Replace the Real Power in the City–the Staff Heads–or Slog the Swamp Some More

Pushing Past the Censure/Recall Distraction at City Council

At the 10-8 City Council meeting, Mayor Watkins gave staff the usual expansive and unnecessary presentation time for prior items. She then eliminated group presentation time on the pointlessly returned censure of Krohn/Glover item. Initially refusing again to recognize a Councilmember, she again tried to hide behind the City Attorney as back-up. Failing this she cut back public comment time severely, allowing a special favored group presentation by the discredited City Commission for the Prevention of Violence to Women. I prepared this speech of which I was only permitted to read part of at the meeting:
Instead of booking the Civic Auditorium for the Council meetings expected overflow crowd, Watkins insisted (again) on using the crowded Council chambers. This resulted in further delay as people were hustled out of Council chambers, prompting angry response from former Councilmember Ed Porter who denounced the police directions as “shameful”.

Watkins several times interrupted speakers to shush audience comment. Even though speakers seemed to have no problem with the occasional public voice. In so doing, Watkins took up additional time and embarrassed the proceedings with her usual inappropriate authoritarian treatment to the proceedings.

The entire issue ended hours later, as was expected, with a 4-3 vote rejecting the censure proposal–which had not been recommended by the Rose report in the first place.

Oral Communication was subsequently cut back to a minute and a half, then one minute.

A line of tenant supporters at Oral Communications brought up the pending winter eviction of Section 8 elders and disabled folks in the Lower Ocean neighborhood. In response, Councilmember Glover made an emergency motion to put rent control/just eviction back on the next agenda. Councilmember Krohn initially second the motion, but withdrew the second when he learned it was intended to protect all tenants, not just the Lower Ocean folks. Brown and Cummings, supposedly tenant advocates, remained conspicuously silent, and Glover’s motion died for lack of a second.

This cowardly and useless strategy of going hat in hand to Mayor Watkins to put items on the agenda instead of installing the items with a 4-3 vote is sad. It seems to reflect the advise of “Progressive advisers” that the Councilmembers walk on eggshells so as not to offend Matthew’s more rabid recall supporters.

What needs to be done is to return to real issues, baldly, clearly, and repeatedly stated. Loudly, as necessary,. And by those of outside the chambers.

Wasting time with the ridiculous recall/censure discussion, talking of “reconciliation:” and “bringing the community together” is simply blind to the reality: There is a clear power division in this community between predatory commercial, real estate, and bureaucratic interests and those of renters, workers, students, elderly, and homeless folks. Recognizing that it is a power struggle that must be won is vital.

As I mention in the speech I was unable to complete, a direct action crisis approach is being taken all over the country (and indeed the world) by various movements and needs to be repeated here.

HUFF meeting-HUFF stumbles on: Wednesday June 27, 2018. 11 AM Sub Rosa 703 Pacific: Pissed On, Pissed Off and Preparing to Protest

HUFF [Homeless United for Friendship & Freedom] will meet Wednesday, 6-27 11 AM at the Sub Rosa, our normal meeting place, next to the Bike Church. 

Agenda Prospects:

  • Building Links with Neighbor Cities–the Wes White Report on the RV Struggle in Salinas and Points South
  • Reprieve for the Boneyard Barbed Wire 60; Harassment as Usual for the Many Outside: the Camper Crackdown Continues
  • Rent Control Real Estate Roundalay: the City Council Gives the Profiteers A Snack
  • Updating the Santa Cruz Guide: :
  • Echoes from Elsewhere, Compliments of Jezebel Julie S:

                 + Doing the Obvious–What Santa Cruz Won’t:
                     + Satirical Scribblings and Bitter Laughter:

                       +  Oakland Evicts Largest Northgate Encampment:
                       + Mixed-Up Murmurings from Mountain View:

                  + Lawyers Link Up in Orange County:

                       + Right-wing Riptide in Lodi: 
                           + Trapped in Miami:

  •   Support the Warming Center, Food Not Bombs,  HUFF, Conscience and Action, and other activists in documenting, providing resources, & publicizing the situation.
  •   Back up homeless efforts to organize either in protest or to demand adequate and accessible facilities.
  •   Exchange information with other supporters there to generate more communication and better solutions in the future.

The Speeches That Never Were


HUFF speech prepared by Raven Davis

The following speech was intended to be given at the Association of Faith Communities – Santa Cruz County Conference on Friday, September 5, 2014. Unfortunately, the community discussion was canceled and the AFC never got to hear HUFF’s suggestion.


