In every industry, social group and sub-culture, there are dogmas and popular trends that have certain cache and are given more importance than they merit. Some people call this political correctness, others have named it “group think” or a herd mentality. Regardless, it exists, it’s real and it carries weight with all of us.
We feel social pressure when we don’t go along with the group, and fear being ostracized if we suggest that this “group think” mentality exists.
This is true in the world of professional social services; there are many commonly held dogmas that are rarely challenged and have become part of politcally correct speech.
Included in these topics are opinions on “Tent Cities”; homeless camps authorized by local municipalities to alleviate homelessness. The vast majority of opinions on tent cities seem to fall into a similar category. What you think about tent cities has become a litmus test for homeless advocacy, and anyone who speak out against them will be swimming against the current.
In spite of the fact that it is unpopular to do so, I have felt compelled for years to argue against tent cities in any way I can, because the facts and realities of these communities are completely at odds with the charitable descriptions you hear about them.
Here’s why I think Tent Cities aren’t a good solution for local communities:
1. They don’t “Scale Up”. One way to test the premise of whether a social service is useful, not enabling, and not dangerous, is to ask the question, “What if we did this on a massive scale?” Having spent seven years working in the third world, amongst some of the poorest people on earth, many millions of which were living in shanty towns (third world tent cities), I can assure you that this idea doesn’t scale.
2. They’re not Humane. Tent cities set the bar of human dignity too low. Living on the street involves exposure to the elements, danger, constant fear and near constant need for mobility. It doesn’t allow for the important nurturing, stability, safety and other key needs that humans need. Tent cities also fall woefully short of meeting these criteria.
3. Negative Social Impacts. Congregating people who are homeless together has social impacts. This is true of homeless shelters and other types of social services, but many of those impacts can be mitigated by organizations entering into enforcable social contracts with the neighborhood in which they exist. Tent cities try to maintain social contracts but the defused nature of responsibility within them affords them little leverage to enforce civil and lawful behavior. Allowing each person to be a law unto themselves results in a proliferation of drug use. Tent city advocates point to certain examples of lawful tent cities, but they are the exception, not the rule, and many of those promoted don’t pass muster under further inspection.
4. Relief Value for Political Solutions. Many cities understand that homelessness, particularly family homelessness, is a growing problem. This problem can only be solved when municipalities work together with social service providers to create programs, facilities and funding to solve the issues that lead to homelessness. Tent cities stunt the growth of these critical services because they alleviate political pressure to create meaningful solutions.
There are other temporary solutions, including increased funding of “freezing night” programs that get people into motels/hotels and rental housing during inclemate weather. This approach gets people off the street without having the negative social impacts and dangers of tent cities. Sometimes the solution to the problem makes the problem worse. This is the case with tent cities.
What do you think? Are tent cities the wave of the future? Is there a way to do a tent city that provides dignity, safety, and doesn’t stunt the growth of permanent housing, shelters and important services?