By: Andrew Heben
There is tremendous opportunity for sustainable practices within the tent cities organized by our unhoused populations here in the US. Instead of considering ways to improve living conditions within these marginalized communities, attention is directed towards rescuing people from their situation. This approach leaves people in an expected state of urgency and desperation to find conventional shelter, yet our stock of affordable and transitional housing continues to dwindle, and what does remain is often socially isolating and environmentally unsustainable. Rather than being rescued, members of tent cities are more often left to carry out a nomadic existence, forced by city officials to move from one space of underutilized land to the next.
A better approach may be to consider ecovillages as a model for reframing these informal settlements as a viable alternative. Let’s address homelessness and sustainability together.
Ecovillages typically have personal, social, and ecological dimensions. Many tent cities already demonstrate strong personal and social elements—especially organized ones in which a self-governing community begins to emerge. They often ban theft, alcohol, and illegal substances in order to improve living conditions within the community and lessen the likelihood of eviction by the city.
Organized tent cities practice horizontal organization where people facing similar issues work together in order to help themselves. This opportunity for participation results in what Caleb Poirier describes as “a returned sense of agency,” where people who became accustomed to being unheard all of a sudden make decisions that directly shape the community in which they live.
Mutual Support at Camp Take Notice
Caleb is the founder of Camp Take Notice in Ann Arbor. What started over three years ago as a single tent in the woods, evolved into a highly organized community of around 60 otherwise homeless individuals. After a series of relocations, the camp settled in its sixth location where it developed organically for over two years in left over space created by highways. In late June, residents returned to find state workers constructing an eight-foot fence that would prevent them from returning to their long-time home. “It's not against Camp Take Notice specifically,” said Mark Sweeney, a regional manager for the Michigan Department of Transportation, “but more to prevent a homeless encampment of any kind in this location." While some received subsidies for one year’s rent over half did not. This insufficient, short-term solution could cost the state over half a million dollars.
During the summer of 2010, I stayed at Camp Take Notice to collect some first-hand research for my urban planning thesis project on tent cities. Instead of acting as an outside observer I decided I would much rather be a participant in this alternative community. Among other things, I found a prevalent gift, barter, and sharing economy in which goods and services were regularly traded without monetary exchange.
A fine example of this came during my lowest moment while staying at the camp. As usual, I started the day by winding my bike up the forested trail, over the guardrail, and began to ride on the bridge over the highway. A large truck approaching from behind caused me to swerve and scrape the curb. Looking down, I saw the piece that holds the chain in place had cracked in half. With only a few dollars I realized I would probably not be able to get it fixed during the rest of my time there.
For most this would not be a huge deal, but a bike is an extremely valuable possession in this situation. Being able to get downtown each day is imperative for campers to get food, showers, and other services. I chained my bike to the nearest road sign and got on a bus since I had a meeting with the camp’s nonprofit organization that afternoon.
After the meeting I walked the three miles back to camp to save bus fare, picking up my dejected bike along the way. As I entered camp, someone asked how my day was. I explained what had happened. As we examined the bike near the community's gathering area others joined us, including Dave who identified the broken piece as a rear derailleur. He said he had worked fixing bikes for years.
Usually reserved around me, Dave became quite engaged with the chance to help with a problem he was knowledgeable about. A number of old bikes were lying around so he suggested we replace my derailleur with one from an unused bike - a task for which we needed a special tool. We sought out Ethan, a military veteran with a wide selection of tools. Ethan sifted through a large case to find the right fit. I was able to easily remove the broken piece, and then start to replace it with a derailleur from an unused bike. But none of them fit my bike properly. I was still out of luck.
The next day I met with Caleb who, upon hearing my problem, helped me get a “Fare Deal” card which reduced my bus fare to $0.75. Panhandling a few quarters from time to time or recycling a few bottles was not a problem. Although my bike was still busted, I felt better about the situation knowing there was a network of friends to help when needed.
It also reaffirmed my belief in the personal and social dynamics of organized tent cities.
Individuals facing similar issues work together in community, while simultaneously creating opportunities for personal healing and growth. The person with the problem becomes part of the solution.
Where Ecovillages Fit In
A key difference in this comparison is that ecovillages are villages of choice, while organized tent cities, though autonomous in nature, are camps of necessity. Also, outside of an often unintentionally small footprint, tent cities lack the ecological dimension fundamental to ecovillages. It takes a highly motivated community to take on such responsibility, and many people believe homeless folks could never do it.
Portland’s Dignity Village disproves this. Formerly known as Camp Dignity, the group was relocated dozens of times throughout the city, but continued to demand a “third alternative” to the street or shelter. Their relentless determination earned them a stable piece of city-owned land on which the settlement has existed for over a decade, slowly evolving from a camp to a village. Mark Lakeman, an architect who helped facilitate the vision for the village, describes the transition:
“[Camp Dignity] started off as tents but immediately they were self-organized into clusters. It was a nomadic form of a village at the start. As the camp was about to transition into more permanent settlement patterns, we realized the last 10,000 years were going to play out in a decade. They were going to be able to go from nomadic hunters and gatherers in a way—since they were subsisting off of what they could find—to settling and then establishing a system of pathways, nodes, and places; creating an urban fabric that actually reflected the people who lived there.”
This vibrantly painted village of self-constructed homes and gardens sets a precedent for how organized tent cities can transform spaces into places. However, Dignity Village had a few special individuals committed to building an ecologically-minded community, which is not always the case for tent cities. I believe this lack of motivation is not due to disinterest or incapability, but rather pressure to move on to more conventional shelter.
So, rather than focus on rescuing people from tent cities, an intentional community, such as an ecovillage, could adopt these unintentional communities, thereby broadening the reach of the current ecovillage movement. We can expand sustainable communities by including those residing in tents, the most basic of shelter!
At the simplest level, ecovillages could provide political support to a local tent city as a viable alternative to conventional housing. A network of support in the larger community is a key first step. Next, campers could become involved at the ecovillage, learning practical skills to apply in their own community. Ecovillagers could hold workshops at tent camps, providing hands-on education and catalyzing the transition from camp to village. While ecovillages expand their cause, organized tent cities could learn how to build and heat small, eco-minded dwellings.
Eugene, Oregon may soon break ground on such a model. Following the dismantling of the Occupy Eugene encampment late in 2011, the city formed a task force to find “new and innovative” solutions to the city’s homeless problem. Their recommendation: “a place to be.” At an Open Space conference at the end of March, supporters of this initiative connected with members of Maitreya Ecovillage, sparking the idea of a partnership between the two. One member is excited about building tiny houses for the village, while another is interested in presenting a model for more primitive structures that would be useful in the early phase. Yet another has offered to lend his knowledge of simple food production methods. We are working now to convince the City Council.