First and foremost, we thank you for all of the work you’re already doing to help homeless people and for holding this conference today, dedicating yourselves to addressing the issues of poverty and homelessness in Santa Cruz County. We understand that trying to solve such a complicated and widespread issue is quite a daunting task. With that said, we’d like to offer you a simpler way to look at the matter.

We often make houselessness into a complex issue by focusing on its toughest aspects. We speak of highly vulnerable populations, such as people with disabilities or untreated mental illnesses who live on the streets; people we don’t know how to support properly. We talk about drug addicts and people who have criminal records sleeping in parks and hiding in bushes; so called “threats” to our community. We make pleas on behalf of single mothers and children without roofs over their heads; as we see our own mothers and children reflected in their eyes. We talk about the Recession and the many people forced to leave their homes in the wake of layoffs and the slow recovery of the economy.

But the truth is, all of these kinds of people exist outside of homelessness. You have members of your congregations with learning disabilities and physical handicaps. You have neighbors who have criminal records or who struggle with addiction. There are single mothers living in houses all over the city. And there are plenty of people stuck at home everyday typing up resumes and trying to find work. The only thing that makes homeless people any different from the general population is that they have no space of their own to return to at night.

Taking this into consideration, we at HUFF believe the best course of action to address homelessness in Santa Cruz is to create simple housing. Simple housing is exactly what it sounds like: a roof over your head, something to sleep on, a 24 hour restroom, and a place to shower. We would love to see the faith community come together to create and support an initiative to make 1,000 simple housing units in Santa Cruz County. Given that the 2013 Homeless Census found over 3,000 homeless people in the county, we believe that it is reasonable for us to try to serve at least a third of that population. Once again, all these people need are the basic things most of us take for granted: a roof over our heads, something to sleep on, 24 hour restroom access, and a place to shower.

We ask you for your help as we cannot do this alone. Poverty and homelessness are community issues. It will take the love and care of all of the community to resolve them. As some of the most loving, caring, and knowledgeable folks in town, we turn to you for allyship and support. If you would like to join us in these efforts and continue this dialogue, please come see me after the community talk-back is over. Once again, thank you for providing this opportunity to discuss these matters as a community. My name is Raven Davis and I’ll be here later if you’d like to talk more about HUFF’s proposal for simple housing. Thank you.

HUFF Flyer Distributed at the Event Intended Also as A Speech

Acts Beyond Words Will Create Simple Housing

Speech to the Association of Faith Communities 9-5-14 by Robert Norse

I’m also a member of HUFF. We’re mostly about restoring rights to homeless folks—rapidly disappearing rights. Rights stolen from the poor outside are ultimately stolen from all of us. We are in the midst of a historical period where one right after another, one sanctuary after another, one bench after another, is being removed in a campaign to target homeless people.


Simple housing is the most immediate need. It’s elementary, obvious, and indisputable. Homeless people need simple housing—a place with a roof over the heads a place to sleep, a place to go to the bathroom, and a place to shower. Every night people are harassed and ticketed for falling asleep outside. Their possessions are vulnerable. Their safety, health, and sanity are at risk.

Simple housing isn’t expensive. Not having it is. The City and County give away millions to homeless dispersal programs, for “security” gates and fences, for consultants and developers, for police equipment. Simple housing is what we need. And not tomorrow, but today.

We are living in a time when fear, bigotry, and greed. A time of special privilege. It hides under the labels of “public safety” and “smart solutions”. Those being offered a small amount of temporary housing while billed as “the most vulnerable” are often those who are simply the most visible and the most annoying. The ones who cost the most to businesses seeking tourist dollars. Owners angling for higher property values. Residents anxious for a view unobstructed by a poor family who park their home on a nearby street for a night. Or wait there for a church to open.

The faith community itself and those who seek the small amount of shelter that they are able to provide are under attack Attack from the more privileged and the more fearful. Some in the faith community are reeling under these attacks. The bigots would “end homelessness” by driving homeless people away. A new move to ban nighttime parking around the Circles Church is the latest such attack. When police profile folks near church programs, we sadly see church workers urging the victims not to make waves, not to bring “undue attention” to the churches.

Let’s agree we need immediately 1,000 simple housing units in Santa Cruz County. We obviously need more, but instead of “baby steps” let’s take some real steps. Without unified and determined action, things will only grow worse. Upcoming elections provide gloomy prospects. The real solution—simple housing—is something we must work and fight for. Not just talk about.

