It quickly became clear as I started reporting my story on San Diego’s tent cities that opinions differ over the relative benefits for the homeless who use them.

Father Joe Carroll, who runs the St. Vincent de Paul Village in the East Village, said the tents did more harm than good.

He argued that having a nightly roof over their heads discourages homeless people from seeking longer-term remedies to their homelessness.

“If they stay in a tent, they stay homeless permanently,” he said, adding that people who have distributed the tents, like David Ross, “think they’re helping people, but it enables them to stay away from some program of rehabilitation.”

But Ross, a former St. Vincent de Paul caseworker, and many of the homeless people I spoke with said there aren’t nearly enough services in the city to accommodate the entire population. Many people I spoke with said the waiting list to get a bed at St. Vincent de Paul can be at least five weeks.

The tents, Ross acknowledged, are a temporary solution for the immediate needs of many who are waiting.

“It’s a whole population,” he said of San Diego’s homeless. “What I do out here unfortunately is somewhat of a Band-Aid on a hemorrhaging situation. But you give somebody a bottle of water, you give them a blanket, you give them a tent, a little hug, a laugh. They need that too. They need the human touch.”

Another interesting perspective on the tents: when it rains, a couple of people I spoke with said, fewer people have to scramble to a nearby freeway underpass for shelter. In the past, fights have broken out over limited space under the bridge. The homeless are allowed to pitch their tents during the day when it rains and police don’t enforce the illegal lodging law.


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