tent colonies where I’ve done field research. But most people didn’t need any official guidance to find the local encampment. It was well understood that the laws that applied downtown wouldn’t be enforced on the edge — that you could (illegally) construct a shanty or put up a tent without citation while also (illegally) warming yourself by a fire, cooking a meal, having sex, urinating or defecating, and drinking alcohol and taking drugs — all the usual activities of people who live in houses.
Fresno’s tent camp, like most, was an adaptation to anti-homeless laws. But in some cities homeless communities have formed in resistance to the increasingly punitive regulations. In Seattle, in the early ’90s, a local non-profit called Share/Wheel established a tent city to help people who’d been displaced as a result of an anti-camping ban; today the group runs Tent City 3 and Tent City 4 (the names reflect the group’s successive efforts). 18 More recently, in 2008, homeless people and advocates pitched 150 bright pink tents in an industrial zone and dubbed it “Nickelsville,” to protest the policies of then Mayor Greg Nickels. Today Nickelsville is a 501(c)3 with a website, mailing list, and PayPal account. As one Nickelodian explained to me, “We’re not simply homeless here, we are activists for the entire population of homeless in this city.”
Seattle is not alone. Dignity Village and Right 2 Dream Too, in Portland, Oregon; Quixote Village, in Olympia, Washington; Safe Park, in Tucson, Arizona; and Occupy Madison Inc., in Madison, Wisconsin — all have emerged in reaction to the criminalization of destitution. All have tight connections with local advocacy groups and, like Nickelsville, articulate their agendas and organize their activities via websites or Facebook. And unlike the squatter camps on the urban edges, the protest camps sometimes stake out central and symbolic spaces. 19
The new tent cities have been shaped by anti-homeless laws; but their growing ranks are the results as well of a long-term crisis in shelter policy and management. The Reagan administration’s deep cuts to federal assistance for low-income housing (from $32 billion in 1981 to $7.5 billion in 1988) and its deinstitutionalization of thousands of psychiatric patients led not only to a dramatic rise in homelessness but also to intense new pressures on the social service agencies that offer short-term assistance, from meals to beds to showers to medical check-ups. 20 These pressures continue to this day, and many observers point to unmet shelter needs — to underfunded and understaffed facilities — to explain the emergence of illegal encampments. But the dysfunctions of the system go well beyond questions of capacity. In dozens of interviews, homeless campers — diverse in age, race, gender, and class background — told me again and again that the problem with municipal shelters wasn’t simply lack of available space but rather the strict and often depersonalized atmosphere they so often encountered. Here is Geoff, a forty-four-year-old African American at Sacramento Safe Ground:
The shelter is just a jail that you can leave. I was in the pen for twelve years before getting out. I spent the first week out in the shelter, but never again. The way the staff can talk down to you. The schedule, like curfew, dinner, wake-up call, showers. You got people trying to prove themselves, like they all tough so not to try to steal anything from them. Hell, I swear the bunk beds and food are made by the same freakin’ companies. Out here in the camp I at least have a bit of the freedom I’d been waiting for those twelve years.
Tony, a thirty-seven-year-old white man, described the differences between his experiences at a city shelter and at Seattle’s Tent City 3:
It may only be a tent, but this is the only privacy I can afford. When I first became homeless it drove me crazy, being out in public in parks or café’s all day, and then coming back to the shelter to sleep in public with no privacy. When I zip up my tent, I can read, watch a movie, do whatever. I can store my things here, so I don’t have to lug around a cart of stuff all day, and I know it’s safe. It’s my last piece of space, and the shelter doesn’t give you that.
And Carol, forty-nine, a white resident of F-Street Camp in Fresno, put it this way:
I camp here because it’s the only way I can stay with my family. My social worker wanted me to go into the shelter, but if I did that I’d have to give up my dog who I’ve had for seven years, and me and my boyfriend would have to stay at different places. These guys are all I got.
Almost everyone I talked with emphasized these kinds of contrasts; but for most homeless campers the really crucial difference had less to do with personal comfort than with the more ineffable matter of dignity. To this point, consider the names of the legal encampments: “Dignity Village,” “Village of Hope,” “Community First!,” “Right 2 Dream too,” “Opportunity Village.” In describing why they preferred camps to shelters, some deployed the right-wing rhetoric of “self sufficiency” and “no government handouts,” while others used vaguely anarchist terms like “autonomous rule.” In the Village of Hope, in Fresno, Brad, a longtime truck driver before becoming homeless at age sixty, explained to me that “in the shelter you’re forced into dependence. You’re served food, people clean up after you, and you have no control over your day-to-day schedule. In the Village, we’re not a burden to anyone.” Many of those I interviewed referred to fellow campers as their family, and some emphasized that it was the first time they’d ever lived anywhere with a sense of community.
“These are not homes, these are tool sheds”
San Jose’s Jungle was not exceptional; most mass camps are eventually dismantled and their residents evicted. Tent City in Fresno, Camp Hope in Ontario, American River in Sacramento, the Slough in Stockton, the Bulb in Albany — these are a few of the camps that have been torn down, just in California, in the past few years. 21 Yet at the same time alternatives are emerging. Throughout the country, grudging toleration of the squatter camps is giving way to efforts to legalize them — and also to sustained campaigns to create better, more substantial, and sometimes even permanent alternatives.
