Saturday, May 23, 2009

Tent Cities and the Homeless

I just saw a story, in the June 1 issue of Newsweek which just hit the stands, about the increase in the number of "tent cities" where homeless people live as an alternative to living in shelters. The article stated that something like an additional 1 million homeless people are anticipated in the near future.

Here's a link to another story on that topic.

If you look into America's distant past, you'll see that there was a time in our nation's history when people often lived in tents or lean-tos which weren't much better than tents. They weren't called bums then. They were called "pioneers". They helped to build this country so that people might one day aspire to live in much nicer homes. And it wasn't just during the 1800s that such people existed. During the great Depression, Chicago's parks were filled with people who slept outdoors because they'd lost their homes. (I learned that last fact while glancing through a recently published book containing excerpts from a jazz-era magazine which was modeled after the New Yorker, called the Chicagoan.)

It's a shame that we now live in a world in which the option of living in a tent or something comparable is frequently available only to people who are willing to break the law because they really have no other viable options. Why should it be illegal to do what was once done by people such as Lewis and Clark, Kit Carson and others?
Some folks probably object to tent cities because they're "eyesores". But they should count themselves lucky if they live in the United States. I've been reading a novel which includes descriptions of life in a slum in Bombay (Mumbai) India, where some 25,000 people were ostensibly living, at one time, in crude makeshift shacks crowded together on an inner city plot of land with no running water and no toilet facilities. (The novel is set a decade or two in the past, so I'm not sure whether or not things have improved in that city in that respect since that time.) Compared to such a place, I suspect that most of America's tent cities are like heaven on earth. In any event, tearing down such tent cities without furnishing people with alternative places to live is inhumane. It's also begging for trouble, because desperate people tend to do desperate things.

Why is it that people who choose to live in a tent for a week or two are said to be "on vacation," but people who exceed the arbitrary time deadline by living in such shelters for much longer periods of time are maligned, as if they possess intrinsic character defects? Why is it O.K. for people in the military to live in tents while visiting foreign countries on tours of duty, but not O.K. for ordinary American civilians to live in similar dwellings? That makes no sense. Nor does it make sense that there are acres upon acres of land with more than adequate room for people to set up such shelters. Far too many self-centered property owners are more preoccupied with exercising their "prerogatives" than with doing what is morally right.

No one with any brains would claim that living in a tent is ideal. But it certainly beats some of the alternatives for people who can no longer keep up with their rent payments or mortgage payments, often for reasons which are beyond their ability to control.

If people dislike the idea of folks living in tents and tent cities so badly, here's a clue: How about contributing some money (and maybe even some vacant land) so that such people can aspire to live in more suitable dwellings?

It isn't as if it's extremely expensive to build homes which would be far superior to tents. In fact, there have been numerous innovative solutions to problems pertaining to shelter in recent years, including homes (both small and large) constructed from shipping containers, as well as much smaller units (such as the ones shown on this web page) which would still be far superior to sleeping on park benches in the pouring rain (and also much better, in the minds of many people, than having to sleep in the types of homeless shelters which can often be found in large cities).

There are also technologies (such as Grancrete) which make it possible to build small permanent dwellings in a tiny fraction of the time (and at a tiny fraction of the expense) of building conventional frame homes. (Be sure to click this link and watch the free video at the top of the page.)

One doesn't necessarily need to go high-tech, either. For instance, I get the impression that it's very easy to build a simple shelter using "cordwood construction" which can be easily taught to almost any able-bodied person. ("Cordwood" is another word for firewood. Cordwood construction is a form of masonry. The building materials, needless to say, are quite inexpensive, compared with the cost of whole logs.) There's even a school (the Earthwood Building School) which teaches people how to build such shelters. (Also visit for more information.)

Even one of those little inexpensive storage sheds which can be purchased at places such as Home Depot would certainly be better than sleeping in tents. It's difficult to imagine that there are people who are so cheap and uncompassionate that they can't be bothered to provide such housing alternatives to the types of people now living in tent cities, especially when one considers the numerous people who, even during this recession, still live in homes which far exceed their own needs.

I've also seen a number of very nice yurts in magazines such as Mother Earth News. Modern yurts can make for surprisingly comfortable homes, from what I've seen. Search the web for more information from companies such as Pacific Yurts, Yurts by Rainier, Colorado Yurt Company and others.

It also seems to me that Habitat for Humanity ought to be doing more to address the needs of the types of people who are now living in tent cities. I think that that organization is a noble endeavor, but I get the feeling that their criteria for eligibility exclude some of the people who urgently need help with housing the most.

As a Christian, I think that the church could be doing a much better job of addressing the needs of people who are homeless. For one thing, they shouldn't presumptuously assume that all people fitting that description are in need of rehabilitation. Sometimes that's true, but sometimes it isn't. All it takes to become homeless is to be in a situation where one doesn't have the money to pay the rent. It doesn't necessarily follow that such a person has a problem with drugs or alcohol, or that the person is mentally ill.

If you read the Bible, you'll discover that Jesus lived a nomadic lifestyle during the entirety of his ministry. He had no home of his own. Where did Jesus and his followers sleep? Sometimes, I think that he and the disciples were the guests of people living in the towns they visited. On other occasions, I believe that they all slept under the stars. They may have stayed with their parents occasionally; we really have no way of knowing for sure. But they certainly didn't live in palaces, or even in their own middle class homes. It's ironic that many people who claim to worship Jesus look down on the homeless, as if the mere fact that such people currently lack domiciles means that they are losers.

Have I ever been homeless? It depends on how one defines the term. I once had to sleep outside on the ground overnight because I accidentally locked myself out of the church in which I was sleeping that night. (That wasn't a pleasant experience! Even in the spring, it can get mighty cold outside at night.)

I also went through an extended period of a number of months (in late 1991 and early 1992) in which I only had a roof over my head as a result of the benevolence of other Christians, simply because I didn't have adequate money with which to rent an apartment and pay the security deposit. And back in the late seventies, I once stayed overnight at a homeless shelter, while hitchhiking through Kansas City on my way home to Springfield, MO, because I'd miscalculated how long it would take for me to get home, and I really didn't have money for a motel room that night. I've never been homeless in the sense of having to spend weeks or months at a time sleeping outside or in homeless shelters, but the aforementioned experiences were still pretty frightening (although the Kansas City experience wasn't all that bad). Those experiences were as close as I ever want to come to being homeless. But I find myself thinking about such matters from time to time, because I'm still in a tenuous financial situation, and I have been in such a situation for quite some time, due to a prolonged period of unemployment.

In a different era, the prospect of sleeping outside (at least during warmer weather) might not have been such a bad thing. These days, such a lifestyle tends to be a part of a downward spiral from which it can be very difficult to recover.

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