Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Life of an Unsanctioned Tent City

Below is a map that gives a brief history of Camp Take Notice from begining to its current status.  The information was gathered from an interview with Caleb Poirier.

View Camp Take Notice in a larger map

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Mad Housers

The Mad Housers is a non-profit organization with a primary focus on building and providing “temporary, emergency shelters” for the homeless. 

They are addressing a “narrow slice of the homeless pie” – meaning only people who are “capable of living on their own and gathering the resources needed to survive.” The rationale for providing such a service is that “if a person has a secure space from which to operate, they are much more capable of finding resources to help themselves.”

Here is a look at the shelters they build:

"Low Rider" (4' x 8' x 4')
w/ storage unit (4' x 4' x 4')

"Hut" (6' x 8' x 10')

The "Hut" has a gabled roof, sleeping loft, locking door, and wood burning stove.  The "Low Rider" is a less visible alternative. Each unit costs about $400 (90% of which is the cost of lumber) and requires 50 person hours.  The Mad Houser website provides a materials and cut guide, blueprints, and assembly instructions for both models, which enables anyone to build these shelters.

So, you might wonder, how they find the sites to put these things and who are the clients that get them?  Their answer: “The clients are at the sites.”  The best indicator for a good site is homeless people – meaning that “if it’s a really good place to stay, chances are, someone’s staying there.”

A good site must have two characteristics: proximity and privacy.  “Proximity means that site residents are within walking distance of necessary resources such as clean water, public transportation, grocery stores, etc. Privacy means that the site will remain unmolested. That usually means staying out of sight.”

The Madhousers suggest answering these questions when determining the potential for a good site:
  • How long have you been here? If it's been awhile, that's a good sign. Like the best indicator of future wealth is current wealth, the best indicator of a camp's future longevity is it's longevity.
  • Do other folks know you're here? This is quite likely. If the neighbors know and don't mind, if the landowner knows and doesn't mind, then the camp is golden. Same with cops; they usually won't break up a camp unless there are complaints.
  • Is someone in charge? In a group situation, there's usually a person who's the leader. It's not necessarily an explicit leadership role, where someone is the boss - sometimes it's simply a respect member of the camp whose opinion is always listened to. These folks give the ultimate blessing on what happens in the camp, and should be consulted. 
The purpose of this is not to say that some deserve shelter more than others, but instead to find sites that have “long-term viability.” 

Friday, August 20, 2010

A vision for a village in Fresno

Originally posted in the Fresno Be on 5/13/10 by Marc Benjamin

Tiny buildings for Fresno's homeless need a home

Fresno architect is building eco-villages for transients, but a suitable location is needed.

Read more here:

