What to do about tent cities?

written by naehblog
August 12, 2009

Meghan, a co-worker of mine (you might remember her from Geography of Homelessness sent me aWall Street Journal article about tent cities.

I thought I’d share this article because we get this question a lot: Do we support tent cities? What can we do about them? Are there any good ideas/best practices to deal with these communities?

Writer Jennifer Levitz writes about cities’ responses to the ever-rising number of tent cities. According to Levitz, some are not only allowing tent cities to form and persist, but are furnishing these makeshift areas with portable toilets, security, and social services. Nashville, TN is one such city.

In fact, Levitz writes that even cities that had previously had ordinances against tent cities or sleeping in cars are changing their mind. City officials in Lacey, WA allowed a tent city in the parking lot of church; the city council in Ventura, CA revised a law allowing people to sleep in their cars overnight.

But this doesn’t mean that all cities are hopping on this bandwagon.

New York – with its ever-precarious relationship with homeless people – is staying steadfast. New York City recently shut down a tent city in Harlem, the article notes.

Here at the Alliance, we know what the landscape looks like – and we know that between the recession and state budget cuts, resources are scarcer and scarcer as need rises higher and higher.

It seems that any way you slice it – tent cities are a lose-lose for everyone. All parties involved in this push-pull around tent cities are undoubtedly frustrated: residents don’t have any place to go, city officials can’t offer any solutions, law enforcement gets stuck in the middle and ends up the bad guy.

And frankly, there are no easy answers.

While the Alliance doesn’t have a definitive recommendation on tent cities, we remain steadfast that the solution to homelessness is housing. While we recognize that the recent action of city officials is a gesture of compassion and kindness, permitting tent cities to exist is just another way of managing the homelessness problem. Portable restrooms and medical services are important – but at the end of the day, a man in a tent city is still a man without a home.

Affordable housing and/or permanent, supportive housing – these are the approaches that will ensure that we end homelessness for everyone and not just in the short-term.

Study after study and program after program have proven that housing is the right answer. In fact, several studies have shown that providing permanent supportive housing to the chronically homeless– the population most likely to stay homeless even after the recession – not only gets these homeless people safely off the streets, but turns out to be more cost-effective for taxpayers.

As the recession subsides – when unemployment dips to a comfortable number, when jobs start returning to the market – the country will still be home to millions of homeless people. And I wonder if the matter will be so salient then – or if city officials will be as sympathetic to those who don’t disappear with a strengthening economy.