Poverty and homelessness are controversial issues that necessarily create tension in the community. We must not flee from that tension or seek to conceal it. Nor beg crumbs from those who condition their funding on denying homeless people basic rights. We need to act.

We must move swiftly to create simple housing: a roof , a bed, a bathroom, & a shower. Make sense? Raise this issue repeatedly with your bodies as well as your voices. Support those who speak up for it and take action to promote it. HUFF meets weekly on Wednesdays 11 to 1 at the Sub Rosa Cafe at 703 Pacific. Or give us a call at 831-423-4833.

This speech is the opinion of Robert Norse and does not necessarily represent that of HUFF.

Continue reading

Renters as Well as Vehicle Dwellers are the Target in Palo Alto

NOTES BY NORSE:  The Santa Cruz City Council sold out its two supposedly “rent-controlled in perpetuity” Mobile Home Parks (De Anza and Clearview Court) a decade ago under similar gentrification pressure.  (The excuse was “costly lawsuits”).  Now those living there have no equity in their homes because when they die or leave, rents will move from affordable to astronomical.
Palo Alto’s recent ban on Vehicle Habitation is another nail in the Gated Community Fence plague that is currently sweeping the country.  In Santa Cruz, Mayor Bryant’s hand-picked coterie of bigot-enablers, the Citizens Task Force on Public Safety has come up with preliminary recommendations explicitly designed to drive homeless people away and intensify the criminalization process here (See ).  For those who want to witness this obscenity in person, go to the Community Room of the police station today (10-16) at 6 PM.  Watch Fred Keeley give his blessing to this toxic nonsense.
HUFF meets today to plan protests against the Shrinking Sidewalks (11 AM Sub Rosa at 703 Pacific in Santa Cruz).  The Street Performers Guild meets 11 AM Saturday 10-19 at India Joze restaurant at 418 Front St..  Sunday’s follow-up  Tour of Shame is slated for the next day 1 PM Sunday 10-20 in front of Forever Twenty-One at Soquel and Pacific.  Speak Out at City Council Tuesday 5 PM 10-22 809 Center St.  The ordinances and possible CD protests begin October 24th.

Silicon Valley Trailer Park Residents Fight To Stay


Sunny Palo Alto, Calif., is awash in multimillion-dollar homes, luxury Tesla electric cars and other financial fruits from a digital revolution the city helped spark. The Silicon Valley city is home to Stanford University, at least eight billionaires, and one mobile home park.

Now, Buena Vista Mobile Home Park — one of the largest and one of the few remaining affordable housing options here — is threatened with closure. The owners want to to a developer who plans to build luxury apartments for the high-tech corridor’s growing workforce. The park’s low-income, mostly Latino residents are fighting to stay in their community and to keep their kids in one of California’s best school districts.

The fight shows the less-publicized underbelly of Silicon Valley’s incredible successes: unequal access to education, and the marginalization of some low-income workers.

A Good Education
“Most of us don’t really know where we’d go” if the park closed, says 28-year-old Erika Escalante, who grew up at Buena Vista and now lives in a mobile home there with her husband and 6-year-old son. “With rents in Palo Alto, it’s just impossible,” she says.

Quality public education is the main reason many of the park’s residents are fighting to stay. The Palo Alto schools among more than 1,000 districts in the state, and test scores for all ethnic groups have regularly exceeded statewide averages.

Escalante was the first in her family to graduate from college. Her sister and brother are now following her lead. Escalante’s dad worked as a janitor. She says he moved the family to Buena Vista largely because of the schools.

“He felt like we were getting the best education that he could possibly offer to us,” Escalante says. “I mean, we know that historically Hispanics are kind of disadvantaged. There’s that big education gap. And to be able to have access to that education, I mean, you can’t put a price there. We want to be able to succeed, you know, kind of like that American dream. Education is a big part of that.”

An Airstream To Call Home
Buena Vista is home to more than 400 predominantly low-income residents, more than 80 percent of them Latino.

Ringed with a jumble of potted plants, a silver ’70s-era Airstream trailer has been home to Jennifer Tello for most of her 12 years.

“My mom works cleaning houses, and my dad works construction,” she says. Jennifer’s mom is busy getting food for her baby sister before heading off to work. Jennifer says her parents struggled to find a place in the Bay Area that’s safe, affordable and has quality schools.

“They’re really good schools. My mom works really hard, and so does my dad. Sometimes they don’t have enough time to spend with us. I’m really happy that they’re really hard working. And they encourage me to work hard, so I [could] have a better job,” she says.

