Cities Tolerate Homeless Camps
Jennifer Levitz, Wall Street Journal
11 August 2009
NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Last summer, police responding to complaints about campfires under a highway overpass found dozens of homeless people living on public land along the Cumberland River.
Eviction notices went up—and then were suspended by Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, a Democrat, who said housing for the homeless should be found first.
A year later, little has been found—and Nashville, with help from local nonprofits, is now servicing a tent city, arranging for portable toilets, trash pickup, a mobile medical van and visits from social workers. Volunteers bring in firewood for the camp`s 60 or so dwellers.
Nashville is one of several U.S. cities that these days are accommodating the homeless and their encampments, instead of dispersing them. With local shelters at capacity, "there is no place to put them," said Clifton Harris, director of Nashville`s Metropolitan Homeless Commission, says of tent-city dwellers.
In Florida, Hillsborough County plans to consider a proposal Tuesday by Catholic Charities to run an emergency tent city in Tampa for more than 200 people. Dave Rogoff, the county health and services director, said he preferred to see a "hard roof over people`s heads." But that takes real money, he said: "We`re trying to cut $110 million out of next year`s budget."
Ontario, a city of 175,000 residents about 40 miles east of Los Angeles, provides guards and basic city services for a tent city on public land.
A church in Lacey, Wash., near the state capital of Olympia, recently started a homeless camp in its parking lot after the city changed local ordinances to permit it. The City Council in Ventura, Calif., last month revised its laws to permit sleeping in cars overnight in some areas. City Manager Rick Cole said most of the car campers are temporarily unemployed, "and in this economy, temporary can go on a long time."
After years of enforcing a tough anticamping law to break up homeless clusters, Sacramento recently formed a task force to look into designating homeless tracts because shelters are overflowing. One refuge in the California capital, St. John`s Shelter for Women and Children, is turning away about 350 people a night, compared with 25 two years ago, said executive director Michele Steeb.
Some communities may be "less inclined to crack down quite as hard on people" because of the recession, said Barry Lee, a professor of sociology and demography at Pennsylvania State University.
Municipal leniency isn`t universal. New York City officials last month shut down a tent city on a vacant lot in East Harlem. It was erected partly as shelter and partly to campaign for more-affordable housing. S