Gimme Shelter

Although Portland's Dignity Village is by far the most prominent -- and vocal -- tent city in the United States, a handful of other cities have also harbored such communities, with varying degrees of success.

Seattle is already on its third tent city in a decade. The first, Tent City I, was founded in 1990, and while it was never technically legal, it lasted until 2000, when it became the Aloha Inn Transitional Housing Project. Seattle's Tent City II sprang up in 1998 and made it just three weeks before the city swept in and disbanded the camp. Tent City III, started by the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort/Women's Housing Equality and Enhancement League, is the city's first legal village.

That's because Tent City III sued the City of Seattle after it was denied a camping permit in 2000. In March 2002, a county court judge ruled that tent camps on private land are not illegal. The Seattle City Attorney's Office acquiesced and signed a consent decree with SHARE/WHEEL, agreeing not to appeal the decision and to allow Tent City III -- as long as certain guidelines are followed, including limiting the population to a hundred people and changing location every ninety days. As a result, Tent City III is always on the lookout for churches and other organizations and individuals willing to host the facility -- and at times the encampment has landed downtown and in wealthier neighborhoods.

Dome Village sits in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. In fact, the camp's website boasts that "the buildings on our 'skyline' are on Wilshire Boulevard." The twenty-geodesic-dome facility, which sits among orange and avocado trees, was founded in 1993 by homeless activist Ted Hayes, who worked hard to have Dome Village, also known as Justiceville, recognized. Along with about two dozen other people, Hayes still resides in what is now one of the city's official homeless shelters.

L.A. has been less receptive to Hayes's attempts to create other legalized encampments. This past January, cops busted down a half-dozen tents and arrested 25 homeless people camping near the freeway; last December, the LAPD scattered another hundred people sleeping just beyond Dome's doorway -- then bulldozed the area so that they wouldn't return. Farther up the California coast, the East Bay area also has a long history of opposing transient communities. Robert Barringer and Marc Black recently released a documentary called Bums' Paradise that chronicles the Albany Landfill homeless community outside of East Bay, which existed for nearly a decade before the police shut it down in 2000.

In Fort Lauderdale, the homeless lived in a legal tent city just across the street from City Hall for most of the '90s. Because the facility was so visible, the city was able to raise nearly $10 million to create additional low-income housing and shelters, and after six years of squatting on the site, the encampment was transformed into the permanent Broward County Central Assistance Center, which opened in February 1999. Tent cities are no longer allowed in Fort Lauderdale.

Earlier this year, Key West agreed to allow a tent city on the grounds of the county detention center on Stock Island. Unlike other cities, Key West is funding its village, spending $70,000 in construction costs to build shelters, restrooms and showers, paying $118,000 for security and absorbing another $70,000 a year in maintenance. The county will pick up another $50,000 in building costs. In exchange, downtown Key West has become a panhandling-free zone, and people found sleeping on the streets will now be required to go to the tent city, go to jail or leave Key West.

The oldest legal tent city stands in the Chicago suburb of Aurora, on the grounds of the Hesed House, a private ministry and homeless shelter. Started in 1989, this tent city has a no-drugs and no-booze policy, and residents are not allowed to leave the Hesed House property at night. The encampment is operated during the summer only, when the homeless sleep in tents donated by local sporting-goods stores and other nonprofits. Hesed House also provides transitional housing and shelter beds.

Boston has seen the most radical transformation of a tent city. In 1968, citizens protesting the city's urban-renewal programs pitched tents in a South End parking lot. A number of the activists eventually incorporated and created the Tent City Corporation, a nonprofit that has since redeveloped the site, building 269 mixed-income units, 25 percent of which are allotted to market-rate rentals.


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