About tent cities for the homeless
Exactly what should the police do when there is a complaint about homeless people camping on public or private property? Should the city support and give aid to help establish tent cities in our community?
Recent articles in the Kansas City Star brought these questions to the public’s attention. And these questions face the city’s Homelessness Task Force (HTF) as it approaches submission of a year’s effort to write recommendations for ending homelessness in this region.
(Full disclosure and disclaimer: I am a member of the task force and a consultant to the police department, but the opinions expressed here are my own. HTF members will draw their own conclusions. My view is that the Star’s coverage and opinions have been fair and helpful in highlighting an important problem.)
So about the tent cities. An annual nationally broadcast radio marathon on homelessness originated from Kansas City last Wednesday. The marathon’s host and founder, Jeremy Alderson, advocates for tent cities. On the radio broadcast, Alderson, police chief Jim Corwin, and I had a sometimes intense debate about the tent cities and the police department’s recent actions to remove people from an encampment.
Alderson’s argument is that the lives of homeless people are cut short by exposure to the elements and that it is immoral not to allow them to establish shelter for themselves in tent encampments. He also argues that ten year plans to resolve homelessness are ineffective. Alderson makes a good case, but there is another side to the argument.
The first problem is that these tent cities were set up on public property. If tent cities are allowed on one piece of public property, why not any grounds the public owns. Why not in public parks? Why not on the lawn of city hall? Why not in the parking lot at Arrowhead Stadium?
So if homeless people can set up tents, why not camper trailers? What type of construction from scrap wood should be permitted? What building codes would be waived? Would plumbing be required, etc. etc. Where and when does government decide to waive rules that apply to everyone else?
And once government has waived these rules, what liability does this create? If a homeless person dies in a fire in a poorly constructed “temporary” shelter, does the city or county have legal exposure? I believe the answer would be yes. I’m nearly certain some attorney would try to make the case (and I mean no criticism of the legal profession here.)
But the legal liability goes beyond hazards of inadequate construction. Would these “cities” be safe for its residents? Alderson says yes. I say no. An encampment of a few people may develop its own code of shared rules. But in a large encampment, the self-regulation of residents would be more problematic.
Let’s face it, we have safety concerns in neighborhoods with well constructed homes. Why would we think that nirvana would envelop tent cities. Imagine the uproar (and the lawsuits) when a homeless person with mental retardation becomes a sex slave to a predator in a tent camp.
And do we allow children to wander freely in such encampments? Do we really believe there would be no exposure to illegal drugs? Would women be more likely to be subjected to sexual abuse in such areas? I think these problems would occur.
Would sanitary conditions be adequate to prevent the spread of disease? Alderson recommends the city supply porta-potties. But the provision and maintenance of these is costly.
Alderson suggests that there are many unused parking lots of abandoned buildings that could handle tent cities. But these are private property, and it’s hard to imagine many corporations would agree to allow such encampments and for many reasons. For example, corporations would likely face legal liability for injuries on the property just as government would.
Ironically, on the radio program we discussed the tract of land where the Bannister Mall used to stand. A week after the broadcast plans were announced for development on this land. It’s really hard to imagine that the owners of this property, who have invested millions of dollars in acquisition and demolition costs, would have wanted a tent camp on the property that they would now have to remove.
Of course, there’s the NIMBY problem. What neighborhood really wants a large tent city of homeless people nearby. The tent cities aren’t likely to spring up in suburban areas anyway because there is limited transportation and access to services. So the encampments typically develop in the urban core, often near the downtown area, and then redevelopment efforts are hurt when there is a perception of dangerousness because of homeless people in the area.
It’s also my view that a few people, a very small subset of the homeless population, will choose tent living to live “off the grid.” They make money by panhandling and prefer this to working a 9 to 5 job. These individuals don’t want to go to shelters. I have no objection to this choice except that I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect the public to provide land for their tents.
There are other chronically homeless people who resist staying in shelters because they do not like living in a barracks or dormitory type of environment. They feel safer in their own tents. But the choices shouldn’t be to live in a dorm or in a tent. People should have affordable, safe housing. Everyone.
Most homeless people want real housing, and the HTF is looking for ways to help prevent homelessness and ways to restore people quickly to housing when a crisis has occurred. It is especially troubling for families with children not to have their own home. This region should set as public policy that no child will be without safe and appropriate housing. Ever.
The cycle of going to food kitchens and to temporary shelter later in the day does not address the underlying problems. Our region needs to help people overcome emergencies and avoid eviction by providing short-term help. The facts are clear that the economy’s downturn has left far too many people only one relatively minor crisis away from homelessness.
Then too, some people need and want substance abuse and alcohol treatment to help them break out of a bad pattern. We should try to do this and help people regain dignity by getting them into humane housing.
Meanwhile, the police department has to reasonably enforce the law. If there is a complaint about an illegal encampment, the police have to act. If someone pitched a tent in your front yard, wouldn’t you call the police? Of course you would.
A criticism about the recent actions of the police to remove illegal campers was that personal possessions were destroyed. Chief Corwin says that the campers were given fair warning to take their possessions and leave. Regardless, it seems reasonable to try to preserve such possessions if possible. Some local agencies have said they would try to do this, but storage space is limited.
The problem is that the campers often have quite a few things in their camps, from portable heaters to tents to boxes of other personal items. Just how much stuff should the city have to move and store when people have accumulated their possessions in an unauthorized area. Difficult problems with no easy solutions.
Jeremy Alderson is right that homeless people who are out in the heat and cold get sick and die. That’s why this region should do whatever it takes to be sure that anyone who really wants to stay properly housed should have that opportunity.
There are thousands of abandoned homes in our region. Some aren’t close to public transportation, some are in poor repair. And it’s difficult to acquire these properties fairly and legally. But it should be done. Now.
I share Alderson’s concerns about ten year plans, which give the illusion that there is plenty of time to act. But I also believe that tent cities aren’t a solution. They would give the illusion of an adequate though not preferred solution, and they are not adequate. They would create one more excuse for delaying action.
The regional Homelessness Task Force will issue its report and recommendations this summer. My hope is that the public and political will to end homelessness will lead to immediate action.
This can begin with both Kansas City mayoral candidates making a pledge that all children in our region should have appropriate housing. Not in juvenile detention when such is not warranted. Not in the custody of state workers. Not in a shelter with dozens of other people of all ages. But with their parents in a house or an apartment.
Ask them to make that pledge. Ask them to do whatever it takes to make this happen. And make it happen this year.