The park’s owners, Toufic and Eva Jisser, have petitioned the city of Palo Alto to close shop. They want to sell the land to Prometheus Real Estate Group, which wants to build 180 luxury apartments on the site. “My client has a constitutional right to exit the rental business,” says Margaret Ecker Nanda, the owners’ lawyer. Prometheus officials declined to comment.

Erika Escalante is a program coordinator for the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. She grew up in the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park and now lives there with her husband and 6-year-old son, Andre Xavier Bracamontes.
Erika Escalante is a program coordinator for the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. She grew up in the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park and now lives there with her husband and 6-year-old son, Andre Xavier Bracamontes.

Eric Westervelt/NPR

The Value Of Diversity
Jennifer Tello attends a nearby middle school. “I don’t want to move and start all over and find new friends,” she says.

The PTA, the school board, and some parents have taken action to back the park’s residents. They’ve offered supportive resolutions, organizing space, and their time. Nancy Krop, a civil rights attorney, is one of those parents. She says diversity, fairness and justice are at stake.

“I want every child to have the opportunity that my son’s going to have — and that I had,” Krop says. These kids at Buena Vista “want the world, and know they need a Palo Alto education to get it.”

Krop says she was attending a City Council meeting when one Buena Vista mother spoke up. “She mentioned that she made a living cleaning other peoples’ houses. And she asked the City Council to please allow her family to keep their home at the mobile home park because she felt that if her daughter went through the Palo Alto schools, her daughter would not grow up to clean other peoples’ homes,” says Krop. “I was really struck by that.”

Krop’s fifth-grade son attends nearby Barron Park Elementary, where 35 percent of the students are Latino and about half the students are learning English. She says the benefits of that diversity are key for her family in a city that is incredibly affluent and still mostly white.

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Second-grade teacher Vickie Boudouris goes over a worksheet in an English-learner summer school class at the Cordova Villa Elementary School in June, in Rancho Cordova, Calif. Under Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget, California schools will receive an additional $3.6 billion this year, with much of it targeted to the neediest students.

May 25, 2012

“My son has gone on play dates to homes where he found out his friend didn’t have a bedroom. His friend sleeps on a couch. He didn’t even know that that was how some kids grow up. You learn what they don’t have; you learn the richness of what they do have too — the strength of their community and culture and heritage,” she says.

Trying To Stop The Sale
The residents are asking the city to help stop the sale. They point out that city planning documents list the mobile home park as a key source of affordable housing and “encourages its preservation.” But ultimately, that may not mean much legally. Palo Alto city attorneys say the mobile home park is not counted as part of a regional affordable housing plan required by the state.

The city has twice rejected the owners’ application to close the park, largely due to incomplete details in its relocation benefits package. “There is recognition of the desire to preserve the park,” says city spokeswoman Claudia Keith. But with soaring private property values in Silicon Valley, she says there may be little the city can do. The park’s residents can appeal any final decision the city makes to an independent hearing officer.

The Buena Vista residents’ group, with help from legal aid and affordable housing organizations, offered to buy the property for $14.5 million. The owners rejected that offer.

The owners’ attorney Margaret Nanda says her client has every right to cash in on booming property values and retire. The owner was offered more than $30 million for the 4.5-acre lot. “He is not a social agency or a nonprofit. He’s a private business operator who wants to sell his property,” she says.

Nanda says her client will compensate tenants fairly under city law, but equivalent quality schools are not part of that package. “There is absolutely no right to a Palo Alto education under the [city] ordinance” for converting a mobile home park, Nanda says. “The ordinance says they are to be relocated to comparable housing. And then the ordinance references a number of things, but education is not one of them.”

‘Squeezed’ By Rising Housing Costs
Amado Padilla, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, has teamed up with the medical school to study the education, housing and health care challenges the Buena Vista residents face. Padilla notes that the residents’ struggle highlights a less-discussed part of the valley’s thriving high-tech economy: It’s driving tremendous job growth, but surging housing prices are forcing more and more working people to the margins.

“Just like police and firemen and also teachers cannot afford to live in Palo Alto, these people could not afford to live in Palo Alto if it were not for places like the mobile park home. Our service workers are getting squeezed in all kinds of directions because of the tech fields in our areas,” Padilla says.

Silicon Valley is particularly hard hit by sky-high housing prices. But the problem is serious across large swaths of America’s most populous state. New research by the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Stanford says that rising housing costs are pushing more families into poverty. According to the center’s new , 22 percent of Californians are in poverty.

