Cities Tolerate Homeless Camps
By JENNIFER LEVITZ
The Wall Street Journal
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Last summer, police responding to complaints about campfires under a highway overpass found dozens of homeless people living on public land along the Cumberland River.
Eviction notices went up -- and then were suspended by Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, a Democrat, who said housing for the homeless should be found first.
A year later, little has been found -- and Nashville, with help from local nonprofits, is now servicing a tent city, arranging for portable toilets, trash pickup, a mobile medical van and visits from social workers. Volunteers bring in firewood for the camp's 60 or so dwellers.
Nashville is one of several U.S. cities that these days are accommodating the homeless and their encampments, instead of dispersing them. With local shelters at capacity, "there is no place to put them," said Clifton Harris, director of Nashville's Metropolitan Homeless Commission, says of tent-city dwellers.
In Florida, Hillsborough County plans to consider a proposal Tuesday by Catholic Charities to run an emergency tent city in Tampa for more than 200 people. Dave Rogoff, the county health and services director, said he preferred to see a "hard roof over people's heads." But that takes real money, he said: "We're trying to cut $110 million out of next year's budget."
Ontario, a city of 175,000 residents about 40 miles east of Los Angeles, provides guards and basic city services for a tent city on public land.
A church in Lacey, Wash., near the state capital of Olympia, recently started a homeless camp in its parking lot after the city changed local ordinances to permit it. The City Council in Ventura, Calif., last month revised its laws to permit sleeping in cars overnight in some areas. City Manager Rick Cole said most of the car campers are temporarily unemployed, "and in this economy, temporary can go on a long time."
After years of enforcing a tough anticamping law to break up homeless clusters, Sacramento recently formed a task force to look into designating homeless tracts because shelters are overflowing. One refuge in the California capital, St. John's Shelter for Women and Children, is turning away about 350 people a night, compared with 25 two years ago, said executive director Michele Steeb.
Some communities may be "less inclined to crack down quite as hard on people" because of the recession, said Barry Lee, a professor of sociology and demography at Pennsylvania State University.
Municipal leniency isn't universal. New York City officials last month shut down a tent city on a vacant lot in East Harlem. It was erected partly as shelter and partly to campaign for more-affordable housing. Seattle authorities have repeatedly booted off public land a tent city that popped up last year.
Anticipating Tuesday's vote on the homeless proposal in Tampa, hundreds of neighbors in a nearby 325-house subdivision have formed the "Stop Tent City" coalition. They are gathering petitions, passing out lawn signs and threatening lawsuits. Hal Hart, a paralegal and a neighbor who is part of the coalition, testified at the county meeting that a tent city would "devalue my home" and "devalue my community." He lives 300 feet from the proposed park.
Some homeless are battling mental illness or addictions, or both. Municipal officials in the U.S. acknowledge the tent cities can breed crime and unsanitary conditions, but with public shelter scarce, they say they have to weigh whether to spend police time to break up encampments that are likely to resurface elsewhere.
Pastors in Champaign, Ill., last week asked the City Council to allow people to live in organized tent communities of as many as 50 people. Legalizing the camps is more compassionate and cost-effective than forcing "poor people who are camping because they have a lack of better choices to constantly have to fear being rousted and cited by police," says Joan Burke, advocacy director for Sacramento Loaves & Fishes, a homeless-assistance agency.
In Nashville, Mr. Harris, director of the city's homeless commission, said tent cities have existed for years, but he has seen the numbers surge. He now knows of 30 encampments. While some people are chronically homeless, he said, foreclosures have forced others into the streets, as has Tennessee's 10.8% unemployment rate, the highest in 25 years.
Nashville estimates that on any given day, the city has 4,000 homeless people and 765 shelter beds. About 25% of the homeless have jobs, Mr. Harris said, but can't afford housing. A nonprofit coalition of 160 churches called Room in the Inn said it received 816 requests for financial assistance to ward off evictions or electricity shutoffs in July, up from 499 in July 2008.
More housing could be available soon. Tennessee will receive $53 million in federal stimulus money to help pay for the development of affordable rental housing across the state, the federal government announced last month.
While no one is suggesting that the tent city that popped up on police radar last summer is a permanent solution, local churches and synagogues are trying to give residents there a sense of order. The Otter Creek Church of Christ built residents a shower, with a fiberglass stall, plywood door and garden hose, and on Friday, associate minister Doug Sanders went to the tent city in what is the start of a church project to help residents institute some type of formal rules -- for everything from cleaning the shower to determining the progress residents should have to show toward finding housing.
The city and local nonprofits have found permanent housing for about 25 people from the tent city.
Many haven't been so lucky. David Olson, 47 years old, said last week he and his wife wound up under the Nashville overpass after he lost a job making cement pipes in Iowa four months ago. The couple came to Nashville for a remodeling job that turned out to be a scam. "I've got five years' experience in carpentry and 10 years' roofing and I can't find a job," he said.
Mr. Olson, his arms and shirt caked with dirt, said life is hard in the swampy woods. The couple woke up to mud after a night of rain. His wife said she is frightened by the dogs that roam around the encampment.
As mosquitoes buzzed, they tried to set up camp on higher ground. They struggled to secure a tarpaulin over their tent to keep out the rain. Mr. Olson's wife, holding onto a pole to prop up the tarp, cried. "I'm not used to living like this."
Source: The Wall Street Journal