A Brief History of Tent City Movements

By Desiree Hellegers and Laurie Mercier

I am out of your doorway.
Dignity Village is like my Island out in
No-man's land. We can do what we want.
My tent is my home, so leave me the hell alone.

Michael Broderick (1946-2001), Dignity Village, Oregon

At the turn of the millenium, the phrase "tent city movements" has increasingly come to refer to intentional communities organized by the unhoused. These communities serve as an alternative to sleeping on the streets or in regimented shelters, and as a form of political protest against the material conditions and social policies that create and perpetuate homelessness.

Historical Background

The numbers of unhoused or precariously housed Americans grew in the 19th and 20th centuries along with industrial capitalism, urbanization, and fluctuating labor markets. Skid Rows became centers for the urban indigent, featuring cheap hotels and restaurants, SROs (single room occupancies), missions, and hiring halls. Men, women, and children without shelter huddled near heated grates on city streets, depended on passing boxcars for transportation and bedding, or joined fellow homeless in ramshackle shantytowns erected near cities' edges. Local governments alternated between tolerating transients during periods of labor demand and enforcing vagrancy and other laws to rid their communities of the unhoused.

In the early decades of the 20th century, transient male laborers often erected "jungles" or tent camps near dumps, railroad crossings, and rivers, far from officials' eyes. These encampments ultimately became important venues for the organizing efforts of the century’s most legendary labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), who with western harvest and timber workers shared leads on work and agitated for workplace justice and the end to the domination of capital.

Workers evicted from company or landowner housing for strike and organizing activity often created tent cities for emergency shelter and to maintain community solidarity in their collective protests. Evicted from their homes during the Colorado Fuel and Iron strike of 1913-1914, coal miners and their families created the Ludlow tent colony. On April 20, 1914, National Guard troops fired into tents and burned the colony to the ground, killing two women and eleven children. The incident prompted demonstrations across the country against Rockefeller's Standard Oil corporation.

During the Depression, the numbers of homeless, hoboes and encampments ballooned. While the self-governing "Hoovervilles" of the 1930s were rarely the sight of radical organizing on behalf of the poor, their name and visibility served as signifiers of the indifference of the president and of the federal government's failure to address the problems of joblessness and poverty.

The "Bonus Army" of 1932 created the most famous tent city of the period erected for explicitly political goals, as 25,000 unemployed men encamped at the edge of the nation’s capitol, demanding early payment of their service bonus. The Hoover administration sent the army to disband and destroy the protest. Troops burned the Bonus Army homes and the transients' hopes that the federal government would assist them.

Other protests emerged out of the ranks of the unemployed in the 1930s, as the poor resisted evictions and refuted the notion that the jobless were responsible for their own condition. Demands for federal assistance lead the New Deal to aid homeless and unemployed workers through the Federal Transients Bureau and the Farm Security Administration, which created rural work camps. Still, most cities in the 1930s tried to send transients on their way and toughened vagrancy laws.

In the 1930s, when southern sharecroppers and tenant farmers, like supporters of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, were thrown off the land for organizing, they sought solidarity in makeshift tent camps. Even as late as 1960 in Fayette County, Tennessee, white property owners evicted more than 400 African American tenant families for participating in the Fayette County Civic and Welfare League, which had initiated a voter-registration drive. With support of an African American property owner, the families formed a community known as "Tent City." A smaller tent city arose in nearby Haywood County, where dozens of families had also been evicted for their political work. The Justice Department filed suit against landowners and merchants in Fayette County who had violated the civil rights of the tenants, and in July 1962 they were enjoined from interfering with the rights of citizens to vote.

Modern tent city movements

Post-Second World War efforts to renew downtown areas, in decline because of suburbanization, often targeted Skid Row areas, traditional haunts of low-income people and transients. "Planning" and "renewal" -- or gentrification -- of urban cores translated into intensified struggles for poor people in need of housing. The demolition or conversion of SROs, which accelerated in the 1970s and 1980s, deindustrialization, deinstitutionalization and defederalism combined to swell the ranks of the homeless, which included unprecedented numbers of women, children and families. At the same time, officials, often pressured by merchants and new upper-income city residents, increasingly cracked down on the presence of the homeless and supported anti-homeless legislation.