At a recent potluck dinner celebrating diversity at the Barron Park school, a few blocks from the mobile home park, kids, parents and teachers ate, talked and heard songs and performances.

It’s clear the Buena Vista residents are not going away silently. With few resources of their own, they are vowing to fight to stay in the community — and schools — that they love.

But this may all come down to the hard reality of money: Buena Vista residents pay about $700 a month in rent. Palo Alto’s average monthly rental is nearly four times that amount. And the average home price here is edging up to nearly $2 million.

A FEW COMMENTS (for more go to the website):

Native Earthling

I understand exactly why they are doing it. What I don’t understand is that why people feel like they are entitled to live on a piece of land just because they’ve lived there longer over someone else who is willing to exchange his labor for the same resources, but is locked out, because of this squatter mentality.

If you read the article carefully, you’ll notice that none of the trailer park residents “feel like they are entitled” to live on the land.
They’re just trying to keep living there, which you’ve said you can understand. And they’re trying to do it legally.
What I don’t understand is why some folks will support owners and the wealthy when they seek favors from government, but denigrate renters and the poor who do so for their “entitled” “squatter mentality.”

These people pay rent, they are not squatters. There are plenty of examples where long-term renters have been kicked out of their homes because the landlord wants to sell out.

wow I imagine if you lived in a place you pay rent for, take care, and work for every day, you wouldn’t consider yourself a squatter… they are replacing these mobile homes with luxury apartments… they people who live in those apartments are no less squatters than the people who live in those mobile homes… im somewhat convinced you dont yet understand the definition of a squatter

Want to know why the trailer park people have to leave?  The stadium project is expected to open its doors just in time to host the 50th Super Bowl, in 2016, in the heart of the Silicon Valley. The airy, open stadium would have the largest lower bowl in the league, ensuring the 68,500 fans are close to the action.
The construction costs are being paid by $800 million in seat and luxury box sales, along with a 20-year, $220 million naming rights agreement with Levi Strauss and Co. announced in May.

It’s just too bad that this property owner can’t live on 14+ million. I don’t begrudge people profiting, but seriously it would be nice to hear that avarice wasn’t the driver of their motivations.

My four children grew up in Columbia, S.C. in the mid ’80’s and early ’90’s. My husband was a cardiologist and I had the incredible luxury of being a stay-at-home mom. Our elementary school, A.C. Moore, pre-k through 5th grade, was located in a neighborhood that drew kids from three distinct areas. 40% of the students came from affluent white homes, 40% several nearby housing projects, largely African-American and 20%, drawing from the University of South Carolina’s international faculty and grad-student families, spoke English, if at all, as a second language. It was the most culturally rich elementary school in the city, if not the entire state. The principal, Joanne Wilkes, was a loving and gifted leader and the teachers were beyond compare. My children learned things at that school that, much as I would have liked to be able to do, I could never have taught them. They had friends not only of all ethnic backgrounds, but of all levels of special abilities and gifts. A.C. Moore was the best experience in life and diversity and open-mindedness that my four children could have gotten and my heart breaks for those families in Palo Alto whose children stand to lose this experience. It is, whether they know it now or not, changing them into the kinds of people I would want leading this country.

They may have to pay their house keepers and janitors more if they have to drive long distances to get to work. Or they may end up like Branson Missouri where the city had to build low cost housing so people who worked the hospitality and entertainment venues had someplace to live. Many of them were were living in campgrounds before that because they couldn’t afford any of the housing in the area.

Does it really make sense to build affordable housing in the most expensive places in the country? It seems like a extremely poor use of resources.
It makes sense if the rich want maids, store clerks and hairdressers and car mechanics. Or perhaps it would be better if the privileged become more independent and learn to do these things themselves.

It may be an “extremely poor use of resources” as you put it but even the most affluent communities need garbage collectors, nurses, police officers, teachers, construction workers and trades people to service their areas. To expect these service workers to keep getting pushed farther and farther out of the community is unreasonable and eventually will get to the point where it is no longer feasible to commute. Who’s going to do those jobs then? No one unless the wages are raised to a point where these workers can afford to live in that community. Do you really think that a nurse is going to draw $200K salary? God, I wish it were true but it’s never going to happen

