This page is a work in progress
My name is Chris Johnson, and I am but one member of a grassroots housing related planning/action group that has just decided to call itself the Temporary Autonomous Shelter Collective (TASC). We are a diverse group of housed, unhoused, and unstably housed people who are working together to create and implement an action plan to create alternatives to the street, hospital, jails and homeless shelters.
I am but one voice on this ad-hoc council, and can only represent my own thoughts and ideas. The following article is a report to the planning group based on research that I am conducting into the creation and formation of sanctioned spaces where homeless people can erect tents or other simple structures. My research is on-going and still being organized. and this page is not ready for redistribution. If you've stumbled upon this page, feel free to read it and follow any interesting links you find, but don't copy or quote from it yet.
The Need for Temporary Autonomous Shelter Collectives
From the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness Website:
"In May 2007, Mayor (Alan) Lowe struck a short-term, 120-day task force to recommend a service model and business plan that would provide better assistance to residents challenged with mental illness, addictions and/or homelessness. Chaired by Victoria Councillor Charlayne Thornton-Joe, the Mayor's Task Force was charged with breaking down the issue of homelessness in Victoria and developing a new service delivery model that will be a substantial shift in the way we all respond to our community's social and health challenges.
The Task Force recommendations frame an action plan that aims to reorganize support and services and deliver them in a more effective way to help people get well and integrated into the community. As a result of this exhaustive work, the community has rallied and the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness was announced in February 2008."
The executive summary of this report contained the following 'key findings'
"• Of these 1,500 homeless residents, approximately 650 have a substance use disorder,
approximately 420 have a mental illness, and some 430 are thought to have co-occurring
• Homeless people with severe mental illnesses and/or substance use problems are
generating significant public disorder complaints in the downtown core.
• Tourism Victoria, the hotel and restaurant industry and the Downtown Victoria Business
Association (DVBA) all report increased complaints from visitors about the visible
homeless in the downtown.
• Although actual criminal activity in the downtown has decreased, drug activity and the
downtown homeless problem were recently identified as the number one issue by
• Increased policing without concurrent investment in supported housing results in
relocation of the homeless population to other parts of the community or region, but
does not decrease their numbers or the acuity of their health and other problems
• Significant city and police resources are being spent managing and cleaning up after the
downtown street population—at the cost of providing services elsewhere in the community
• Downtown business owners, churches and government offices are hiring private security
and paying for additional cleaning to mitigate the impact of the downtown homeless
population in and around their properties.
• The current Extreme Weather protocol, which expands the number of indoor beds and
mats on floors, provides indoor shelter for a maximum of 326 people, leaving over 1,000
homeless residents to sleep outdoors.
• Without the addition of sufficient supported housing units, the homeless population in Victoria
is expected to increase by 20-30 per cent per annum (300-450 additional people each year).
• There is a great deal of public frustration and anger about the public disorder, damage to
private and public spaces, chaos and violence on downtown streets.
• The root causes of homelessness (substance use, mental health, poverty, cognitive
impairment, FASD, etc), and how these can result in and exacerbate homelessness, are not
well understood or accepted by some.
• Others understand and accept the root causes very well, but are completely fed up with
the disruption and chaos on the streets.
• The public and the police are frustrated by a legal and court system that does not seem
to provide effective tools to deal with criminal activity related to drugs.
• The business community is ready and willing to do its part but need direction on how to act.
• The service provider community is already working on a common vision for service
A quick analysis of these findings seems to reveal that the primary motivating factors behind the Task Force (and now the Coalition to End Homeless) are the elimination or mitigation of public disorder, crime, 'chaos', violence, cost of policing and clean-up, and impact to property.
The task force report thus focuses strongly on low barrier supportive housing for homeless people with severe addictions and mental health issues. (According to this and other surveys conducted in Victoria, this is the largest segment of the street population.)
It is to be expected that the Coalition to End Homelessness will follow through on their plan to solve the problems of the business community and set about providing supportive housing for the most high needs individuals.
It is thus also expected that the population least likely to be served by the efforts of the Coalition are people not targeted as a threat to public order.
According to the task force, the number of people seeking emergency shelter will continue to increase in the next few years.
To give credit to the City of Victoria (who only carry a portion of the funding responsibility for this issue along with the provincial and federal governments), plans are underway to create real solutions, not just band-aids. It is finally being recognized that not only is supportive housing a more affordable solution, but it is the only way that some people will be able to escape life on the streets.
However, until such time as sufficient amounts of permanent affordable and supported housing are created, there remains a need to provide temporary emergency shelter. Not only that, but the need also exists to create alternatives to the kind of emergency shelter that is provided in this and other North American cities.
