Tent City: How to Respond Effectively

I cut my teeth in this industry responding to a very large tent city. Since that time I have been actively involved in resolving about a dozen of them, and every year that I have been consulting I have had to respond to various scales of smaller encampments that have not yet hit a threshold of what one might call a City. Consider them more of Tent Hamlets or Tent Villages. In all of my work – across all scales of people living in an organized or semi-organized manner outdoors – I have come to realize that some things work remarkably well and some things do not.

Let us start from the beginning with what not to do:

 

  1. Do not legalize them or make them a possible solution regardless of what you may think of your local lack of affordable housing or current capacity of shelters. Tent cities beget more and larger tent cities as soon as you start down this road, and resolving it takes longer and is more difficult. Before you know it you are expending oodles of resources on really expensive bandages. Meanwhile, the problem will just grow.
  2. Do not give preferred access to housing for people that are living in the Tent City. If you get to jump the queue in the local coordinated entry process by living in a Tent City, get ready for there to be an influx of people vacating shelters and even terminating an existing tenancy to get access to long-term, government assisted housing through the Tent City. This is especially true if Permanent Supportive Housing is what is being offered to those in the Tent City.
  3. Do not give anyone living there the impression that claiming public space as one’s own is allowed or even legal. This makes bringing it to a close more difficult and more likely to be tangled up in various legal issues. EVERYONE has access to public space. And if the Tent City is on private property, then this must be resolved through the will of the private property owner.
  4. Do not provide anything beyond basic public health provisions, and whatever you do, do NOT allow charitable organizations to start to set up shop and hand out free food, sleeping bags, tents, cooking implements, etc. This means that portable toilets and access to fresh drinking water is a good thing. But anything that enables persistent stays is problematic.
  5. Do not have multiple messages engaging with people on the site simultaneously. If what outreach workers are saying is different than what police are saying; if what the local service manager or continuum of care is different than what the mayor’s office is saying – etc – then you are in big trouble.
  6. Do not let other parts of the service delivery system off the hook as you address the tent city. There is perhaps no greater indictment on other failures in the service delivery system than a large tent city. This is especially true in communities that have shelters with loads of barriers, outreach teams that deliver more charity than solutions, and housing programs that go to great lengths to screen people out.
  7. Do not try to arrest your way out of it or damage/take people’s belongings as a “tough love” approach to resolving the Tent City. Criminalizing homelessness has never worked and never will. And damaging or taking people’s stuff only creates more tension than what needs to be there.

 

So what should you do?

 

  1. Set an end date for when it will come to a close. Whoever has the legal authority to post notice that people need to vacate the property needs to post notice. A typical notice might say something like, “On or after June 1, 2016 all structures and personal property located on this property will be removed as per (cite legal grounds). No person shall be permitted to dwell on these premises after that date.” Usually giving people about 90 days to vacate from time of notice is sufficient.
  2. Prepare a team of specialists – outreach workers, housing workers, clinicians, specialists in domestic and intimate partner violence, youth workers etc. – whose sole job it is to respond to the Tent City for a fixed length of time. It may be necessary to second these people from their usual jobs. You need a strong leadership and accountability structure. They are charged with the task of resolving the Tent City.
  3. While a Tent City can be fluid, there is usually a difference between people that are staying there semi-permanently and those just passing through. Those just passing through must be told they are getting no services. They should also be asked to leave, especially if that request comes from the longer-term squatters rather than the team of specialists.
  4. Know all of the semi-permanent people by name and the depth of their support and housing needs. Integrate them into your coordinated entry system. Because a Tent City dweller should not trump someone else on the coordinated entry list, for many in the Tent City the team of specialists will need to start plotting Plan B (and C, and D, and E, and F – etc) for what is going to happen to people when the Tent City is closed down. A well managed process has a plan for over 90% of the semi-permanent dwellers.
  5. Know the leadership structure within the Tent City. This may be divided into different sub-areas. In some, these people are known as Mayors. These are the people that you need to engage and communicate with and ensure there is clear messaging. These are also your internal advocates for the changes that are taking place. Do NOT negotiate or communicate with external entities like advocates hoping the message will trickle down appropriately to the right people within the Tent City.
  6. Provide porta-potties and access to drinking water. There should be nothing else. If a group comes down to provide food, have them cited for safe food handling violations. If a group comes down to provide tents or sleeping bags, ensure they understand they are part of the problem. Redirect people’s charitable desires to a better purpose like fundraising for first and last month’s rent for people when they leave.
  7. A few days before the posted end date of the Tent City, move equipment and gear into the area such as dumpsters and bobcats, and in very large encampments, maybe even a bulldozer and dump truck.
  8. NEVER actually clean up the Tent City or require people to move on the date that was posted. You are definitely going to do the “or after” part of the notice. This adds an element of surprise and takes away protests, advocacy and media frenzies that can be associated with such activities.
  9. Apply all appropriate enforcement, especially within the last six weeks that the Tent City is going to be allowed. Living in a Tent City is not a “get out of jail free” card, nor is it immunity to local by-laws. For example, if open pit fires are not allowed anywhere else in your community, they should not be allowed in the Tent City either.
  10. Apply pressure to the other broken parts of the homeless service delivery system. Point out and document how each person’s arrival in the Tent City is almost always a reaction to other parts of the system that are not able to serve people with difficult and often co-occurring needs.
  11. On the day of removal:
    1. Make sure transportation options are in place. A warming or cooling center is a good idea, especially one that can provide people a meal while they sort things out. A church hall works well.
    2. Give people 30 minutes to collect anything of value to them to cart off site with them.
    3. Have the team of specialists – and others depending on the size of the Tent City – go through each tent site and work through a “treasures and trash” exercise. All things of value such as photographs, identification, government document, prescription medicines, etc. should be collected, labeled and stored for up to 45 days following the end of the encampment. Everything else can go into the dumpsters.
    4. Physically alter the space with things like fencing, concrete barricades, terraforming, etc. so that the location cannot be easily reoccupied.
    5. Keep track of where the semi-permanent people go that did not move into housing. Outreach needs to follow up with them daily for at least the next month and work on other options to living outdoors. Know that while some will scatter to other locations, it is pretty much unheard of for an entire Tent City to re-establish itself elsewhere.

 

There are some tell-tale signs that the Tent City is deteriorating and that you may need to accelerate your plan. Look for these signs:

  1. Increase in the number of drug dealers on site and/or taking over tents/structures on-site.
  2. Increase in violence, including sexual violence and homicides, on site amongst existing semi-permanent dwellers.
  3. Increase of new people wanting to be known as semi-permanent dwellers, while at the same time displacing other longer-term dwellers.
  4. Decrease in engagement with the specialist team as a result of rumour, accusation and misunderstood messaging of what is happening and why.
  5. Arsonist activities between semi-permanent dwellers.
  6. Increases in vandalism and damages to neighbouring properties.

 

And if you have an emerging, growing or well-established Tent City and need some professional assistance to draft out your plan of response or even to embed someone that has provided leadership in Tent Cities to your local community, reach out and let us know.

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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