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 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:46 AM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT