Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Visit to Pinellas Hope

The last stop on my tent city tour was Pinellas Hope, which is located just outside of St. Petersburg, Florida.  This one was very important because it is the only tent city of my trip that was actually legally accepted by the city.  I was interested in hearing how they were able to accomplish such a task and what the strengths and weaknesses of this model were.

This tent city is run through a religious organization.  I had previously sent an e-mail to the organization inquiring about a visit and was told, “During the summer if you find yourself in Pinellas County, give us a call, and speak with one of the facility managers or the director, Sheila Lopez concerning a visit.”  So I called Ms. Lopez a couple days before arriving in the area to set up a time to visit.  The call did not go as I had planned and left me disappointed.

I was told there was no way I could visit within the next few days.  The only way I could be in Pinellas Hope was if one of the facility managers was with me (Angelina Moses or Shiela Lopez), and she said they simply don’t have the time.

“I cant’ just have random people walking around this place - for all I know, you could be the devil,” Said Lopez.

I told her that I am a student doing research on tent cities, and that I am working with other tent cities searching for sanctioned land that would find the information useful.  I also added that I could show her my student I.D. and drivers license.

She proceeded to tell me, “While this might be a high priority for you, it is not a priority for us.”

I thought to myself - Huh, you would think helping a large number of people in poverty would be a priority of any religious organization.  I also wondered why such a person would question if I was the devil…

So, I showed up the next day to see what I could do. 

The tent city that was once erected in the heart of downtown St. Petersburg, was now located 11 miles away in another city, Pinellas Park.  I found it at the end of a dead end street that seemed to otherwise be used for industrial uses.

The site was completely surrounded by fencing accepting for an opening near the entrance.  Signs reading “Private Property No Trespassing” were posted, ironically the same signs usually used to keep tent city residents out.

I entered and explained my situation to the volunteers at the front desk but received similar, yet more polite, responses.  I returned to the street and decided to check out what I could see along the perimeter of the site.  Around the corner I found quite a bit of construction going on and a new looking building.  I later found out that it will be used as a community center.
Returning to the entrance I decided to wait out front and see if I could talk with some of the residents going in and out, possibly finding a way in.  Finally, a volunteer asked me about what I was doing and became interested in helping.  He went back in and, after quite some time, was able to convince the facility manager to let him show me around - as long as I didn't take any pictures.

The first thing I noticed walking in was a large board that displayed the camp rules. Next to it was another board where residents were required to check in and out of the camp.

Next, I was shown the area where the tents were set up. They were numbered and arranged in a rigid manner for as far as I could see. They were all identical except for a slight color variation and a different number on each tent. I was told the number of units usually fluctuates between 200 and 250 residents, and has higher occupancy in the winter because of the warm weather.

There were also some built structures, though still no sign of individuality.

After checking out the living quarters, I was able to see some of the amenities offered at Pinellas Hope. These were each in a trailer or prefabricate structure, lined along the perimeter of the site. Some of the uses I saw included bathrooms, showers, a kitchen, a GED classroom, and a computer labs (only to be used for job searches and resumes).

In my opinion, Pinellas Hope simply seemed like an outdoor homeless shelter - not my idea of a tent city.  The camp appeared to be run top down by the employees rather than with a democratic system that involved involved the residents.  This resulted in the lack of a community environment.

I was left with the impression that they did not want me there because they were fearful I would say bad things about it, as if I was some sort of undercover new reporter.  This was probably due to the organization known as Stop Tent City, which has show extreme opposition to the camp.  The site is quite comical and probably deserves a post of its own.

The Mad Housers and a Stop at an Athen's Tent City

My next interest on the way south was the Mad Housers, a non-profit organization based in Atlanta, where I planned to get a first hand look at a “ shelter deploy” -- when volunteers transport materials to a site and then construct a shelter for a client (To learn more see this related post).  After arriving I found out the event ended up being cancelled so I did not get to take part.  However, I did get to see the outside of the warehouse!

Without much hope of gaining any more insight into the organization, I decided to head an hour east to a tent city in Athens that contained some of their structures.  I had done a bit of research on this particular tent city, but the newspaper articles were few and far between.

Instead I talked with Frank Jeffers, a former president of the Mad Housers.  As a resident of Athens, he was able to offer some local insight into, what he called, “camping out.” 

Jeffers made it sound like a fairly common thing to do there and estimated that there were about 500 people spread throughout the city who were doing it.  One of the reasons he offered for this being possible was a landscape feature that was distinct to the geographic location.  This was the abundance of the Kudzu -- a plant brought to the South for the purpose of controlling erosion that also is effective for keeping people who are “camping out” out of site.

He informed me that the tent city where Lexington Highway crosses Perimeter-Route 10, the one I was interested in, had been there for about 20 to 30 years and usually had around 30 people staying there.  Like the majority of unsanctioned tent cities today it was located on land owned by the department of transportation.  While the camp does not have permission form the DOT to exist, the local police have allowed them to stay on the land.  In fact, Jeffers added that they have been known to pick up homeless off the street and drop them off at the tent city.

After talking with Jeffers I decided to check the site out for myself.  Like the two previous tent cities I had visited, I entered the site by finding a narrow trail leading into the woods near a highway interchange. 

Reaching the end of the trail, I found that it was the smallest one I had been to with only 5 tents and 7 Mad Houser structures.  One of the first things I noticed was the presence of two port-o-pots near the back of the site, which I later found out were brought in by a church group.

Moving further into the woods I was thrown off guard by a dog that came charging out of one of the units that read "beware of dog!".  Luckily he was tied to a chain.  The camp seemed pretty empty and it appeared he was there to protect the camp while people were away.

There was only one person, Ethan, who was present in the camp at the time.  He was staying in a tent rather than a mad houser unit because it provided better ventilation in the hot summers.  Ethan had been living there for about three months after being released from the hospital and described the place as quiet and peaceful.  I was told that many of the people that stay have some sort of housing available and usually split there time between the two places.  Ethan felt these people still chose to stay there because there was "more freedom than traditional housing."

In the very back of the site I found that there was actually one other person there.  He didn't talk much and didn't want me taking pictures.  Looking at his space I could tell he had put a lot of time and effort into his shelter.  It was made to protect him from his specific local environment, and further personalized with hanging pieces of art made from recycled materials.  To me this demonstrated the potential for creative expression that comes with constructing your own shelter. 

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Nashville's Tent City: After the Flood

After natural disaster destroyed Nashville's tent city, and once the city shut down an attempt to relocate it, the people were left with no where to go.  In response Nashville's Homeless Commission is taking 90 days to form a plan for an official, sanctioned tent city that will be proposed to the city.  The commission includes a wide range of members that represent the interests of the public, private, religious and non-profit sectors.

However, the commission still lacked a fundamental point of view - someone who actually lived in tent city.  To solve this problem an election was held between three previous residents.  The winner would then have a seat in the commission, having a role in deciding the future for tent city.

I arrived in Nashville a day before the election.  I called Doug Sanders to meet for an interview that we had arranged.  Sanders is a minister at a local church and has become heavily involved with tent city.  The interview provided a look at the situation from a religious perspective, which has played a strong role in tent cities across the country.

Sanders informed me that there would be a film crew arriving shortly to also do an interview.  They were filming a documentary for Oprah on the tent city.  My first thoughts were - great, another chance for misrepresentation in order to create a story that would catch the attention of as many viewers as possible.  I knew Oprah had previously done a piece on Sacramento's tent city which did just that, so I was obviously skeptical.

The film crew known as Stick Figure Productions showed up and I was able to stick around for their interview.  They asked Sanders questions about the three candidates in the upcoming election and whom he thought the favorite was to win, strikingly similar to what would be asked of an American Idol judge.

The next day I showed up outside the public library where the election was to be held.  There were already a number of homeless people starting to gather.  Stick Figure Productions showed up again as more people gathered.  After talking to a few of the homeless I found out the reason a lot of them were there was because of word that there would be free food.

Although Oprah was not there, she was kind enough to pay for food carts to be brought in that gave away hot dogs and snow cones to the homeless that showed up.  What may have appeared to be a good deed seemed more to me like a scheme to create an interesting story.  The scene in the documentary would not be very impressive if only a few people showed up to vote.

The film crew seemed to continue to dictate the event.  People were placed in certain areas to debate and others were told to circle around so the cameras could catch the excitement.

At one point, while taking pictures, I was asked to move by a member of the film crew because I was in the line of where they were trying to shoot.  They did not want me to be in the scene even though I was part of the event they were trying to document.  I told them that I have the right to shoot wherever I want only to receive a nasty look.

Who won the election you might ask.  My response - Who cares?  Why should there be an election in the first place?  Why shouldn't all three candidates get a say in the future of their living space.  Why not more?  Roughly half of MISSION (a non-profit who is working with Ann Arbor's tent cit) is composed of homeless or previously homeless individuals.  

One of the most important principles of urban planning is to include the people you are planning for in the process.  Selecting only one person simply isn't good enough.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Ruins of Nashville's Tent City

In early May a massive flood resulted in the evacuation of Nashville's tent city.  Three months later I visited the site to see what remained. 

A dirt path off of Hermitage Avenue leads to the former tent city under the bridges of I-24.

As I continued down the path I felt like I was entering a lost civilization.

What was once a sanctuary for those who did not fit conventional housing for over two decades has now been deserted.  The ruins of their make-shift homes are all thats left.  An inventory taken before the flood reported that were 140 structures.

The camp expanded and grew organically as more people took refuge in tent city.  Gates were installed in existing fences, which separated the camp into different sections.

Some living spaces appeared to be grouped into smaller enclaves within the larger community.  It was evident that these separate enclaves had different characteristics specific to the residents that once lived there.

The interiors of the homes once included stoves, mattresses, and shelving to store personal possessions.

Nature is beginning to reclaim the abandoned camp.

Local authorities have claimed the site to be contaminated and uninhabitable even though neighboring businesses have returned to the land.  Nashville police monitor the former camp to make sure that no one returns. 

Monday, July 26, 2010

Camp Take Notice

The first tent city I visited was Camp Take Notice in Ann Arbor.  I was able to sit down for an interview with Caleb Poirier, a resident and organizer of the tent city.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Trip 1: Midwest and Southeast

Over the past few weeks I was able to visit four different tent cities throughout the United States. My stops included:

"Camp Take Notice" - Ann Arbor, Michigan
A tent city on state land that is in the process of organizing after being relocated several times.

"Tent City" - Nashville, Tennessee
A joint commission in the planning stages after the long standing, unofficial tent city was destroyed by a flood.

"Tent City" - Athens, Georgia
A small group of built structures on state land that has been left alone by local authorities.

"Pinellas Hope" - St. Petersburg, Florida
A tent city formed by religious organizations after an informal one was removed by the police.

I plan on adding a series of pages that will include descriptions, observations, photos and videos of each of my site visits.

Below is a map of my trip with some details on each of the stops (red markers reflect previous locations while green markers are the current locations).

View Trip 1: Midwest and Southeast in a larger map

Monday, July 5, 2010

An excellent video covering the Tent City in Nashville only a few months before it was destroyed by a flood.

Invisible City Winter — Nashville, TN — January 2010 from Russel Albert Daniels on Vimeo.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Tent City, USA

View Tent Cities in a larger map

This map shows the location of tent cities in the United States that have been covered in the media since December of 2007.  Click on a specific tent city for links and more information.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Police Tent Slashing Video

In January of 2007, the St. Petersburg police used box cutters to remove an unsanctioned tent city.

NYC Tent City Video

An interesting video on the short life of a tent city in NYC.

Find more episodes from the Babelgum series: New Urbanism