Fresno architect Arthur Dyson says he has the solution to the city's homeless problem: villages of tiny homes built with recycled materials and surrounded by fruit trees.
The first structures -- some measuring only 80 square feet -- are already under construction on the Fresno State campus, where Dyson has been working with students in a construction management class to develop concepts.
But the structures won't become living spaces for the homeless unless city officials can find a suitable spot for them.
Gregory Barfield, Fresno's homeless prevention and policy manager, said the city is ready to assist Dyson with the project, including finding a site.
The city could look to vacant or abandoned properties, or sites available through foreclosures, he said. But the city also will need to get a buy-in from neighbors and a permit through the Planning Department, Barfield said.
"It's a pretty revolutionary model the way [Dyson] is bringing together different people in the community, engaging students as advocates for the homeless while they are learning architecture and sustainable building," he said.
Dyson said he pondered how to solve the city's homeless problem while serving on a committee of community leaders that several years ago wrote the "Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness" in Fresno and Fresno County.
He envisioned an "eco-village" that would include housing units set up in a field surrounded by trees and gardens, a central building with a kitchen and bathrooms and another larger building for the sale of goods created or grown by residents.
Some of the city's homeless have been included in the planning process and have met with the Fresno State students to discuss potential living arrangements.
This isn't the first time that attempts have been made to create housing options for the homeless. In recent years, the Poverello House has added 60 uninsulated two-person wooden sheds, with battery-operated lighting and bathrooms available, said Kathryn Weakland, director of development/communications.
The structures proposed by Dyson may include small solar panels that could generate enough electricity for minimal lighting or a television, said Lloyd Crask, a construction management instructor.
Al Williams, a homeless community member assisting on the project, said the housing could be temporary or more permanent depending upon a person's needs.
"People aren't going to want to live in that for the rest of their lives," Williams said. "It's a stepping stone with no time limit."
After speaking with Dyson last year about his idea, Vida Samiian, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at Fresno State, said she wanted to move quickly to establish a class where students can gain experience and the homes could be built.
"We are trying to do the design-and-build concept using recyclable materials so this may be replicated or expanded in the future," she said.
Much of the housing is being made with recycled materials.
Donated pallets -- covered with plywood -- are being used for flooring and walls. One group is using cardboard that has been waterproofed as construction material for walls and cut-up aluminum cans for a roof.
"In the winter, the aluminum can grasp a lot of heat," said construction management student Betty Green, 31, of Fresno. "In the summer, we will have ventilation, lots of windows to allow the air to vent."
Dyson sees a time where old tires or bales of hay or old clothing can be used, too.
The college contributed $20,000 for the class, and students also are using donated pallets and buying building materials with a discount from Lowe's, Dyson said.
The students will be required to finish building the homes in the next two weeks and then write a report about the buildings and the challenges they faced.
"The concept was to have a course where we could design and build some model shelters that would provide some relief during emergencies or for homeless communities," Samiian said.
The project is valuable not only academically but also from a humanitarian standpoint, said Julio Sanchez, 22, of Modesto, a construction management student.
The homeless "are people who are just down on their luck and need a place where they will feel comfortable," Sanchez said.
Williams said the students have set aside preconceived ideas about the homeless and are listening to their needs.
"I am very proud of them," he said. "There aren't many people stepping up and doing what they are doing."
Once an "eco-village" is established in Fresno, it will create its own charter for residents. At that point, Dyson said, students from sociology and anthropology departments can become part of the project.
And after the buildings are occupied, the program can be critiqued and improvements made, he said.
Dyson said he has been impressed by the enthusiasm students bring to the project. Unlike some professionals, he said, they seek ways around obstacles.
Alex Ortega, a 22-year-old student from Lemoore, is eager to see what will evolve.
"Once you see it finished and someone can actually physically use it, I think we will really feel the impact," he said.
Dyson's idea may not be limited to the Valley. He said he has spoken with Fresno Pacific University officials about starting a similar class and also has been called by a university in the Philippines and architects in Italy and Russia about replicating the "eco-village."
"As much as there is a need everywhere, it's nice to help your neighbors first," he said. "But they are looking to see what we are doing and if we can do something here, maybe they could use this as a model."

Read more here:

Read more here:

Friday, August 13, 2010

Community and Collaboration: "Broken Bike Blues"

Like usual, I started the day by walking by bike up the trail and over the guardrail.  Hopping on I began to ride on the bridge that passes over the highway.  I was immediately alarmed by a large truck that was coming up behind me so I swerved towards the curb to give myself more space.  My bike scraped the side of the curb, but I was able to maintain balance as the truck sped by.  To my surprise I looked down to see the bike’s chain dragging on the pavement.  My knowledge of bikes is intermediate at best, but I could tell the damage was serious.  The metal piece near the rear wheel that holds the chain in place was cracked in half.  Having only about ten bucks left at the time, I faced the devastating fact that I would probably not be able to get it fixed.

This may not seem like a huge deal to most, however, a bike is an extremely valuable possession to someone in this type of living situation, and to me the most.  Being able to get downtown each day is imperative for campers to get food, showers, and other services.  While the site was conveniently located directly next to a bus line, I could not afford to the fair out and back each day.  I realized I would have to walk the three miles to downtown most of the time that takes about an hour.  Campers left without adequate transportation options, especially those with disabilities, often become stranded at camp, which can become depressing.  This is why it is essential that tent cities remain in close proximity to the city rather than common practice of pushing them further away (see any sanctioned tent city for an example).

Pissed off, I chained my bike to the nearest sign and got on an incoming bus since I had a meeting to get to.  I paid the $1.50 and took a seat in the back where I could dwell on my current plight.

After getting some dinner I decided to walk back to camp instead of spending more money on the bus.  I passed my sad looking bike along the way and began to push it back towards the highway ramp.  Walking into the camp someone asked me how my day was and I explained what had happened.  We began to look at the break near the community space, which caught the attention of some others back at camp.  Austin approached us and identified the broken piece as a rear derailleur.  He told us that he used to work on bikes back in the day.  While Austin was usually reserved around me, he became very energized with the chance to provide assistance on a problem he was knowledgeable about.  There was a good amount of old bikes lying around so he suggested we replace my broken one with a derailleur off of one of them.  However, we had to remove my broken one, which took a specific tool that neither of us had.

