Could Legal Homeless Camps Work in Salt Lake County?

Candice Madsen, Deseret News

Tent City 5, seen here in May 2017, is one of six homeless camps authorized by the city of Seattle and located on municipal land.

SEATTLE — On any given night in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, between 2,000 and 3,000 people can be found sleeping on the streets, under bridges and overpasses, or in abandoned buildings.

Those staggering numbers have forced mayors in both cities to declare a state of emergency on housing and homelessness, and look for immediate solutions that are somewhat unorthodox.

The Deseret News recently visited the cities to see if some of their new sheltering strategies could work in Salt Lake County.

For Robert Bowen and his wife, home is not a house but a tent — and they are grateful for it. They are residents of Tent City 5, one of Seattle’s six city-sanctioned homeless camps.

“You have your own privacy, your own little home,” Bowen said.

Seattle government agencies provide most of the funding for the encampment, which includes a communal kitchen, portable restrooms, 24-hour security and a code of conduct. No drugs or alcohol are allowed.

“As long as you maintain a code of conduct, you can stay here as long as you want to,” Bowen said.

The camp can accommodate up to 75 people. The Low Income Housing Institute offers residents access to social workers and also carries an insurance policy for the camp, freeing the city from liability.

The institute manages several Seattle homeless encampments in partnership with Nickelsville, SHARE/Wheel and the city.

Other sanctioned camps in Seattle are completely independent from the city. Camp United We Stand rotates between properties owned by different churches.

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“We have to move every three months from church to church,” camper Alicia Roberts said.

Roberts used to sleep in her car, she said, because she was afraid to stay in a shelter. But then she was always fearful that police would make her move.

Now, Roberts sleeps through the night in peace.

“Finding stability when you are homeless is really complicated,” she said, admitting that she’s not ready to return to mainstream society.

“I’m scared to get back on my feet and get back into the world again,” Roberts said.

Today, she’s a member of the camp’s executive committee, a leadership role that she says has helped her regain her confidence.

Besides offering an alternative to a traditional shelter, sanctioned camps also allow couples to stay together who might otherwise be separated.

Seattle city officials have allowed the sanctioned camps in return for a stronger enforcement of no-camping laws.

But not everyone is a fan.

Tent City 5 neighbor Cindy Pierce is suspicious of camps run by the homeless and said she believes “nobody should be living under tarps.”

That is where Seattle’s tiny house strategy comes in.

Tiny home villages

They look like playhouses at first glance, but the 14 sleeping pods measuring 120 square feet have doors that lock and provide the homeless with much-desired privacy.

The houses cost about $1,500 to $2,500 to build and were all donated. The entire village the Deseret News visited took only six months to zone and construct.

While the village looks welcoming, the goal isn’t to get people to stay.

The most important thing is that it not be a dead end,” said Sharon Lee, executive director with the Low Income Housing Institute. “Last year, 161 people moved into housing, and over 100 people were employed, and so it has been wildly successful.”

The institute manages this camp in partnership with The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd.

“This is costing the city or taxpayer nothing to operate basically because it is church-owned,” Lee said, “and then as a nonprofit, we do fundraising and all the houses.”

All the pods are equipped with electricity, and residents pay $90 per month to stay.

Seattle state Sen. Mark Miloscia said he supports the sanctioned camps for now, but he tried to pass a bill that would ban them again in three years.

“We can only do this for three years, temporary encampments, get people out of the unauthorized encampments, move toward tiny homes,” Miloscia said. “We have to get rid of all the temporary structures, period.”

Portland encampments

Portland’s newest set of tiny houses for the homeless are on display near the Oregon Convention Center.

“We know different sheltering strategies work for different people,” said Mac Jolin, director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services for Portland and Multnomah County.

This summer, the 14 sleeping pods will be moved to a Portland neighborhood.

The Kenton Village “is actually unique in that over a several-month process we engaged the neighborhood around the possibility of hosting an outdoor sheltering community,” Jolin explained.

Neighborhood residents voted 178-75 in favor of the village, which will serve only women, function like a shelter, and include on-site offices for social workers and service providers.

“This most recent village that we are doing is a partnership with Catholic Charities,” Jolin said.

The village is organized as a nonprofit, and Catholic Charities will manage the day-to-day operations of the village. Portland will provide the land that at some point in the near future will be repurposed into affordable housing.

All the tiny homes were built from donated materials.

“We had one of our local universities do a design competition to create the sleeping pods,” Jolin said.

The one-year pilot program “is a tremendous opportunity to use that space as a low-cost shelter environment, work at this notion of creating community, and work with the women who are there to transition to permanent housing,” he said.

Dignity Village

At least 11 U.S. cities now have tiny house homeless villages. Many were organized using Portland’s Dignity Village as a model.

Around since 2001, it is the longest-existing homeless village in the U.S. and serves as both transitional housing and an intentional community.

Dignity Village council member Scott Layman has lived there for seven years.

“We try to keep people in line that this is transitional housing, it is not meant to be nor should it ever be permanent housing,” Layman said.

Most residents eventually move into permanent housing, he said, as will he and his wife “as soon as we feel somebody can step up and do what we are doing.”

Layman credits the village’s strong sense of community and peer support with helping him get back on his feet. Traditional shelters, he said, don’t offer that.

“It’s a bunch of beds in a room,” Layman said of such shelters.

All residents of Dignity Village must contribute 10 hours of labor to the maintenance of the village and pay $35 a month to cover the cost of utilities and liability insurance.

The village operates as a nonprofit organization and is managed entirely by the residents, which Layman said gives those who live there a feeling of self-worth.

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