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Ignored or Destroyed by Most, Tent Cities Get More Permanent

Seattle is one of only a handful of places that formally recognizes and regulates homeless encampments.

Like many other metro areas in the mid-2000s, Seattle’s King County set out to end homelessness within 10 years. Far less common, though, was a policy enacted in Seattle to permit homeless encampments, also known as tent cities, to deal with limited shelter capacity. After a decade, homelessness hasn’t gone away completely, and neither have the tent cities. If anything, they’re becoming more permanent.

Homeless encampments in the U.S. are at least as old as the Great Depression, when Seattle and other American cities saw the rise of so-called “Hoovervilles.” Encampments again started sprouting up in King County in the 1990s, but officials worked to convince camp organizers to shut them down in exchange for shelter elsewhere. But when King County was planning its blueprint to end homelessness around 2004, a local coalition pushed to formalize a permitting process for encampments that made them temporary, limited their residents, required sponsorship by an outside organization and regulated conduct within camps. The county largely adopted those recommendations. In late 2014, it agreed to extend them for another decade.

At least five King County camps now have legal status. Homeless encampments are hardly isolated to Seattle, though the area is among only a handful of places that formally recognize them. Another 10 or so camps across the U.S. fall into “semi-sanctioned” status, the equivalent of local officials looking the other way or providing at least some support, according to a report last year from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. The report found at least 100 nonsanctioned encampments in existence across the U.S., though there are likely more.

Many cities have moved to shutter these types of camps. San Jose, Calif., in December demolished what had been the largest tent city in the country, a 300-person encampment known as the Jungle. And a report from a Hawaiian council on homelessness has discouraged Honolulu from taking on encampments by arguing that they detract from the goal of putting people in permanent housing. But advocates of formalized encampments say they’re a valuable -- albeit temporary -- way to address the problem of homelessness. For one, they provide a sense of community and mutual support for residents. In some ways the camps make it easier for homeless people to work, because they can leave their belongings in one place and don’t have to worry about shelter curfews. Camps can also more easily accommodate entire families. And they don’t interfere with officials’ broader mission of building more affordable options and intervening before people lose their homes, says Mark Putnam, who heads Seattle’s coalition to end homelessness. 

King County has barely spent a dime on the camps, pledging only recently to spend $300,000 on support services. Instead, the county is studying its options for providing permanent affordable housing, including micro-housing projects like Olympia, Wash.’s Quixote Village, a former tent city that’s now home to 30 individual 144-square-foot cottages for rent. Quixote cost a total of $3 million, but those types of developments alone won’t be enough to deal with the issue of affordable housing, says Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw. A lasting solution will require the public and private sectors working in tandem, she says. “I don’t pretend to think we’ll suddenly have space for thousands of people [through government-led micro-housing],” she says. “The private industry will have to get involved with that.” Until then, at least, the tent cities are here to stay.

Chris covers health care for GOVERNING. An Ohio native with an interest in education, he set out for New Orleans with Teach For America after finishing a degree at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. He later covered government and politics at the Savannah Morning News and its South Carolina paper. He most recently covered North Carolina’s 2013 legislative session for the Associated Press.
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