To solve the problem we walked over to find Ethan, a military veteran staying at the camp with a wide selection of tools.  He brought over a large case and sifted through them to find the right fit.   Handing it to me I was able to easily remove the broken piece, and then start to try to attempt to replace it with a derailleur from one of the old, unused bikes.  We soon found out none of them fit properly and that I was still out of luck.

The next day I met up with Caleb who, upon hearing about my transportation woes, took me to the bus station and helped me get a “Fare Deal” card.  This reduced my bus fare to only $0.75 making it much easier to get around.  I’ll probably still have to walk sometimes but I figure I can panhandle a few quarters easy enough.

While my most important possession was still busted, I felt better about the situation knowing there was a community of friends behind me when I faced a setback.  It also reaffirmed my belief that the horizontal organization of the tent city model promoted collaboration and working together.  This is not only beneficial for the one in the predicament but also for the problem solver, since all of us have a desire to be useful.

Horizontal Organization

Almost every other account of a tent city I have read offers a sympathetic and therefore demoralizing perspective.  However, through my experience, I found many positive qualities that come with living in a tent city.  I plan on adding a series of posts that highlight these benefits.  The first is horizontal organization.

In the traditional homeless shelter system a top-down approach is almost always taken.  People are employed to provide services that the homeless take and receive. The help comes from above and people aren’t left with much to give to their neighbor. There is typically a rigid set of rules that determine who can receive the service, at what time, and for how long.  It is easy for many to fall into the trap of the inflexible routine of these types of services.

Contrary to the traditional system, the tent city model is based on horizontal organization.  This system is based on the idea of homeless people directly helping homeless people.  Through Caleb’s experiences as a tent city organizer, he has found that one of people’s strongest desires is not just to receive but to also be a provider.  He emphasizes, “The ability to have something to give laterally to your friends next to you is something that is very healing for people.” It is something that can be liberating to anyone, not just the homeless.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Santa Cruz Sleeping Ban

A new ordinance in Santa Cruz I stumbled upon:


No person shall camp anywhere in the city of Santa Cruz, whether on public or private property, except as hereinafter expressly permitted. “To camp” means to do any of the following:

(a) Sleeping – 11 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. To sleep at any time between the hours of 11 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. in any of the following places:

(1) Outdoors with or without bedding, tent, hammock or other similar protection or equipment;

(2) In, on or under any structure not intended for human occupancy, whether with or without bedding, tent, hammock or other similar protection or equipment;

(3) In, on or under any parked vehicle, including an automobile, bus, truck, camper, trailer or recreational vehicle.

(b) Setting-up Bedding – 11 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. To establish or maintain outdoors or in, on or under any structure not intended for human occupancy, at any time between the hours of 11 p.m. to 8:30 a.m., a temporary or permanent place for sleeping, by setting up any bedding, sleeping bag, blanket, mattress, tent, hammock or other sleeping equipment in such a manner as to be immediately usable for sleeping purposes.

(c) Setting-up Campsite – Anytime. To establish or maintain outdoors or in, on, or under any structure not intended for human occupancy, at any time during the day or night, a temporary or permanent place for cooking or sleeping, by setting up any bedding, sleeping bag, blanket, mattress, tent, hammock or other sleeping equipment or by setting up any cooking equipment, with the intent to remain in that location overnight.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Organic Growth of Tent Cities (Part 1)

I just finished reading Cristopher Alexander's A New Theory of Urban Design (1987), which I found directly applicable to tent cities.  The book takes an anti-masterplanning stance towards urban design and instead emphasizes organic growth, similar to a living organism.  "The Idea of a Growing Whole" is the central theme of the theory.

"What happens in the city, happens to us.  If the process fails to produce wholeness, we suffer right away.  So, some how, we must overcome our ignorance, and learn to understand the city as a product of huge network of processes, and learn just what features might make the cooperation of the processes produce a whole (19)."

Alexander proposes a single over riding rule to be followed:

Every increment of construction must be made in such a way as to heal the city.

After this, seven intermediate rules of growth are introduced:

1. Piecemeal growth
"It is necesssary that the growth be piecemeal, and furthermore that the idea of piecemeal growth be specified exactly enough so that we can guarantee a mixed flow of small, medium, and large projects in about equal quantities."

2. The growth of larger wholes
"Every building increment must help to form at least one larger whole in the city, which is both larger and more significant than itself."

3. Visions
"Every project must first be experienced, and then expressed, as a vision which can be seen in the inner eye (literally).  It must have this quality so strongly that it can also be communicated to others and felt by others, as a vision."

4. The basic rule of positive urban space
"Every building increment must create coherent and well shaped public space next to it."