This struggle over urban spaces catalyzed new forms of activism to challenge existing inequities and champion new housing policies. The Union of the Homeless in Philadelphia demanded the right to earn a decent living, and other unions emerged in Chicago, Baltimore, Boston, and Los Angeles. Activist Mitch Snyder brought national attention to struggles of the homeless. Along with the Community for Creative NonViolence, founded in D.C. in the 1970s, he lead pray-ins, eat-ins, and the occupation of buildings in support of the homeless. In some cities, housing activist groups, such as Seattle's Operation Homestead, organized protests and occupations of buildings slated for demolition. Similar coalitions formed in many cities, and while for the most part focusing on local issues and strategies, these groups occasionally joined forces to influence national policy. The National Coalition for the Homeless organized 250,000 to appear in Washington, D.C., in October 1989 with its Housing Now! March. These actions, combined with litigation initiated by the unhoused and their advocates, pressured Congress to hold hearings and support a patchwork of new programs in the 1980s, but the government provided little funding for new housing.

Building on historical efforts by the unhoused to assert autonomy through independent communities, the modern tent city movement has taken a stand to highlight the lack of affordable housing and to reclaim public spaces that have increasingly excluded the poor. Since the 1980s tent cities have materialized in cities as diverse as Las Vegas, San Diego, San Jose, and Corpus Christi, building on elements of the civil rights, women's, gay liberation, environmental, and poor people's movements. Some tent cities were designed as short-term political protests. Homeless activists, for example, erected tent cities in front of the Illinois, California, and Washington state capitols to lobby for funding. Others have sought to create more permanent communities to provide an alternative model of shelter that foregrounds self-governance, empowerment, and autonomy.

The pioneers of the contemporary tent city movements are vocal critics of the lack of and limitations of existing shelters, and more broadly of charity-based approaches to poverty. Residents of tent cities argue that their itinerant housing provides a preferable alternative to overcrowded and unsanitary shelters and more effective security for safeguarding their few remaining material possessions. Tents and lean-tos, however ramshackle, tend to provide greater privacy than is afforded in most shelters. Tent communities embrace both gay and straight couples, and in some cases, children. Shelters almost universally enforce gender segregation while excluding same sex couples. Nationally only a handful of shelters allow pets but they are a visible feature of tent city landscapes. While the majority of shelters are open to residents only at night, tent cities accommodate the variable hours of the working poor.

At the same time, residents emphasize that the collective nature of tent city living protects them from assault. They note that while crimes perpetrated by "transients" receive amplified media attention, crimes against the homeless go largely unreported in local and national media and are frequently acknowledged only in the pages of the country's approximately thirty newspapers published by and for the homeless. Notably, within days of the forced closure of the Las Vegas tent city in July 2001, a former resident of the encampment was severely beaten and robbed by three assailants, and another homeless man was beaten to death.

Homeless activists erected tent cities with pointed political goals to move individuals out of the relative isolation of urban doorways to become a more visible presence to city officials and residents. Many of these efforts have yielded important symbolic victories, including city promises to expand shelter beds and housing units. In 1993 the city of Eugene sanctioned a three-year experiment to allow homeless to camp on a parking lot near the University of Oregon's Autzen Stadium. When funding ran out, the Centennial Car Camp closed, but the city was forced to continue to allow some scattered legal camping on unused public parking lots. Squatters who created Camp Paradise in Santa Cruz refused to budge for a year until in early December 2001 a rainstorm flooded away the tent city. Although police had ticketed the campers, the city did not aggressively pressure the camp to disband and after the flood provided motel vouchers until the campers could find a new site. The camp's success in garnering much local support inspired city council members to reform Santa Cruz's homeless services, including allowing a homeless campground.

