Homeless Turn to Tents

By Brian Davis

             The shelters are full in Cleveland, and budgets are being cut back with a growing recession.  There are outreach efforts from religious organizations that come downtown every night to feed those who do not feel save in the shelters or who choose not to go inside.  In other cities these religious organizations have taken it upon themselves to bring more than food and God downtown.  They have organized tent cities to provide a safe, sober, and secure place to exist. Lori in Cleveland has taken up residence under the West 14th St. Bridge.  She will not go into the shelter because she feels they treat her like a child and are not safe.  She said, “Being outside doesn’t bother me.  I sleep peacefully.”

            “Most homeless people that are sleeping outside are men and women.  They want to be together.  We cannot be together in shelters.  They should have a community in these abandoned warehouses.  It could be a community for people where everybody has a job and they have to do that job in order to stay in that place, according to Lori.

            She would like to see the use of abandoned buildings instead of tent cities.  She is also concerned about the efforts to make homelessness illegal and having to go to jail for sleeping outside.  Lori spent all winter in a tent last year.

            In Portland and Seattle, religious organizations have assisted homeless people to set up a large number of tents.  They have often used church packing lots and volunteers.  They have set up conduct rules and have existed largely without the support of the municipal government.  The tent cities are safe and provide a unique opportunity for the social service community to meet the needs of non-sheltered homeless population without having to travel to all corners of the city.  A tent city provides the community with some degree of privacy that is often lacking in a shelter.  The tent cities also extend a degree of safety to the residents who are often targets of gangs of youths in many cities.  The other benefit for this type of congregate living is that medical professionals can address the health needs of the community and the congregant tents reduce the chance of homeless people unnecessarily dying in isolation.

            Neighbors rise up when a large contingent of tents sprouts in their community.  There are sanitation problems and there is the fear that the property values will drop.  In both Portland and Seattle, the municipality refused to provide a license for the tent cities.  Activists went to work to protect the rights of the tent cities and spent as many as three years to protect the rights of those who sought refuge from the elements.  This took away time from other housing activities.  One representation from a local foundation said that she would not support a tent city because it is temporary fix to a long-term problem. 

            One individual who stayed in a camp years ago was Ron Reinhart, current Vice President from the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.  His concern was the variable nature of the camps, and the problems with safety.  “We shared alcohol, drugs, food, but at the next moment those same things to get things from those (who wouldn’t share).  One day some would share, the next sell you something from drugs to socks or salt or pepper.  You never knew what to expect.  In my opinion, no matter what you do to organize or bring services to or believe there is safety in numbers you cannot know what to expect.  Some homeless people will tell you one thing and they prey on the weak ones.  I do know that we should all expect more of ourselves as a community to find a better alternative.”

            Another individual who has spent time on the streets of New York in abandoned buildings, Dan Kerr, of Not Bombs felt that the decision to congregate tents together should come from the people.  “I think efforts to evict or remove these tent cities should be fought against because I do not think that should be the approach for public policy to deal with our housing problems,” Kerr said, “I think in Cleveland that we see it as a zero sum game, where you can protect he tents or fight for affordable housing.  I do think that there needs to be more individuals involved in the struggle to build a movement.”

            There were a number of homeless people in shelters who said that they would not want to live in tent and advocacy organizations should not concentrate resources on such an effort.  The Grapevine asked government leaders, city councilpersons, and front line staff who work to serve homeless people and all refused to comment.

            Lori wondered, “Where is all that money going to?  They say donate to the Red Cross or donate to this and donate to that.  Why can’t they take that money and build shelters for people.  Why do we go to jail for being homeless?”

            In Santa Cruz, there was an effort to pilot a tent city and residents rose up in opposition.  Recently, the City Council voted to ask police to begin to enforce a non-camping ordinance.  The local municipality also attacked Tent Cities northern California.  In the small city of Petaluma California, the destruction of camps of homeless people has raised awareness of the need for a homeless shelter in the community.

            Tents exist throughout the City of Cleveland.  Most residents live in peace.  Some are afraid to go into shelter.  Others cannot abide by the rules in shelter or are living the life of a hobo.  There are those that live in tents who want their privacy or want to feed their addiction in private.  There are men who are killed while sleeping in encampments or are targeted by gangs of youth for harassment.  This all currently exists in Cleveland.  With the dramatic increases in eviction and the burgeoning shelter population are tent cities on the landscape locally? 

            Dan Kerr said, “If we make housing for single individuals affordable, people would not have to chose to live in a tent.”

 Copyright NEOCH published December 2001 in Cleveland Ohio for Issue 51