The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Accepting each other as neighbours: the settlements demonstrating the dignity of informal US housing

In her third piece on homelessness and informal settlements in the US, Martha Bridegam describes Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon, and other settlements across the country which are setting out to prove that informal housing can be just as peaceful, lawful and neighbourly as any other residential area.

Martha Bridegam

Martha Bridegam

Cities: Portland, Sacramento, San Francisco-Oakland, Seattle

Topics: Water, waste and sanitation, Housing, Property, rights and evictions, Participatory governance, Community organisation, Homelessness, Informal settlements

In this third article on American informal housing, I'm glad to turn from accounts of a group camp's repeated decimation in San Francisco and of other criminalisations of homelessness to more hopeful talk about progress eroding the all-or-nothing view of housed status that I earlier called "civic perfectionism".

The visibility of informal housing in the US is a new factor that may reduce social exclusion of people defined as "homeless". An archipelago of encampments has formed — "movement" is too definite a word — where residents are inching toward acceptance with conventionally housed neighbours.

Such acceptance is needed because Americans will not all be in formal housing any time soon. Those without it need recognition in the meantime as community members with their own goals and rights.

Homeless Sacer

Arguably informal communities reduce housing-based social exclusion by creating a visible middle layer of housing between reductive stereotypes of "housed" and "homeless". The new prominence of "tent cities", groups of cabins sharing washhouses or kitchens, or groups of RVs (caravans) parked together, can encourage a view of housing quality as a continuum from worse to better. The continuum approach keeps the focus on improving people's real circumstances — what Jane Jacobs called "unslumming". That's healthier than the too-common official practice of destroying makeshift housing on the principle that it's not good enough to be real housing.

I've drawn some of these thoughts from a post about Giorgio Agamben and American homeownership by Aaron Steinpilz and much more from political scientist Leonard Feldman's 2004 book Citizens Without Shelter: Homelessness, Democracy, and Political Exclusion.

Feldman writes that Americans have been taught, in ways that feel apolitical but aren't, to see "the homeless" as victims or criminals, but not as political actors nor as townspeople. Drawing on Hannah Arendt, Agamben and others, he suggests Americans over-idealise the "proper home" and view the house-dweller as the archetypal solid citizen. He argues that such nostalgic respect has a harmful side: it tends to make conventional housing a prerequisite for acceptance as a fully fledged person with rights, therefore defining "the homeless" as incomplete people without rights. Campaigns for acceptance of informal housing are a way for people defined as homeless to claim the rights and social significance of "complete" people.

Legitimacy in tent cities

Tent cities and other encampments have made progress winning legitimacy, perhaps because the public now believes residents who say they have nowhere else to go. By living openly and unremarkably in informal housing, and appearing as civic participants in their cities, residents prove that "homeless" people are real Americans, not figures waiting to resume life as Americans if or when they return to conventional housing.

Mitch Grubic, elected CEO at the uniquely self-managed Dignity Village camp in Portland, Oregon, knows that potential. Having lived in his car, he understands the hassling and contempt. "That attitude of 'omigosh, a homeless person coming into my neighbourhood, omigosh' — I don't know what it's going to take for that attitude to change." He said the subject comes up constantly in his community of 50 cabin-dwellers, which has contracted to use space on the edge of a city recycling yard. He said "we have game plans" to change public perceptions: to say "we are empowered people, we're not what you think we are … That's going to come from the camps. The shift in paradigm is going to be coming from camps like us."

Photojournalist Steve Wilson, who for five years has been documenting Dignity Village, calls some villagers "upper-class homeless". He defines them as "those complete enough within themselves to succeed in America's decades of 'more than my share is my share' but have opted out." He wrote: ''Upper-class homeless' are experimenting with minimalism: villages responsibly sharing, environmentally aware and self-governing by choice, not economic necessity."

Grubic says many people in Dignity Village are around his own age of 50 and fed up with a society that rejects older workers and demands too much striving to reach a too-high standard of living. Their minimalism seems a virtue created by necessity.

Working tent cities aren't utopias. The strongest ones enforce membership standards and conduct rules. Grubic imposes sanctions at Dignity Village, appealable to a resident council, ranging from one-day expulsions to permanent banishment. During our phone conversation he broke off repeatedly to judge a dispute: "Larry, you go back to the commons, Jerry, sit down, OK? … Don't fight with him, OK? I appreciate it … Larry, let me just deal with it, OK?" He was promising to impose a 24-hour expulsion on a resident. "I'm gonna get him out of the camp. But you cool off too, OK? How about that?"

So nobody's claiming to resolve the eternal tension of community versus individual rights. But at least tent city communities are starting to claim the equal protection of the laws: when police are called to Dignity Village, it's not to arrest the group for camping, but to address a crime on behalf of the group.

Grubic spoke warmly of the possibility that US encampments might form a national organisation. It's natural: they are starting to seem numerous and they're starting to find each other. In this regard Grubic pointed out the work of Andrew Heben, a researcher and activist now working on the Opportunity Village project in Eugene, Oregon. Heben maintains an impressively crowded if not comprehensive wiki map of U.S. tent cities online. His onlineĀ PDF book and web site, both titled Tent City Urbanism, build on the 2010 west coast tent cities report by the National Coalition for the Homeless to describe a nationally extending world of voluntary encampments and makeshift homes.

Plumbing as acceptance

To a surprising extent, encampments' levels of acceptance are indicated by the infrastructure allowed to them. Even clean water is something not always offered to campers, since to offer water is to recognise that campers have a right to exist. Sanitation arrangements seem to represent the next step upward, then formal permission to remain on sites. With full utility hook-ups, an encampment is on its way to becoming a neighbourhood.

San Francisco provides many services to individual homeless people but does not directly serve informal housing areas except through antagonistic "clean-ups". The park restroom pictured in my first article, a block from the freeway camp mentioned there, is comparatively one of the most convenient and welcoming to campers. It's sad to remember that in 1998 the Vehicularly Housed Residents' Association, assisted by SFCOH, nearly created an authorised parking area for RVs and other inhabited vehicles. It would have had a washhouse and formal self-governance; there were architectural drawings. Then apparent support evaporated at City Hall; the plan collapsed. (A local news feature conveyed the possibilities though it understated police harassment and offended several interviewees.)

This year, in passing a parking ordinance directed against RV dwellers, some members of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors (similar to local council) called for an authorised RV parking or storage area. However, the site suggested was remote Treasure Island; the purpose sounded like containment, not empowerment. Supervisor Carmen Chu told the San Francisco Chronicle, "Traditionally, vehicularly housed individuals have been very difficult to get into city services … We are hoping that this will get these people to them."

In Sacramento, members of the Safe Ground Sacramento tent camp in 2011 secured a fact-finding visit from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the violation of their human right to safe drinking water and sanitation. (I've discussed this on my own blog.) However, Steve Watters, director of the Safe Ground Sacramento NGO, said his group has given up assisting unauthorised tent camps because local elected officials would not stop the police from repeatedly evicting campers. Instead, the group is serving immediate needs with indoor shelter arrangements. Later members hope to create an authorised "transitional housing" site with solar-powered cabins surrounding a community centre with utilities. Residents would stay one year. Ideally they would move up in life, but in case not, the group was struggling with "what do you do at the end of the year?"

Mike Rhodes, the embattled Fresno, California advocate I mentioned in previous articles, has managed to contract for portable toilets at camp sites without city objections. For six months he contracted for a Dumpster (skip) to remove residents' trash regularly from one large camp. He says Fresno is unique in that camps tend to remain for six months to two years, sometimes with solid wooden structures, between city demolition campaigns. Rhodes is involved now, for at least the second time, in a federal lawsuit over such demolitions.

In Seattle, in addition to Nickelsville (also mentioned previously), the SHARE/WHEEL local NGO supports two tentatively authorised tent camps. Since my own past advocacy experience in San Francisco has involved frustrating efforts to protect formerly tolerated RV campers against gentrification, I'm glad to see academic researcher Graham Pruss winning respect and empathy for vehicular residents in Seattle, recently as lead author of an advisory report to the Seattle city government that explains hardships of vehicle camping from the inside and calls for "safe parking" arrangements in the city.

Dignity Village is one of several sites with groups of cabins. Residents have shared water taps, portable toilets, propane heat in cabins, hot water at central showers with authorised drain hook-ups, a computer room, electric coffeepots, and a microwave oven. Grubic regrets, however, that permits haven't come through for a real kitchen: "We get low marks on cooking." And he hopes for a better location: the current site gets leaf mould smells from the city composting facility and noise from the nearby airport.

Of course there's always room to improve, to "unslum". But it's great to see these sites steadily improving conditions on low budgets without waiting for someone to raise the absurdly high costs of conventional subsidised "affordable housing".

I have one more storehouse of knowledge to recommend on informal housing. Significantly, it's the guide offered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to counting "unsheltered" people in HUD's controversial "point-in-time" enumerations of homelessness. The document's authors are required by laws and rules to define nearly everyone in informal housing as "unsheltered," yet they provide knowledgeable introductions to cases that ought to be viewed as exceptional, some third thing other than "unsheltered" or conventionally housed: "snowbird" RV-dwelling retirees; the "off-the-grid" community in California known as "The Slabs"; the "colonias" near the Mexican border, where houses are formally owned or rented but lack proper utilities; other substandard rural housing; trailers in rural areas whose residents count as "housed" or "unsheltered" depending largely on where they are parked with what level of permission.

It begins to seem that official knowledge unofficially includes significant awareness of informal housing; officials simply need to bring that knowledge out in the open and admit that it concerns housing.

Other encouragements

Informal housing could benefit from a trend begun when the state of Rhode Island passed a Homeless Bill of Rights protecting, among much else, the right to exist and possess property and privacy rights in public space. WRAP is now campaigning for a recently introduced California legislative bill that would grant rights similar to the Rhode Island measure.

Another hopeful development is that Occupy encampments introduced middle-class demonstrators to homelessness in fall 2011 and 2012. As Barbara Ehrenreich explained, voluntary and involuntary campers together faced the hounding and property destruction that police use against the poor in ways viewed as apolitical. News reports suggested Occupy campers who had nowhere else to live were not real protesters — illustrating Feldman's theory that homeless people are viewed as outside politics. Maybe fellow demonstrators learned otherwise.

There's always danger that tent cities or parking areas could become places of enclosure rather than welcome. But it seems possible that democratic governance can emerge or persist in voluntary encampments.

The "homelessness" state of exception is an internal exile more populous than many US states. For most, the way out of this virtual prison isn't past formal gatekeepers into formal housing, but by blurring the lines drawn around people called "homeless" — and that requires people inside and outside the lines to contest their absurdity. People are starting to do that. And in the process, more Americans may be recognising each other as neighbours.

is a lawyer and writer in San Francisco with a history of volunteer advocacy for informally housed city residents. She tweets @mbridegam.

This is the third of three articles by on homelessness and informal settlements in the US. Read the first article on campers in San Francisco here, and the second article on the criminalisation of homelessness here.