More often, the tent city movement has met resistance from neighbors, police, and elected officials. In 1991 officials disassembled a Santa Ana, California, camp after allowing it to exist for a year, and in 1992, Marin County, California, officials closed a camp that appeared in the wake of the closure of a National Guard Armory shelter. As the homeless are driven from one site and forced to lay claim to another, frustrated city officials enact new rules or conduct sweeps. When over a hundred homeless who lived in Tompkins Square Park on Manhattan's Lower East Side protested the city's efforts to remove them, the city closed and fenced off the park for "renovations." The police in Washington, D.C., tore down temporary shacks erected each day in Lafayette Park. San Francisco, which by 2002 had gained the reputation as the most hostile city in America towards the homeless, alternated its methods of removing the homeless just as quickly as homeless found new places to camp. In December 2001 officials fenced off the area that had housed a tent city under Highway 101.

It is not simply the transitory nature of the accommodations that garners resistance from local communities and authorities. In fact, officially sanctioned tent cities have long been embraced as an answer to housing and prison shortages, to attract low wage laborers, and to house state troops called to quell civil dissent. In Alaskan fishing towns like St. Petersburg, city sanctioned tent cities have long served to accommodate seasonal workers. In California, in the absence of both affordable conventional housing and sustainable wages,1100 state sanctioned and licensed tent cities serve a fraction of the state's estimated 700,000 migrant farmworkers on a seasonal basis. In the late 1990s, as an answer to overcrowded jails, Phoenix, Arizona launched a pilot tent city jail, housing as many as 1,580 inmates. What distinguishes the embattled tent cities of otherwise homeless individuals from these provisional accommodations is the extent to which the former signify collective rejection of official strategies for managing the poor and critique the social and economic conditions that create and perpetuate homelessness.

West Coast Efforts

Although cities grew determined to eliminate encampments of more than a few people, a number of coalitions persisted on the West Coast to sustain the new tent city movement. Three tent cities have been the most visible and have served as models for other embryonic efforts.

In 1985 homeless activist Ted Hayes and 73 homeless men, women, and children established a shantytown in Central City East, or Skid Row, in Los Angeles. From its inception, "Justiceville" had strained relations with city authorities and social service providers. Despite efforts by advocates and a 35-day fast by Hayes, the city closed Justiceville/Homeless, USA on May 10. For the next eight years LA's homeless, including members of Justiceville, lobbied government and businesses and engaged in civil disobedience to demand attention to the plight of the homeless. In November 1993 the Dome Village, originally known as Genesis One, opened as an innovative effort to provide a structural alternative for those unable or unwilling to live in traditional shelters. The 20 Omni-Sphere domes provided community and living spaces for many shunned by traditional service providers. The self-governing project sought to empower and engage residents in productive activities to help transition them out of homelessness. The Village spawned a number of micro-enterprises, created a CyberDome computer learning center, and cultivated an organic garden.

During the Goodwill Games held in Seattle in the summer of 1990, a group of homeless men and women decided to camp out on the waterfront in clear view of tourists and the city's major daily newspaper. To underscore the need for affordable housing, on Thanksgiving activists created a tent city beside the Kingdome, which prompted city officials to provide more indoor shelter space. Campers organized as the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE) and formed alliances with churches and other community groups, including the homeless group Operation Homestead, to address the need for low-income housing. SHARE organized shelters, laundry and storage facilities, and new housing units. In 1993 a group of women within SHARE formed Women's Housing Equality and Enhancement League (WHEEL) to advocate for homeless women's concerns.