While homeless shelters, as we know them now, provide respite and stepping stones to many homeless people, their design excludes a significant number of homeless people. During the recent cold spell that happened in Victoria, outreach workers struggled to convince many people to come inside. Citing reasons such as the inability to stay with spouses, partners and pets, as well as safety, health and hygiene concerns, there are hundreds of people who [choose to sleep rough outside rather than come into a shelter.
One Possible Alternative
One possible solution to this problem, and one that is inexpensive and quick to implement, is known in North America as a 'tent city.'
The wikipedia entry for tent cities reads "The term tent city is used to describe a variety of temporary housing facilities made using tents. Informal tent cities may be set up without authorization by homeless people or protesters. As well, state governments or military organizations set up tent cities to house refugees, evacuees, or soldiers. Tent cities set up by homeless people may be similar to shanty towns, which are informal settlements in which the buildings are made from scrap building materials."
At any given time, there are hundreds of small tent encampments across North America. Occasionally tent cities are erected publicly, in an effort to gain support from the community, as well as the authorities, who overwhelmingly reject the concept as unmanageable and a magnet for crime.
There are however, a small handful of tent cities that have overcome this perception, have worked to mitigate the possible issues of crime and disorder, and have gained the acceptance of the community and the municipal government.
The most successful of these tent cities, Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon, has evolved to a city-recognized "campground" as defined by Portland city code.
Started in 2000 by a group of community activists, Dignity Village won a hard-fought donation of city-owned land near the airport, seven miles from the downtown core.
Around the same time that Dignity Village was transforming from a transient tent encampment to a small village featuring semi-permanent structures, elected community officials and crude but functional cooking, social, electric, and sanitary facilities, another tent city in Seattle became the next city sanctioned encampment.
From the 'Tent City 4' Wikipedia entry:
"The original Tent City and Tent City 2, both created in the late 1990s, were created illegally and opposed by the City of Seattle. After being tolerated for some time, they were eventually forced to shut down. In March 2002, as a result of a legal battle, city attorney Tom Carr and SHARE/WHEEL attorney Ted Hunter signed a court ordered consent decree with SHARE, allowing Tent City only on private land (by invitation) and setting standards for its operation.
Based on the consent decree Tent City 3 was created and rotates around the Metro Seattle Core. Tent City 4 was created in May 2004 as an attempt to expand beyond the consent decree and use public land and resources, something the consent decree does not allow. This attempt was unsuccessful and Tent City 4 has since been relocated to eastern King County where it is church sponsored. Tent City rules do not allow drug or alcohol use, and evicts anyone caught stealing or committing other crimes within the camp. Stays for Tent City 3 have been around 3 weeks on average while Tent City 4 has had stays as long as 100 days. Cities have been adopting code amendments that limit stays to 60-90 days."
The latest tent city to be officially recognized is also in the state of Washington, in Olympia.
From the 'Camp Quixote' website:
"Camp Quixote was initially created (in February of 2007) to protest the new sidewalk law passed by the City of Olympia. As the street community watched their access to public space shrink, they gathered to organize and stake their claim to exist - openly and without shame.
Though the camp was born of a confrontation, its goal was full inclusion in the wider community. Moved by the courage -and the need- of the campers, the local Unitarian-Universalist Congregation stepped up and offered to host the camp. Since then, Camp Quixote has been hosted by The United Churches of Olympia, St. John's Episcopal Church, and the First United Methodist Church. The camp is scheduled to move to the First Christian Church (Disciples) shortly after Christmas.
The City of Olympia, which initially opposed Camp Quixote -describing it as a "poke in the eye"- quickly turned from its position to embrace and support the camp. The City passed a very generous temporary ordinance in August (2007) permitting and regulating the existence of tent cities. That ordinance will soon be replaced by a permanent law."
Both Camp Quixote and Tent Cities 3 and 4 rotate between various church parking lots. It is considered unconstitutional in some cases for a municipality to interfere with church operations, and this is what led the city of Olympia to negotiate with Camp Quixote.
Jumping Through The Hoops
If the current sanctioned tent cities in Oregon and Washington are to serve as examples, we will need to apply certain guidelines in order to have the encampment sanctioned.
Tent City 3, Tent City 4, Camp Quixote and Dignity Village, the only existing sanctioned encampments of this kind, all share a similar set of requirements.
These include criminal record checks, and refusal of entry to anyone with warrants or sex offense records, as well as a prohibition of drugs and alcohol on site. These restrictions are not only required by the city for zoning purposes, but are the result of extensive consultation with the neighbourhoods in which the tent cities have and are being hosted in, as well as citizen advisory committees studying the issue.
We have witnessed for ourselves here in Victoria the potential for 'NIMBYism' with the Woodwynn Farm project, and a Code of Conduct can go a long way towards gaining the acceptance of neighbours whose fears can create serious obstacles to the idea of a tent city.
While these restrictions do not exclude people with addictions from living in the encampment, they constitute barriers, and when combined with a lack of on-site supports, could exclude such an encampment from being considered a priority in the city's plan to 'End Homelessness'.
On the other hand, with so much attention and funding being directed to supported housing for high needs individuals, there appears to be a need for programs that cater to a more independent segment of the street population who might otherwise fall through the cracks.
The following, from the City of Tumwater, WA is a list of the requirements for tent cities applying for a temporary use permit. It is based on previous requirements in other cities, and is pretty much the standard for sanctioning.
- Advance Notice Required. The sponsoring agency shall notify the City of the proposed homeless encampment a minimum of thirty (30) days in advance of the proposed date of establishment for the homeless encampment. The advance notification shall contain the following information:
a. The date the homeless encampment intends to encamp;
b. The length of encampment;
c. The maximum number of residents proposed;
d. The host location; and
e. The names of the Host and Sponsoring Agencies.
- Public Meeting Required.
The sponsoring agency shall conduct at least one (1) public information meeting within, or as close to, the neighborhood where the proposed homeless encampment will be located, a minimum of two (2) weeks prior to the issuance of the temporary use permit application. The time and location of the meeting shall be agreed upon between the City and sponsoring agency. All property owners within 300 feet of the proposed homeless encampment shall be notified by mail a minimum of 14 days in advance of the meeting by the sponsoring agency. In lieu of notice by mail, and with the approval of the City, an alternative means of notice may be provided that is reasonable calculated to notify the neighboring property owners within 300 feet of the proposed encampment.
- Site Criteria.
a. If the sponsoring agency is not the host agency of the site, the sponsoring agency shall submit a written agreement from the host agency allowing the homeless encampment.
b. The property must be sufficient in size to accommodate the tents and necessary on-site facilities, including, but not limited to the following:
1). Sanitary portable toilets in the number required to meet capacity guidelines;
2). Hand washing stations by the toilets and by the food areas;
3). Refuse receptacles; and
4). Food tent and security tent.
c. The host and sponsoring agencies shall provide an adequate water source to the homeless encampment, as approved by the City.
d. No homeless encampment shall be located within a Sensitive/Critical area or its buffer as defined under Title 16 of the TMC.
e. No permanent structures will be constructed for the homeless encampment.
f. No more than 40 residents shall be allowed. (other municipalities permit up to 100) The City may further limit the number of residents as site conditions dictate.
g. Adequate on-site parking shall be provided for the homeless encampment. No off-site parking will be allowed. The number of vehicles used by homeless encampment residents shall be provided. If the homeless encampment is located on a site with another use, it shall be shown that the homeless encampment parking will not create a shortage of on-site parking for the other use(s) on the property.
h. The homeless encampment shall be located within a quarter (1/4) mile of a bus stop with seven (7) days per week service, whenever possible. If not located within a quarter mile of a bus stop, the sponsoring agency must demonstrate the ability for residents to obtain access to the nearest public transportation stop (such as carpools or shuttle buses).
i. The homeless encampment shall be adequately buffered and screened from adjacent right-of-way and residential properties. Screening shall be a minimum height of six (6) feet and may include, but is not limited to, a combination of fencing, landscaping, or the placement of the homeless encampment behind buildings. The type of screening shall be approved by the City.
j. All sanitary portable toilets shall be screened from adjacent properties and rights-of-way. The type of screening shall be approved by the City and may include, but is not limited to, a combination of fencing and/or landscaping.
a. An operations and security plan for the homeless encampment shall be submitted to the City at the time of application.
b. The Host Agency shall provide to all residents of the homeless encampment a Code of Conduct for living at the homeless encampment. A copy of the Code of Conduct shall be submitted to the City at the time of applications and shall be in substantially the following form or address the following issues:
1). Possession or use of illegal drugs is not permitted.
2). No alcohol is permitted.
3). No weapons are permitted.
4). All knives over 3 and one-half inches must be turned into the Encampment Manager for safekeeping.
5). No violence is permitted.
6). No open flames are permitted, except within a common cooking facility if approved in advance by the fire department.
7). No trespassing into private property in the surrounding neighborhood is permitted.
8). No loitering in the surrounding neighborhood is permitted.
9). No littering on the Homeless Encampment site or in the surrounding neighborhood is permitted.
Nothing in this Section shall prohibit the Host Agency, Sponsoring Agency or Encampment Manager from imposing and enforcing additional Code of Conduct conditions not otherwise inconsistent with this Section.
c. All homeless encampment residents must sign an agreement to abide by the Code of Conduct and failure to do so shall result in the noncompliant resident’s immediate and permanent expulsion from the property.
d. The sponsoring agency shall keep a log of all people who stay overnight in the encampment, including names and birth dates, and dates of stay. Logs shall be kept a minimum of six (6) months.
e. The sponsoring agency shall take all reasonable and legal steps to obtain verifiable ID, such as a driver’s license, government-issued identification card, military identification or passport from prospective and existing encampment residents.
f. The sponsoring agency will use identification to obtain sex offender and warrant checks from the Washington State Patrol.
1). If said warrant and sex offender checks reveal either (1) an existing or outstanding warrant from any jurisdiction in the United States for the arrest of the individual who is the subject of the check; or (2) the subject of the check is a sex offender, required to register with the County Sheriff or their county of residence pursuant to RCW 9A.44.130, then the sponsoring agency will reject the subject of the check for residency to the homeless encampment or eject the subject of the check if that person is already a homeless encampment resident.
2). The sponsoring agency shall immediately contact the police department if the reason for rejection or ejection of an individual from the homeless encampment is an active warrant or if, in the opinion of the on-duty designated representative or the on-duty security staff, the rejected/ejected person is a potential threat to the community.
g. The sponsoring agency shall self-police and self-manage its residents and flatly prohibit alcohol, drugs, weapons, fighting, and abuse of any kind, littering or disturbing the neighbors while located on the property.
h. The sponsoring agency will appoint a designated representative to serve “on-duty” at all times to serve as a point of contact for City of Tumwater Police and will orient the Police as to how the security tent operates. The names of the on-duty designated representatives will be posted daily in the security tent. The City shall provide contact numbers of non-emergency personnel which shall be posted at the security tent.
a. The duration of the homeless encampment shall not exceed ninety (90) days.
b. No additional homeless encampments may be allowed on the same parcel of property in any 12 month period beginning on the date the homeless encampment locates on a parcel of property.
c. No more than one (1) homeless encampment may be located in the City at any time.
- Health and Safety.
a. The homeless encampment shall conform to the following fire requirements:
1). There shall be no open flames permitted, with the exception of propane heating within a common cooking facility if approved in advance by the fire department;
2). No heating appliances within the individual tents are allowed;
3). A common tent may provide community cooking facilities and services including cooking appliances for the camp, if approved by the Host Agency, the Health Department, and the fire department. No cooking appliances are allowed in individual tents;
4). An adequate number and appropriate rating of fire extinguishers shall be provided as approved by the Fire Department;
5). Adequate access for fire and emergency medical apparatus shall be provided. This shall be determined by the Fire Department;
6). Adequate separation between tents and other structures shall be maintained as determined by the Fire Department; and
7). Electrical service shall be in accordance with recognized and accepted practice. Electrical cords are not to be strung together and any cords used must be approved for exterior use.
b. The sponsoring and host agencies shall permit inspections by City staff and the Thurston County Health Department at reasonable times without prior notice of compliance with the conditions of this permit.
It is also likely that in order for us to receive city sanctioning that we will need to either form a non-profit society or seek the support of an existing society.
Confusion about cost
The City of Victoria has always been opposed to the idea of letting homeless people create their own encampments, citing policing and clean-up costs as the main factors], and declaring such solutions to be unmanageable.
During the protests that happened this fall in Beacon Hill Park as well as during the municipal election campaign, then acting-Mayor Dean Fortin claimed that a tent city would cost between $800,000 to $1,000,000 to manage.
City Spokesperson Katie Josephson, in an article in the Globe and Mail, was quoted as saying that in 2005, the city spent an estimated $114,000 managing a month-long tent-city occupation in Victoria’s Cridge Park, including police overtime, garbage hauling and reseeding a large portion of the grounds.
Residents of the Cridge Park Tent City question the methods used by the city to clean up the camp (including the use of ladder trucks to remove ropes that had been hung without such equipment) and point out that if you were to try to truck away the accumulated belongings of 100 people living in apartments, it would likely cost ten times as much. Clean-up costs were high because everyone's belongings were seized. Had the camp been allowed to remain on site, regular clean-up would have cost much less. An organized, sanctioned tent city would produce much less waste, and have proper procedures in place to deal with these issues, thus avoiding many costs to the city or CRD.
Conventional Shelter Cost
The current cost of emergency shelter in BC is between $60 to $85 per person per night, with an average of $50,000 per mat space in capital costs. For a population of 60 people (which is the population of Dignity Village), that translates to at least $1.4 million.
There is little to suggest that infrastructure costs for a resident-governed encampment of simple temporary and semi-permanent dwellings on leased, donated or hosted land, would cost anywhere near what it costs to construct or maintain large homeless shelters. (Which is quite fortunate, as we may need to rely completely on private funding).
Dignity Village Cost
In a personal conversation with this author during the municipal election campaign, Fortin claimed that Dignity Village (North America's first sanctioned tent-city, which has now evolved into semi-permanent structures) was costing the City of Portland $1,000,000 a year to maintain. However, in a recent email from a coordinator at Dignity Village, it was claimed that as far as village organizers know, the city pays nothing. The village is required by the city to pay $10,500 a year for insurance, and are responsible for all their garbage, portapottie, electric and phone costs as well as rent for the land, (which is paid TO the city.)
The City of Portland announced in 2007 that it would pay $70,000 to set up a new water and sewer hookup for the village – but given how much other city transitional housing costs, “it’s a great deal for the city,” said a city official.
Cost of Policing
The Portland Police Bureau’s Northeast Precinct commander, Bret Smith, told the Portland Tribune that he doesn’t get many complaints about (Dignity Village) from neighbors anymore – “We’ve worked through that,” he said - and police calls to the village are down about 40 percent from years past, to 52 in 2006.
(Calls include rejection and ejection of people with warrants and sex offense records, as well as calls in response to incidents directed at the village by outsiders.)
Overall, it would appear, based on the police reports submitted in city's hosting the tent cities, that there is no increase in crime in or around tent cities. Court rulings in favor of tent cities find no evidence to suggest that crime rates go up in areas hosting tent cities.
Crime rates are higher in tent cities without or before screening processes and proper communication with police.
According to the various police and municipal spokespeople, conformance with the regulations set out in the temporary use permits have served to keep the encampments and surrounding neighbourhoods safe.
Further Study on Cost
It would be a good idea, before we go any further into this planning process, to meet with city officials and ask to see their calculations for their cost of servicing such an encampment, as well as contacting officials in Portland and Seattle about the costs of the tent cities to taxpayers in those municipalities.
Beyond Tent Cities
There also exist a few other options that we can explore if we are unable to create a TTESE, or if we want to supplement the idea.
This planning process could yield a network to help locate residential back-yards that are available for camping on a short term basis. (We would need to research the bylaws regarding this.) We could also provide outreach to people in backyard camping situations after we've connected them with hosts.
Another option, and one that might be more reasonable to people who believe that tents are too substandard to be living in, is travel trailers. Again, we could locate property owners who are willing to host a trailer or two, as well as help locate donated trailers. (Or raise money to buy trailers.)
In Eugene, Oregon, The Overnight Parking Program connects people living in travel trailers and RVs to property owners who have parking space. Some property owners value this program as a way to combat theft and vandalism on construction sites, for instance.
In Austin, Texas, a group called Mobile Loafs and Fishes operates a program called Habitat on Wheels that provides homeless people with travel trailers, and is planning an RV park to host this program.
Village.org, in Los Angeles, California, operated for 13 years, providing transitional housing in small dome structures.
Dignity Village is a tent city that has evolved to include semi-permanent structures. (Camp Quixote is now looking for property so that they may follow this modeal as well.) Several other 'villages' are being planned in the US, using small pre-fab cabins to provide transitional housing.
It could be possible to by-pass the whole idea of tents and use these pre-fab cabins, or structures designed for disaster relief. At the very least, this evolution is something that every tent city should be working towards.
What is a tent? If we are allowed to have tents in a parking lot or piece of land, what is the most solid and comfortable dwelling we could use that would still be considered a tent?
Current Greater Victoria Municipal By-Laws that May Prohibit Camping in Backyards and Other Private Land
Bylaws relating to these activities were not easily accessible online, and visits to municipals offices are required to complete this part of the research.
Municipal Codes Related to Sanctioned Homeless Encampments
Citizen Advisory Commissions
City of Bothell v. St. Brendan Parish
* City of Bothell v. St. Brendan Parish – Findings of Fact & Conclusions of Law on City’s Motion for Preliminary Injunction
* City of Bothell v. St. Brendan Parish – First Amended Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief
* City of Bothell v. St. Brendan Parish – City’s Motion for Preliminary Injunction
* City of Bothell v. St. Brendan Parish – Preliminary Injunction
* City of Bothell v. St. Brendan Parish – SHARE/WHEEL Response to Motion for Injunction
* City of Bothell v. St. Brendan Parish - Memorandum of St. Brendan Parish Opposing Preliminary Injunction