5. Layout of large buildings
"The entrances, the main circulation the main division of the building into parts, its interior open spaces, its daylight, and the movement within the building, are all coherent and consistent with the position of the building in the street and in the neighborhood."

6. Construction
"The structure of every building must generate smaller wholes in the physical fabric of the building, in its structural bays, columns, walls, windows, building base, etc. in short, in its entire physical construction and appearance."

7. Formation of centers
"Every whole must be a 'center' in itself, and must also produce a system of centers around it."

My next step is to map the tent city in Ann Arbor and see how these rules have been applied.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Day 2

I woke up the next morning and changed into some fresh clothes. Grabbing a bagel that had been brought by a girl scout troop the day before, I headed out on my bike towards downtown again. I met a couple fellow MISSION members, Jason and Lin, at a coffee shope before heading to a CTN Safety Committee Meeting.
The meeting was with representatives from Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), Michigan State Police (MSP), and Washtenaw County Police to discuss a recent incident and the current status of CTN.

Since there have been no further complaints from the public, MDOT is not currently concerned about CTN being on their land. However, the representative made it clear that if the camp became a liability this would change. MSP was pleased to hear about progress towards a viable land alternative and that the camp was not remaining stagnant. Since CTN is located on state land, the Washtenaw County Police do not have the right to take action on the camp without permission from MDOT and MSP.

One concern MISSION had is that campers do not feel safe calling the police after an incident, such as a physical fight, out of fear that everyone would be evicted. Caleb requested that the police department provide a liaison that could develop a relationship with the camp, making the residents more comfortable.

After the meeting I went with Jason who showed me a bike shop where I could fill up my tires for free. Jason is a doctoral student of anthropology who is also doing research on tent cities and also, as he put it, a "tent city nerd." It was refreshing to find someone else who had been looking into the issue and we ended up talking for much of the remainder of the day.

It was dinner time so I headed to the local shelter, the Delonis Center, that evening for a free meal.  On the way I passed Lin, who was playing violin on the street in front of a sign that read "shelter is full, sanctioned land for the homeless."  I signed her petition to president Obama and continued on my way to Delonis.  It was my first real meal since I had been in Ann Arbor so it was much appreciated.

Returning to camp I met Ray who is currently head of security at CTN.  I introduced myself and told him a little about why I was there.  He provided me a seat outside of his tent and we talked about radical ideas and living outside the grid – even though it surrounded us. He also told me some interesting stories about previous living situations that included Tompkins Square Park just before the riot in 1988 took place. His plan now is to find some work and save up for two or three years. After that, he hopes to purchase a cheap piece of land in northern Michigan where he can make art, grow his own food, and live peacefully.

We moved over to the community space where a fire was burning and talked with a couple other campers before returned to my tent for the night.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Living in a Tent City

After my first trip of visiting tent cities I had originally intented on heading to the west coast to see some out there.  However, the National Coalition for the Homeless released a report Tent Cities in America: A Pacific Coast Report that has already documented these very well.

Instead I decided to concentrate more on on a specific site, so I returned to Camp Take Notice (CTN) in Ann Arbor.  I plan on staying in the tent city for a period of time in order to observe and help out the where I can.  With me I brought 30 dollars, identification, a small amount of food, and basic camping necessities.  I also brought my camera and sketchbook so I could better document my experience.

I will not use real names in order to protect the privacy of the individuals I meet.

Day 1: Moving in

I arrived in the afternoon and was dropped off on Wagner Rd. with my stuff.  Hopping the gaurd rail, I headed down the path that leads to the wooded piece of land near the highway.  The camp had not changed much since my visit a few weeks ago and there were not many people there as it was during the day.  I began to look for a space to set up my tent when I met Nick who helped me find a place. 

There weren't any cleared spots available so he brought out a rake and shovel to help me clear a small space near his spot.  I spent most of the next hour constructing my new home, which I plan to further develop over the next few days.

While I had brought my own tent, CTN will provide you one in the case that you don't.  I was told that whenver a new person arrives whoever is around and has time will help them find a spot and make sure they have their basic needs met.  I hadn't brought a pillow so Nick insisted that I take one of his extras.

After getting a little dirty setting up my site, I ventured back up the trail to the road with my bike.  I rode about three miles to the downtown public library where a MISSION meeting was being held.  MISSION is a non-profit organization that is collaboration of tent city residents and homeless advocates.  Topics such as budget, fundraising and land sponsarship were discussed.

I headed back to camp as it was getting dark and returned to my tent.  I had missed dinner so I had a few handfuls of trail mix and water. The day had worn me out so I began to fall asleep to the sounds of cars speeding by on the adjacent highway.