As in other cities, Seattle's homeless made some headway while seeing other gains eroded. Activists periodically camped out in front of municipal buildings to demand lodging lost by redevelopment efforts in the 1990s. As a new mayor in 1998 held a housing summit to address the needs of the homeless, his police force began regular bulldozing of campsites above I-5. In response, SHARE/WHEEL reconstituted Tent City on Beacon Hill in June. Even as police closed the site, Mayor Paul Schell promised new funds to eliminate homelessness. SHARE set up two more tent communities in 1999 to provide shelter during the WTO protests; this time activists, banding together with advocates from local faith communities, strategically located their encampment on church properties to avoid city closures. When winter response shelters closed in March 2000, the group again raised a tent city, which persisted through thirteen forced moves by the city on threats of zoning violations against private landowner hosts. In August, El Centro de la Raza invited the tent city and its 100 residents to locate at its center for the next six months. Because the city rejected El Centro's application for a tent-city permit, residents moved to a church and battled the city in court. In September 2001 a King County superior court judge ruled that because the military, Scouts, and disaster-relief groups had histories of establishing safe encampments, the city could not discriminate against the homeless group's permit efforts. A new federal law that appeared to allow churches to ignore land-use codes while engaged in religious practices also strengthened Tent City's cause. In March 2002 Seattle and Tent City representatives signed an agreement that allows the community to remain in one commercial or residential spot for up to three months.

Influenced by the LA and Seattle movements, Portland's latest tent city movement was initially catalyzed by a Multnomah County Circuit Court decision in September 2000. Striking down the city's ban on outdoor camping, which dated back to 1981, Judge Stephen L. Gallagher ruled that the ordinance constituted "cruel and unusual punishment," and effectively punished "the status of being homeless" and impeded homeless people's right to travel. With the city intent on appealing the decision, on December 16, 2000, with support from street roots, a nonprofit newspaper largely staffed and distributed by homeless people and covering issues of concern to the homeless, a core group of eight homeless individuals pitched their tents on public land under the Morrison bridge in downtown Portland. Despite Gallagher's decision, the threat of arrest impelled five early moves even as the "camp's" population steadily grew, until a formal agreement was struck with the city authorizing the camp's temporary location under a freeway.

The relative stability of new, albeit temporary, legitimacy enabled the birth of Dignity Village, as residents created community coalitions and partnerships, held press conferences, teach ins, and public meetings, and developed a web site to foster more effective outreach to the immediate community, as well as to other national and international tent cities. Villagers worked in concert with University of Oregon architectural students and with the City Repair Project to develop architectural plans for a permanent settlement at a fraction of the cost of conventional low-income housing. The plans included communal gardens, a "piazza" for gatherings, wind power generators, composting toilets, and a gray water irrigation system as an expression of the Village's ecological consciousness and commitment to sustainability.

Forced in September 2001 to relocate to a fenced enclosure abutting the city's leaf composting yard outside the city center, with the help of City Repair, Americorp volunteers, and other community supporters, the Village erected a communal hall and domed conference room out of salvaged materials. In the spring, Villagers banded together with Portland's Environmental Middle School, greenscaping the blacktop with communal vegetable beds. The Village has variously participated in arts and theater projects; has educated a barrage of local and international reporters, academics, students and others interested in its experiment in community; has fashioned a partnership with a Japanese tent city; and has initiated an organic farming cooperative and several micro-businesses. As of this writing, the Village is once again facing imminent eviction by city authorities bent on reclaiming the compost site for its original purpose, and Villagers have not yet secured city approval for a new site.

Homeless advocates debate whether tent cities can ultimately affect larger social change needed to address the lack of affordable housing in the United States. Others worry that the attention and resources devoted to the camps will detract from other efforts to develop adequate and humane emergency and long-term low-income housing. The latter argument, which tends to focus almost exclusively on the quality of housing, generally fails to adequately acknowledge the challenge that tent cities, with their emphasis on self-determination, pose to the country's core political assumptions. It must be noted, however, that many homeless themselves prefer shelter beds or more independent living on the streets to tent city accommodations. But tent city activists believe that they are creating community and “homes,” while challenging city, state and federal policies and the economic systems that foster poverty, erode affordable housing stocks and criminalize the unhoused.

Desiree Hellegers and Laurie Mercier are on the faculty of the Center for Social and Environmental Justice at Washington State University Vancouver. They are currently working on a book about Portland social movements.


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