Over the years as I’ve observed public discourse about homelessness, it has become clear that the term “homeless” is too often used as a catch-call to refer to a number of different kinds of people, categories of people who are sometimes very distinct from one another, and for whom the “solutions”, if any, to their “homelessness”, would look different.
For instance, people who become homeless when they lose their apartment after losing a job, and who are otherwise well-functioning individuals, are more likely to respond eagerly and cooperatively to services provided to them, than are individuals with serious substance issues or serious, untreated mental illness, who experience severe obstacles in being able to function in our society, or sometimes even care for themselves in a very basic way.
Yet, I’m coming to believe that even the term “homeless” may not be the most accurate description of all the people who live on sidewalks, urban parks, or under highway overpasses, whom we tend to assume lack a “home.” The term “homeless” is convenient and politically valuable for those who seek to “help the homeless” — the homeless service providers, homeless advocates, and city residents moved to help these downtrodden people with various forms of donations, aid and support. The term “homeless” makes us feel empathy — because we understand what our own homes mean to us, and we then can understand better the suffering of those who lack homes.
However, not all those who we would term “homeless” are actually without homes, particularly if we use their definition of home rather than our own. For instance we find that there are some “homeless” individuals who refuse to live indoors, even though they are offered shelter or permanent housing, and prefer to live in a tent on a certain city block in an industrial area — where they talk about the “community” they have there. I think it becomes accurate to say that in a sense, such people indeed do have homes, even if those homes — tents set on wooden pallets on a city sidewalk — do not much resemble what we ourselves think of as homes, and even if those homes are more vulnerable than ours to being lost through a city eviction and clearout of the camp.
Consider: there are many Third World countries where people’s standard homes are just as simple and rudimentary as the tents and cobbled-together structures that many “homeless” people erect in cities across the USA.
Tent camp in USA
Homeless “house” in Oahu:
Structures at camp in Portland
Village in Oakland
Whereas some homeless people simply sleep on a park bench or in a doorway off the sidewalk, others are setting up tents –some of them quite spacious — in elaborate tent communities, and still others are hauling in lumber and constructing actual houses for themselves — all on public land. This story about the “Village” homeless camp set up in city park in Oakland includes a video showing a two-story residence that one of the residents of the Village was building for himself. There were similar elaborate homes built by the “homeless” at the Albany Bulb park, such as this two-story wonder:
Given that many of these homes are actually not that much different from standard houses in Third World countries, I think to use the term “homeless” for those who live in them, is misleading.
The only difference between some of these more elaborate homes of the “homeless” in the US, compared to some of the homes we see in Third World nations, or even in impoverished parts of the US, is that the homes of the “homeless” are located on public land, instead of private land, and are not legal residences. Whereas the poor of many Third World countries, or of this nation, live in slapped-together, or run-down homes on private land, those we refer to as “homeless” have simply appropriated public land for their own use, and built their homes on someone else’s land, generally without permission to do so.
So, as the images here illustrate, I think that instead of referring to many people as “homeless”, it would be clearer to refer to them as “alternatively/illegally housed” people whose homes are illegally built on public land, land that they don’t own and have no permission to build on, land which they nevertheless are appropriating for their own use.
The distinction is worth making for several reasons. One is because it points to a way in which “homeless” people are being resourceful and “making do” by constructing their own homes, of materials that they can scavenge or which are donated, in areas which they assess that they might have a likelihood of that home remaining for a while. Secondly, calling these people “alternatively/illegally housed” points to a countercultural way of living, a creation of new communities with different values than can be found elsewhere in society, a life “off the grid” and one which many will resent because they view it as involving theft of public resources. However, not all use of public lands for residential purposes is strictly illegal, and not all of it is equally offensive to the general public. For instance the community at Slab City California,
near Niland by the Salton Sea, is a group of people who live on public land, a former military base. Because that area is so remote from any city, and is even a good distance away from the closest town, Niland, which itself is in a state of deterioration and collapse, this appropriation of public land has not caused any serious problems for government or neighboring communities. As well, however, the people who live at Slab City do not have well-off neighbors to beg from or rely on donations from, and they are far from any services, so for the most part they have to have at least a vehicle.
Third, this distinction between the “homeless” and the “alternatively/illegally housed” people is worth making because it shines more of a light on the degree to which focused intent, rather than simply desperation, may be involved in the choice that some make to live in these alternative houses in alternative/illegal “cities.” Particularly when we have people saying that they do not want shelter, they do not want the housing that a city may provide for them, but prefer to live in tents on sidewalks or in the woods, we can more clearly see an anti-social or countercultural element at work, as well as a large scale usurpation of public property for private use.
Finally, to call a group of people “illegally housed” instead of simply “homeless” helps shine a light on a problem that many “homeless advocates” in particular wish to downplay: the fact that building one’s home illegally on public property, and in effect taking public property for private use, is not a trivial thing, which finger-wagging or pleas for empathy for the homeless can overcome with sufficient ardor. Nor is it merely a technicality that the ad-hoc housing which is being built by the homeless, is housing that is illegal for human residence, legally uninhabitable, in the cities where it is found, due to noncompliance with building, zoning and planning codes, and lack of electricity and indoor plumbing or , in many cases, any nearby sanitary facilities — leading many homeless camps to be found to contain bottles of urine or buckets of human feces.
I think this is particularly important to say, given the level of entitlement among some individuals and organizations at this time, where we see the claim of the impoverished or desperate reaching further across public resources than perhaps ever before, sometimes (as in the case of the First they Came for the Homeless camp in Berkeley) even with law firms backing it up and threatening to sue the city if a the city attempts to remove the illegal housing that has been erected.
Particularly because homelessness in many cities has increasingly involved large or coordinated encampments, which are often very difficult and costly to eradicate and simply re-appear days or even hours after they are entirely cleared out by the city, I think it’s important that we not lose sight of the way that the goalposts are being moved in this context. The “homeless” in the modern era are demanding more than they would have, a hundred years ago. Many of the “homeless” aren’t content with being given shelter — they are demanding free permanent housing. And if this housing isn’t being provided to them, they are demanding the right to build tiny house communities on public land without permission, and thus enacting their own beliefs about their “right” to housing — their view that if they have enough need, they should be given a public park, or two, or more in which to permanently reside.
As seen in the video about the Village homeless camp in Oakland, the advocates of these illegally housed individuals yell “shame, shame” when their ad-hoc house structures are removed. Such actions and attitudes reveal an increasing level of entitlement about housing — the view that if one can’t afford or hasn’t the means to obtain housing in a city, one should be able to lay claim to housing in some perhaps less coveted part of the city, much in the way the homesteaders or gold miners in pioneer times simply laid a claim to land. The problem is that we no longer live in the Wild West where there is abundant space to be had by the first arrival.
Yet at the same time as we are collectively appalled at many of the “Wild West” towns cropping up on our city streets, it’s impossible for most of us to ignore or be unmoved by the desperation and need of the many who struggle to find a way to live when they cannot afford standard housing, or have substance abuse or mental health issues which greatly reduce their ability to retain jobs or housing.
In view of the great need that exists, combined with the high cost of “legal” housing, we may collectively decide to amend our laws such that some forms of housing we now term “illegal” may be re-visited. We may feel that some forms of “illegal” housing which currently is considered legally uninhabitable in our city, be viewed as better than sleeping on the sidewalk, and provide such housing for some of the most indigent. But until we have made such amendments, keep in mind that tenants are suing landlords because their homes lack heat, or fully functioning toilets, or hot water in the shower. City governments might find themselves the landlords being sued for providing uninhabitable homes, or for the consequences of people residing in such, should they decide to permit residence in structures which are uninhabitable under current law.
To sum up: in the phenomenon of homelessness as it takes shape in our country today, we aren’t dealing simply with a problem of people who lack housing and are lying down and sleeping in public places. We are dealing with an increasing number of people who are appropriating, in essence stealing, public space for their own private use. Though the elaborate “semi-permanent” homeless camps offer better shelter, and more community, for those who live in them, the usurpation of public property which is involved in their construction, as well as the crimes and nuisance that accompany large homeless camp “cities”, creates many more problems and dilemmas for both city and residents, than does simply sleeping on park benches in public places.
Update: there is an Op-Ed in Berkeleyside, the Berkeley area online news site, which addresses this same issue. See it here: