Skip to main content

What tent cities say about America

By Arjun Sethi
updated 7:55 AM EST, Mon December 23, 2013
A homeless person takes a drink outside of the tent encampment where he lives in Waterbury, Connecticut.
A homeless person takes a drink outside of the tent encampment where he lives in Waterbury, Connecticut.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Arjun Sethi: As Americans go home for the holidays, some homeless go to tent cities
  • Sethi: Tent cities, either makeshift or more permanent, proliferate across America
  • He says instead of helping the homeless, states are cracking down on these communities
  • Sethi: Tent cities are a reminder of America's growing income inequalities

Editor's note: Arjun Sethi is a lawyer in Washington and a frequent commentator on civil rights and social justice-related issues. Follow him on Twitter: @arjunsethi81

(CNN) -- As millions of Americans gather in their homes for the holidays, there will be those who will congregate in a different kind of home.

An abode common to other parts of the world now proliferates across America: Tent cities.

The total number of homeless people residing in tents and makeshift homes is unknown. Many of these communities are small and hidden from public view, while others claim hundreds of residents and are sprinkled through major urban areas.

Arjun Sethi
Arjun Sethi

Some, like those tucked under roadways, are temporary and relocate frequently. Their conditions are vile, unsanitary and fail to provide refuge from storms and winds. Then there are communities, such as Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon, that have a more sustained presence. The 13-year-old "ecovillage" set up by homeless people is hygienic and self-sufficient.

Preliminary findings by The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty show that tent cities have been documented in almost every state, and they're growing.

A report released by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, for example, found that homelessness and hunger rates are rising, culminating in 47 million Americans living below the poverty line. A fledgling economic recovery, high unemployment and contracting government services are largely to blame. So is the paucity -- or paradox -- of affordable housing. While homelessness is increasing, more than 10% of homes in America are empty.

Rocker reunites with homeless bandmate
What is Holiday Inflatamania?
Pope celebrates birthday with homeless

Emergency services, meanwhile, aren't filling the void. Homeless families and single adults are routinely turned away by shelter homes because of lack of bed space.

Tent cities are an organic, last resort response to crushing economic circumstances. Yet, rather than ameliorating the conditions that give rise to these communities, many states and municipalities are cracking down. While some encampments are legally sanctioned or permitted to operate on church grounds, officials routinely invoke prohibitions against public camping and sleeping to disband these encampments, leaving tenants languishing out in the cold.

Epithets suggesting that homeless people are mentally ill, lazy, criminal, violent or some combination thereof only fuels the fire.

These accusations are largely urban myth.

Most homeless people do not suffer from mental illness or drug abuse. Many homeless people have jobs but simply can't afford housing. Some tent cities, for example, cater to local economies, and many of their residents are gainfully employed. Homeless people also tend to be the victims of countless hate crimes, even though they are a protected class under numerous state hate crime statutes.

Lost in this shameful rhetoric is the fact that the right to housing is a bedrock of international law and protected by U.S. law. Some courts have held that tearing down camps when no alternative is available amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and a deprivation of property without due process of law.

That we can even stroll through our cities while some of the residents languish in squalor is hard to believe. A few decades ago, tent cities would have been unimaginable.

In 1964, a group of researchers famously roamed the parks of New York City and found only one homeless man. Fifty years later, homelessness in New York City has reached a record high. The same can be said for much of America: Homelessness has doubled since the 1980s. Those who declare that we're close to ending poverty just need to look around and see the victims of the Great Recession.

Tent cities are an ugly reminder of America's growing income inequalities. Yet, in the absence of meaningful economic reform, these self-reliant communities must not be dismantled. Nor should they be forgotten. For in sanctioning them, we risk capitulating to the epidemic of poverty and shifting our public policy from eliminating poverty to accommodating it.

This is already happening in other parts of the world. In Mumbai, India, for example, slums freckle the landscape like skyscrapers. But sprouting from the dilapidation are antennas and electrical wires. Some of the housing units have electricity, cable programming and mail delivery. And so the discussion no longer concerns extricating human beings from the slums but making the slums more habitable.

We must not succumb to America's great divide. Doing so isn't just a repudiation of the downtrodden; it's a stain on our national consciousness.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Arjun Sethi.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:26 PM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT