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Something happened 10-15 years ago to homelessness. I don’t know exactly what triggered it. But I remember walking through the Occupy San Diego protests – the tent encampments that sprang up at City Hall in 2011 demanding Wall Street accountability for the recession – and realizing many of the campers were not necessarily activists but homeless people who had come to live in what became a supportive village.
After that, the tent – the personal tent, the nylon or polyester Coleman, Marmot or REI camping tent – came to define street homelessness across the country. It drastically changed the visibility and experience of street homelessness.
Tents and homelessness are not a 21st Century combination. Tents and campers once filled the entirety of Mission Valley in the early 1940s as migrants from across the country clamored into San Diego to get the many jobs the defense industry created.
But the tent encampments that sprang up in East Village, along the Navy Broadway Complex and throughout San Diego’s hundreds of canyon river beds, started to frame the conversation here differently. It was as if the unsheltered population were tired of two things: tired of hiding and tired of being cold.
The tents privatized public rights of way and asserted homelessness into the public consciousness.
They were a protest – a manifestation of our failure.
The tents helped people create community and provide mutual aid. They created a sense of safety, privacy and even family life but also offered cover for crime and violence.
Worse, though, are the concentrations of death and disease. An outbreak of the feces-borne hepatitis A led to suffering on such a scale in 2017 that it provoked city and regional leaders to take homelessness seriously in a way they had not, though the tent villages had expanded for several years. Now, even those most sympathetic to the tent encampments and the plight of their residents can’t deny the gruesome deaths they often host, whether it’s at the hands of murderers and traffickers or errant drivers who lose control of their vehicles. More than 10 years on, we’re only now, barely, grappling with what the tents changed about homelessness.
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said something recently about them that should provoke thousands of conversations and a wholesale rethinking of what we’re doing about this crisis.
In an op-ed in the San Diego Union-Tribune March 28 about the homeless crisis plan he is pursuing, Gloria acknowledged the reality the tents have created:
“One of the central challenges we face is that many of the folks camping on our sidewalks or in canyons don’t want to live in a congregate setting – which most of our shelters are – so they refuse offers of beds in these facilities,” he wrote.
The city, right now, has 1,468 beds under contract in congregate or shared settings.
People who have been working on homeless outreach and services have known that many people prefer their personal tents to congregate shelters for many years. There’s nothing particularly insightful about the mayor’s claim, except that he said it. And if he believes it, and he should, then it has enormous implications far beyond the city of San Diego. If others agree, we need to rethink how we are deploying millions of dollars meant to address the problem and how we are talking to people on the street.
It’s like a taboo has finally been broken. People who are living in tent encampments don’t want to move to shelters. The data is overwhelming. Every time the city sweeps out a huge encampment, the vast majority of people outreach workers offer shelter to refuse. Why? Not because they want to remain homeless necessarily. But because their personal tents offer them dignity, privacy and enough shelter to survive.
The congregate shelters, by contrast, can often be dystopic, dangerous and restrictive. Their incompatibility with healthy living became obvious, again, when disease struck. The very first thing former Mayor Kevin Faulconer realized as COVID-19 began spreading in the United States was that he needed to clear the congregate shelters. A bunch of people jammed into a poorly ventilated setting would have been ideal for the spread of the disease.
COVID left homeless residents even less interested in those options as alternatives to their own camps.
“If the environment they are coming into isn’t safe, clean or comfortable, what makes that different than being on the street?” said Hanan Scrapper, the regional director at People Assisting The Homeless, the city’s primary partner in many homeless outreach and assistance efforts. “When we do traditional shelters and response efforts, we’re not always thinking about dignity.”
It turns out, unhoused residents are a lot like people who have homes. They want privacy. They want, though, to be close to community. They like pets. They like being together with loved ones. And yes, some of them like to do drugs or drink. All of these things, however, can be restricted or difficult in a congregate setting.
So what are we even doing? Just last month, County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher announced the county was going to help prop up a new mega-tent shelter for 150 people in the Midway area. The mayor is supportive. But if the mayor agrees that congregate settings can’t compete with the tent encampments, why are we still supporting them? I asked his team.
“Our goal on shelters is not to create the ideal situation but to put them in position to access services to become part of the system that ultimately leads them to housing and to get them off the street. It is not safe on the street,” said Rachel Laing, the mayor’s spokeswoman.
But, the mayor himself said that’s not working?
“Well, that’s where enforcement comes in. If we have enough beds, we are allowed to compel people to move,” she said.
Now we are getting somewhere. We’re saying the quiet parts more loudly now. The congregate shelters, while helping some, provide a tool to the city. In a world where the personal tents changed everything and the widespread adoption of recreational camping gear by the homeless made life just comfortable enough, with just enough dignity, the large shelters allow the city to make homeless residents uncomfortable again.
That’s what the mayor has decided to do. The tents make sense to some, he wrote.
“But we simply can’t be a city that lets people set up camp wherever they please. It’s unsafe, it’s unsanitary and it speaks poorly of us all if we do nothing to address the destitution and despair,” he wrote.
He’s also right about this but merely uprooting encampments sets off an endless cycle of uprooting and re-rooting. The people don’t disappear, they just regroup. The process is hard on the people on the streets, hard on the police who have to carry it out and if the ongoing presence of so much human suffering on our streets is itself a form of violence that traumatizes all who have to move through it, then the approach ensures the most people possible experience it.
It may be worth, instead, rethinking this paradox. Sometimes when you are fighting something, you have to channel its energy rather than keep trying to destroy it. The personal tents are not good. But they represent a human desire to take care of oneself and to build community. The tents reveal not a desire to be on the street but a very human desire to build a home.
There’s no reason our unsheltered population would not continue to do that on their own if given the space.
“From our experience, what we’ve seen is when clients come into a clean, well-kept environment with good food and healthy culture, they try to take care of it. They see people care for them and it gives them hope,” said Scrapper.
They want to build homes and yet we are spending so much of our resources and energy on trying to tear them down and force them into our system.
It would be one thing if it were working but it’s not. Despite a mobilization of city, county and state resources, it is getting worse. More people are suffering. More are dying. More are living in filth.
It’s no coincidence that our already extraordinary cost of living is skyrocketing just as the problem deepens. Homelessness is the lowest rung on the housing ladder. In place of cheap housing, they’re putting up personal tents.
The mayor doesn’t want to accommodate them in a safe camping village, Laing says, because the city and providers cannot afford the support personnel needed to keep it safe. But he has also proven incapable of winning the war on the tents in the streets.
If you’re losing a war and wasting money fighting it, it may be time to rethink it.
The people on the streets are telling us they want space to set up their own lives.
Whatever dollars we spend forcing them to consider our approach instead may be better spent keeping them safe and clean as they pursue their own.