Locals pass ordinances to limit stays in 'tent cities'
In January 2007, the nation's sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons numbered 671,888, according to a report released in April by the Washington-based National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH). Of that figure, an estimated 42 percent were living on the , in cars, or in "tent cities" on public and private property. As foreclosure numbers increase, local officials are taking steps to limit the spread of the impromptu campsites and minimize the hardships faced by those who are staying in them.
In December 2007, the Catholic diocese in St. Petersburg, Fla., donated 10 acres of land to establish "Pinellas Hope" a five-month pilot program to provide an emergency encampment for up to 250 homeless people in Pinellas County. It includes modular restrooms and showers, office buildings and a kitchen facility on the grounds, says St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Dave Metz. Residents of Pinellas Hope must adhere to a code of conduct in return for a safe place to live and a hot meal at night.
In August, the state awarded Pinellas Hope a $3 million grant, which, coupled with a $1 million local match, will cover construction costs for approximately 80 single-room-occupancy transitionalunits on the property.
The number of tent cities in the Seattle area began increasing about four years ago, says Paul Krauss, community development director for Lynnwood, Wash. A flurry of legal challenges resulted in many of the tent cities migrating to church properties where such encampments are protected under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), Krauss says. Because RLUIPA prevents the outright prohibition of tent cities on private property, many cities, including Lynnwood, have enacted ordinances that call for a certain amount of public notice about the establishment of temporary encampments, limit lengths of stay, and safeguarding public health and safety, Krauss says.
It is in everyone's best interest to strike a balance between the community's interests and the interests of people in the camps, says Mercer Island, Wash., Communications Coordinator Joy Johnston. For that reason, Mercer Island crafted a voluntary agreement that spells out each party's responsibilities. "Tent cities are self-governing, and they screen the people that come in, so they have the ability to monitor themselves. That's why so many churches are willing to host them," she says.
However, establishing tent cities on public property still is prohibited in Seattle, and the law is being enforced, says Karin Zaugg Black, communications director in the city's Office of Economic Development. A policy enacted in April calls for the city to first try to relocate people in illegal encampments, then give 72 hours notice before they clear the sites.
The homelessness issue will not be solved until the housing crisis is solved, says Bill Kirlin-Hackett, director of Seattle's Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness. "Many people make more than minimum wage, but fewer are making a housing wage," says Kirlin-Hackett. Low wages, he says, make it next to impossible to save up the money needed to move into most apartments. "Until that happens, if the homeless themselves are willing to create their own safe communities, we have to take it for what it's worth in the short term," he says.
Annie Gentile is a Vernon, Conn.-based freelance writer.