Tent City in Seattle Draws From Afar

The common sense conclusion that when a city open up free camping the draw will be strong, as noted in this story from Yahoo News, needs to be kept in mind when considering allowing tent cities.

An excerpt.

SEATTLE (Reuters) – For years, Jammie Nichols struggled with a drug habit that left the Florida mother reeling from blackouts, seizures, depression and poverty – and a decision to give one of her children up for adoption.

Then a friend told her about Tent City 3, a peer-run homeless encampment in the Seattle area with ties to social welfare programs. The police patrolled sporadically but left occupants largely alone, and volunteers often dropped off hot meals.

In June, Nichols bought a bus ticket and arrived in Seattle broke, and four months later, she had a steady boyfriend, had kicked her drug habit and had been elected to the camp’s executive committee, she said.

“I’ve really come out of my shell,” she said over a bowl of rice inside a tarp-covered communal dining area. “Today I filled out my first application for housing.”

Despite the benefits tent cities often provide occupants, and although American cities are grappling with a chronic shortage of affordable housing for the poor and budget constraints on social programs, many municipalities across the United States are clamping down on homeless encampments.

Citywide anti-camping bans have increased by roughly 60 percent since 2011, according to a 2014 report from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP), a research group. The U.S. government tallied more than half a million people living on the streets on a one-night count this year, a quarter of them children.

“Doing nothing, simply moving these people, they are just going to pop up down the street,” said Andrew Heben, who wrote “Tent City Urbanism.” “Not letting people legally exist costs more than giving people places to stay.”


Reuters interviewed the dozens of people in sanctioned tent cities and nearly all spoke of having found a far more stable, safe, goal-oriented life inside a tight-knit community than they did living on the streets or in a traditional shelter.

“The unique thing about the camp is the sense of the community,” said Matt Mercer, a former tent city dweller who now volunteers at Camp Hope in Las Cruces, New Mexico. “When you are in the shelter system, you don’t see community; people are all just in survival mode.”

Life is not without its tests, though. The roughly 60 residents of Tent City must work unpaid shifts doing security and clean-up, attend weekly meetings, live without heat, and abstain from liquor, drugs and violence.

Tracking tent cities is difficult, but the NLCHP identified more than 100 across 41 U.S. states from 2008-2013, though few were officially sanctioned. Today there are roughly a dozen legal encampments nationwide, with scores of others existing on the margins or facing eviction.

Authorities have cleared well-established camps this year in Honolulu; Washington, D.C.; and, most recently, Boise, Idaho.

“It’s become unhealthy, unsafe and really unsustainable,” Boise Mayor Dave Bieter said earlier this month when he ordered police to evict and clear a camp with some 130 dwellers.

That came two months after a U.S. judge dismissed a 2009 lawsuit brought by homeless people convicted under Boise’s anti-camping laws, despite a U.S. Justice Department brief backing the plaintiffs.

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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