Skip to main content

What tent cities say about America

By Arjun Sethi
December 23, 2013 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
A homeless person takes a drink outside of the tent encampment where he lives in Waterbury, Connecticut.
A homeless person takes a drink outside of the tent encampment where he lives in Waterbury, Connecticut.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Arjun Sethi: As Americans go home for the holidays, some homeless go to tent cities
  • Sethi: Tent cities, either makeshift or more permanent, proliferate across America
  • He says instead of helping the homeless, states are cracking down on these communities
  • Sethi: Tent cities are a reminder of America's growing income inequalities

Editor's note: Arjun Sethi is a lawyer in Washington and a frequent commentator on civil rights and social justice-related issues. Follow him on Twitter: @arjunsethi81

(CNN) -- As millions of Americans gather in their homes for the holidays, there will be those who will congregate in a different kind of home.

An abode common to other parts of the world now proliferates across America: Tent cities.

The total number of homeless people residing in tents and makeshift homes is unknown. Many of these communities are small and hidden from public view, while others claim hundreds of residents and are sprinkled through major urban areas.

Arjun Sethi
Arjun Sethi

Some, like those tucked under roadways, are temporary and relocate frequently. Their conditions are vile, unsanitary and fail to provide refuge from storms and winds. Then there are communities, such as Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon, that have a more sustained presence. The 13-year-old "ecovillage" set up by homeless people is hygienic and self-sufficient.

Preliminary findings by The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty show that tent cities have been documented in almost every state, and they're growing.

A report released by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, for example, found that homelessness and hunger rates are rising, culminating in 47 million Americans living below the poverty line. A fledgling economic recovery, high unemployment and contracting government services are largely to blame. So is the paucity -- or paradox -- of affordable housing. While homelessness is increasing, more than 10% of homes in America are empty.

Rocker reunites with homeless bandmate
What is Holiday Inflatamania?
Pope celebrates birthday with homeless

Emergency services, meanwhile, aren't filling the void. Homeless families and single adults are routinely turned away by shelter homes because of lack of bed space.

Tent cities are an organic, last resort response to crushing economic circumstances. Yet, rather than ameliorating the conditions that give rise to these communities, many states and municipalities are cracking down. While some encampments are legally sanctioned or permitted to operate on church grounds, officials routinely invoke prohibitions against public camping and sleeping to disband these encampments, leaving tenants languishing out in the cold.

Epithets suggesting that homeless people are mentally ill, lazy, criminal, violent or some combination thereof only fuels the fire.

These accusations are largely urban myth.

Most homeless people do not suffer from mental illness or drug abuse. Many homeless people have jobs but simply can't afford housing. Some tent cities, for example, cater to local economies, and many of their residents are gainfully employed. Homeless people also tend to be the victims of countless hate crimes, even though they are a protected class under numerous state hate crime statutes.

Lost in this shameful rhetoric is the fact that the right to housing is a bedrock of international law and protected by U.S. law. Some courts have held that tearing down camps when no alternative is available amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and a deprivation of property without due process of law.

That we can even stroll through our cities while some of the residents languish in squalor is hard to believe. A few decades ago, tent cities would have been unimaginable.

In 1964, a group of researchers famously roamed the parks of New York City and found only one homeless man. Fifty years later, homelessness in New York City has reached a record high. The same can be said for much of America: Homelessness has doubled since the 1980s. Those who declare that we're close to ending poverty just need to look around and see the victims of the Great Recession.

Tent cities are an ugly reminder of America's growing income inequalities. Yet, in the absence of meaningful economic reform, these self-reliant communities must not be dismantled. Nor should they be forgotten. For in sanctioning them, we risk capitulating to the epidemic of poverty and shifting our public policy from eliminating poverty to accommodating it.

This is already happening in other parts of the world. In Mumbai, India, for example, slums freckle the landscape like skyscrapers. But sprouting from the dilapidation are antennas and electrical wires. Some of the housing units have electricity, cable programming and mail delivery. And so the discussion no longer concerns extricating human beings from the slums but making the slums more habitable.

We must not succumb to America's great divide. Doing so isn't just a repudiation of the downtrodden; it's a stain on our national consciousness.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Arjun Sethi.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2334 GMT (0734 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT