Homeless camps are good: we need more of them

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David Baum serving a meal at “Camp Dearborn,” an unauthorized homeless encampment since removed in SODO and its residents displaced

David Baum, tireless homeless advocate, writes about his experiences assisting in the camps and those who depend upon them

Organized camps are a good solution to the problem of how to care for homeless people while there is not enough affordable housing. Camps provide a stable environment where people without a home can find relief from the daily struggle for survival. In a safe place, they can calm down, focus, and work to solve the problems that have led to instability in their lives. Camps also provide a place where social services can be delivered to people who need help to achieve stability and become housed.

For the past year, I have been closely involved with two camps: Camp United We Stand, in north Seattle, and Camp Second Chance, in the south. I have been a welcome guest at each camp, and I have provided meals and other resources on a regular basis. (I should say explicitly that I do not speak for either camp, nor for their residents.)

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Camp United We Stand resident

I have become convinced that well-managed camps guided by experienced campers are a viable method to provide services to people who are seeking to stabilize their lives and return to housing. An organized camp provides at least the rudimentary elements of stability: safety from violence, a covered place to sleep, toilet facilities, and in most cases access to food. Some camps – those supported by City funds – also provide case management to help residents access social services, find employment, and move up and out into housing.

There are, at present, 11 homeless camps in the Greater Seattle area, of which six are “sanctioned” by the City of Seattle and receive public funding. The other five non-sanctioned camps are generally hosted on church property and rely on the charity of the church and surrounding community. For official information about the sanctioned camps, visit the City of Seattle’s web page. For a map and information about all 11 camps, visit the Greater Seattle Cares web page.

City officials have decided to support organized camps, but it is politically difficult to find places for camps to exist. In some areas, the government has faced serious concern or outright opposition from citizen groups who question the appropriateness of a location in their neighborhood. These concerns include practical questions – about garbage collection, the availability of transportation, and the provision of social services – as well as more visceral expressions of hostility toward homeless people as a category.

In practice, due to careful management and intentional outreach on the part of the camps’ managers, the actual experience of homeless camps near residential neighborhoods has in general been benign or even beneficial. Complaints about crime, dirt, and disorder have focused on areas that are outside the camps. The camps themselves have drawn respect and support even from neighborhood groups with a generally hostile attitude toward homeless people and the City’s policies regarding them.

During the recent spate of “sweeps” – the forcible removal of people from unauthorized encampments – City authorities have used the newly sanctioned camps as a resource to provide a home (however temporary and minimal) for people with nowhere else to go. Now, though, the roughly 400 beds in those camps are full. Unfortunately, the number of people with nowhere to live has not stopped growing.

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United We Stand resident outside his home  made of heavy construction insulation foam: “better than a tent”

We need more organized camps. The solution to homelessness is sufficient affordable housing and adequate funding of mental health services, but there is no evidence that either of those things will be available in the foreseeable future. The City’s plan to cope with homelessness – Pathways Home – is not by any means guaranteed to succeed, and will not begin to affect the situation for another year or more. For the present, we must concentrate on immediate relief for people whose unstable situation is driving them ever further away from society and into despair.

I have witnessed the transformation that can occur when a person subject to the stress and isolation of homelessness is provided with a safe haven, no matter how rudimentary. I talked with a man who, upon arriving at the camp, was considering suicide. Only three weeks later, he was moving out to join a 30-day program to reinforce his sobriety and seek employment. In another case, I saw a mentally ill man go from being completely silent and isolated to being a beloved friend and valued member of the camp. I have seen numerous cases where people used the camp as a safe place to stay while a housing alternative was in the process of becoming available.

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Inside his foam home: cost effective emergency shelter

Not every story is happy. Especially in cases of addiction and mental illness, the resources of a homeless camp can be insufficient to address a person’s needs. Sometimes, the camp has no recourse but to send the person away, to preserve the safety and tranquility of the community that remains. Those outcasts should become the responsibility of the wider society, but given the current underfunding of services, they most often simply become the most wretched of the homeless on our streets.

Camps are not a complete or permanent solution to the problem of homelessness. They are not intended to be. Camps are an emergency response to a crisis in our society that will take many years to play itself out. In the meantime, organized camps give people a safe and stable place to work on the problems that have disrupted their lives. We need more camps, and we need support for them from both the government and the community.

–  David Baum is a volunteer with Patacara Community Services, a Buddhist-inspired social service group. He works to provide meals and other resources to homeless camps in an attempt to learn the realities faced by people who have lost their connection to the wider society. You can reach him at david@patacara.org.”

–   Photos in this essay courtesy of David Bloom (except for first pic taken by author)

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About John V. Fox

Director, Seattle Displacement Coalition
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