Grudging toleration of squatter camps is giving way to efforts to legalize them, and to create more substantial and even permanent alternatives.
In Seattle, Share/Wheel has maintained Tent City 3 and Tent City 4 for more than a decade by arranging for the encampments to be sited in church parking lots. In Eugene, Oregon, housing advocates mobilized to create Opportunity Village, which describes itself as a “transitional micro-housing” pilot project. Built on an acre of land donated by the city, and with approximately $200,000 in cash donations, labor, and materials, Opportunity Village consists of thirty tiny houses with communal spaces for cooking, sanitation, and laundry, and with shared wi-fi and computer facilities. In central Florida, on several acres of industrial land outside St. Petersburg, a Catholic charity runs Pinellas Hope; started in 2007 as a five-month pilot program, the community has endured as a cluster of tents and sheds that can house approximately 300 people. In Fresno, the Village of Hope and Community of Hope, both run by a local soup kitchen, house several dozen formerly homeless people, including some families, in prefabricated Tuff Garden Sheds; nearby tents offer facilities for cooking and watching television.
The most ambitious effort to date is in Austin, Texas, where a Catholic group called Loaves and Fishes has been developing a “master planned” cluster of micro-homes, RV’s, and large canvas tents on twenty-seven acres of donated land. Scheduled to open this fall, the Community First! Village will enable a few hundred homeless people to rent tiny dwellings for modest sums (averaging $200 per month). The village already has a community garden and raises chickens and bees; earlier this year an outdoor cinema opened with a showing of The Karate Kid. In the works are a medical clinic and even a columbarium — the latter perhaps underscoring the ambitions of the village to be more than a short-term or transitional place. You can see a similar ambition — a scaling up from camp to campus — at River Haven, in Ventura, California, which consists of Buckminster Fuller-inspired U-Domes, and at the Cottages at Hickory Crossing, in Dallas, where residents live in smartly designed single-room cottages. River Haven is classified by city officials as “transitional,” and the Cottages as “permanent” support housing; both benefit from HUD funding and, unlike municipal emergency shelters, both communities require residents to pay rent.
These new villages are undoubtedly improvements over the illegal camps. For the most part conforming to local building, health, and safety codes, many feature on-site toilets and showers, laundry facilities, shared kitchens, communal gardens, propane heating, electricity, wi-fi, real beds, and personalized decor; some even have computer labs and libraries. Most of the new communities maintain websites detailing their various amenities. 22 Yet somehow, much like the evolving squatter cities of the developing world, these new quasi-formal communities seem not quite fully legitimate — and as such they raise uneasy questions. 23
Should the new and improved encampments be viewed as innovative housing models to be added to the existing policy menu of shelters and transitional housing like single-room-occupancy hotels? In some cities, officials have been eager to take credit for what can seem a flexible and low-cost expansion of the municipal shelter system. In Fresno, the mayor held a press conference at the ribbon-cutting for the Village of Hope, hailing it as a “demonstration of our government’s determination and capability to take responsibility for the homeless.” A couple of years ago, Seattle planners acknowledged the tent cities run by Share/Wheel as a “viable temporary living option” and “lower cost alternative to more permanent and costly housing options.” 24
Should the new and improved encampments be viewed as innovative solutions? Or as regressive forms of affordable housing?
Advocates argue that providing the homeless with legal, organized, and self-sufficient spaces will improve the public’s perception of a population often perceived as disorderly or dependent. Yet some view these new settlements as little more than coping strategies — regressive forms of affordable housing. Most legal encampments are situated in undesirable zones on the urban margins. Portland’s Dignity Village is bordered by a compost dump and state prison. The tiny cottages of Olympia’s Quixote Village are clustered in an industrial park near a truck depot. After an effort to locate in central Austin, Community First! settled for a parcel of land bounded by a fence marking the city limit. The tent cities of Seattle relocate every three months, from one parish to another, a practice that eases the anxieties of property owners even as it heightens the stress of homeless campers. Proponents of the tiny house movement argue that city regulations are being wielded by wealthier residents to prevent the development of affordable, easy-to-construct shelter. Others counter that the micro-units represent a lowering of the standards of affordable housing. Describing the Tuff Garden Sheds of the Village of Hope, each of which is occupied by two residents, one of Fresno’s homeless advocates was dismissive. “These are not homes, these are tool sheds,” he said. “When I show friends the site of the Village, the initial reaction is that these things are more like doghouses than people’s homes. Many are more disturbed by the sheds than the tents.”
The reaction is understandable, and speaks to the growing concern that the new forms of legal encampment constitute a quick-fix, low-cost solution to the immediate problem of relieving homelessness that largely ignores the more fundamental problem of ensuring decent housing for all citizens. As such, it’s all too clear that the encampments, in whatever form they take, are becoming semi-official institutions of social welfare and poverty management — depoliticized components of the growing shadow state in which private entities are assuming responsibilities once defined as public.