Never Ever Write a Blog About Tent Cities – Unless You Are Ready to be Hated

A couple weeks ago I wrote a blog about how to respond to a Tent City. As has been customary in my career, it was provocative and got people talking. I thought that was a good thing. If you want to read the blog again or scan through the comments (mostly negative) about my ideas, you can click here. Because one of the reasons I write a blog every week is to keep the conversation about issues going, I think it is great when people engage – positively or negatively.

When I die, I hope I’m as big as Elvis so they make a giant bust of my head

When I die, I hope that nobody believes me so the tabloids say that I’m not dead

Plaid Daddys

What I did not expect was people thinking I had no place to exist anymore. Some have suggested through direct contact that I should die, preferably at my own hands. And just to inflict an ounce more pain, some of those people reminded me that because I have blogged about and openly talked about my depression, taking care of myself should not be that hard.

The cult of personality is alive and well in the not for profit sector. Organizations forget, all too easily, that they exist to serve, not to be served.It was not just that I suggested doing something that was opposed to what they had always done. No. It was that I interfered with the cult of organizations that had seen their worth intricately and intimately intertwined with doing amazing things to SAVE people that are homeless. To suggest that Tent Cities were a direct result of failures of other parts of the system of supports was an affront to the identity they had manufactured over time. To suggest that charitable feeding from church groups was not helping people get out of Tent City was an affront to the value they assigned to their charity.

So let me double down.

For those who believe that Tent Cities are necessary because their housing market is unaffordable, I would suggest that those same people outline which housing markets are affordable these days. See, I travel through hundreds of cities and various countries. I still have not found a place that has ready access to or adequate supply of affordable housing. And because all things are relative, I have yet to be to a place where government assistance rates or minimum wage rates would allow a person to afford housing with lots (anything?) leftover. Don’t get me wrong, I think there is a strong case for more affordable housing. I think it is ill-informed to think that Tent Cities are the answer to a lack of affordable housing. First of all, if you look at your census data, almost everyone in the city where you live who has the same economic profile is currently housed, not homeless. Second, before you tell me they are all doubled up or living in places unfit for human habitation, look at how the data is collected. Third, examine what housing access you could have purchased through rent supplements if the costs of servicing (public health services like toilets, social work services, clean up services like trash removal, police response services) were used NOT to support the Tent City but to actually solve the housing situation of people like those in the Tent City. Imagine if the political capital expended on dealing with the crisis presented by the Tent City were used to penetrate the housing market or improve Public Housing Authorities.

For those that believe all homeless service providers are doing their best and that they cannot possibly be responsible for a Tent City, it is easy to point out the flaws in this argument. Consider a place like Dallas where there have been more than 300 people living under the freeway. One of the most dominant homeless service providers is Dallas Life. Feel free to read their guidelines, which are fairly typical of homeless service providers in communities that have Tent Cities. Tell me: could you meet all of those requirements? I know I would not be able to. Think I am just singling out one provider in Dallas? Take a look at another shelter dominating the service landscape: Union Gospel Mission. Feel free to read all about their programs here. If you want extended services beyond a shelter bed (which is also, as they clearly state faith-based) you can join the Discipleship program (which you read more about in the Changed Lives section…note the word “Disciple” before each person’s name), or receive case management (which requires you to be connected to a local church and to save $2,000 before graduating and to stay connected to the Chaplain), or the Learning Center (which also is interwoven with Christian spirituality). The capacity of shelters that are lower barrier in Dallas are simply insufficient to deal with the demand created by the exclusionary criteria of a few very large shelters.

For those that believe Tent Cities are part of a social movement and are part of the resistance to the dominant forces of Capitalism, I am intrigued. But is the Tent City a time-limited response to showcase the economic biases in the housing market? Is it intended to demonstrate that housing is both a right and a commodity? I ask because there could be merit to those lines of thinking in making social change happen. But I don’t see how Tent Cities – even ones with children living in them whose parents make the choice to live there – is a permanent response to social injustice. Does it not perpetuate the injustice of two classes of dwellings for people? Is it not the antithesis of justice when it relies upon charity for its operations?

 

I will keep saying provocative things. I will keep the conversation going. But I don’t think me being dead is going to help anything. And I think the way the threats were made was cowardly. If anything, the venom sent my way proves that hot button issues need more conversation, not less. Silencing me isn’t going to help that.

About Iain De Jong

Iain is a playful nerd, hellbent on ending homelessness, increasing affordable housing, creating vibrant communities, and expanding the knowledge amongst leaders that influence social issues. Having held senior management and professional positions in government, non-profits, and the private sector, Iain has a wealth of experience and has garnered dozens of awards for his work across Canada and internationally. His work has taken him across Canada, the United States, and to Australia. In 2009, Iain joined OrgCode as its President & CEO, and in 2014 assumed full ownership of the firm. In addition to his work with OrgCode, Iain holds a part-time faculty position in the Graduate Urban Planning Programme at York University.


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