That’s not really how it works. Zoning and other local ordinances severely restrict what you can do with your property. In residential areas, height is limited to 35 feet, and houses must have a certain square footage. Setbacks are specified, and in some areas the local government can even specify the style and color of your house.
The owner has the right to sell the property, but the new owners must obey whatever restrictions the local government has placed on what they can do with it, and that will affect the price. If the area is currently zoned as a trailer park, then the new owner will be seeking a change in zoning. Whether or not that is granted is a matter of political influence; the money of the developers vs the political action of those wanting to retain economic and social diversity.
Yes, another approach (or simultaneous approach) is to raise the price difference. Raising an additional 15 million will take some time, though. Letting the developer know that the exemption and permitting process will not sail through is one way of gaining that additional time.
No, there is no trailer parking zoning. There is only residential or commercial. Again, the most efficient use of this plot of land is in developing condos for the engineers who will build the next facebook, not affordable housing units. Why do the trailer park tenants deserve the right to live in Palo Alto more than the hard working engineer who is willing to pay his earned millions for the good school for his children. Since when do “being here earlier” entitle you to that priviledge?

Because that’s just what we really need more than anything, another Facebook. Why is the engineer more hard-working than the cleaning lady? Because his family could afford to put him through college? As to your ‘being here earlier’ comment, I suppose we’d have to ask the Native Americans about that one.
I don’t know. Greed is evil (according to the bible).  The attorney for the owners say they just want to retire. Do you really need $30 million?
Can’t you retire on $14.5 million and give the land to the residents?

Austin OK’s Loaves & Fishes’ Sanctuary Camp; Santa Cruz Moves to Criminalize
To: HUFF yahoo groups <




NOTE BY NORSE:  Texas more liberal than Santa Cruz–or Austin anyway?   Or at least the social service provider Loaves and Fishes (which also has an affiliate in Sacramento).

Our local monopoly homeless Nanny–the Homeless (Lack of) Services Center is spending it’s money on fences, security gates, “no impact” zone enforcement, & driving away homeless people during the day from “their” Center.  They could be restoring lockers, expanding space and services, & advocating for the rights of homeless people before a bigot-heavy City Council.  The Bryant-Robinson Council has intensified its war on the poor this year with curfews, expanded forbidden zones, increased powers to expel homeless people (anyone actually) from parks and elsewhere,  unprecedented stay-away orders, and new laws that shaft street performers, artists, and vendors (as of October 24th).

Nor have most churches been helpful–though a small number are housing 20 people a night total.

Brent Adams Sanctuary Camp program has been pilloried by the usual tribe of trolls in the Sentinel (See comments after ).

Posted: 5:04 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013

County approves plans for RV park for homeless

By Farzad Mashhood

American-Statesman Staff


Travis County commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved the nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes’ plans for a 27-acre development that would house about 200 chronically homeless people in RVs, small homes and tepees.

The $8 million development, in eastern Travis County, on Hog Eye Road near Decker and Loyola lanes, abuts a pair of subdivisions whose residents have largely opposed the project. Formerly homeless people moving into the development would pay rents of $90 to $375 a month for small homes in a community that would be fenced in and include a medical clinic and a 3-acre garden.

“I’m ecstatic about it. It’s a nine-year dream come true,” said Mobile Loaves & Fishes president Alan Graham.

With the commissioners’ blessing in hand, the project needs only administrative approvals, which officials said could happen within the week.

Graham said his organization still needs to raise more than $2 million as part of the $6 million needed for the first phase of the project. He expects those funds to be raised by the end of the year as many potential donors have been holding out for the commissioners’ approval of the development plans.
Residents could start moving in by the end of 2014 and the development, called Community First Village, could be done by the end of 2015, Graham said.
Neighbors said they were concerned about the safety of living next to a development geared toward homeless people and what it would do to their property values.

With a packed meeting room with more than 50 supporters of the project and about a dozen people from neighborhoods near the planned development, commissioners heard more than two hours of discussion before their vote.

The city of Austin’s zoning and platting commission previously approved the plans in July. The project, outside Austin’s city limits, doesn’t require City Council approval.

The Austin nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes has tried for nearly a decade to create an RV park for homeless people. Some highlights include:

  • 2008: The City Council agrees to lease 11 acres on Harold Court in East Austin to the nonprofit for the project, but backs off when neighbors resoundingly object.
  • 2010: The city eyes 16 acres near the airport for the RV park, but nixes the idea when the Federal Aviation Administration objects.
  • 2010: The city considers using 24 acres near Burnet Road and Braker Lane in North Austin for the project. Neighbors balk, saying a long-term plan for the area calls for dense, urban development, not mobile homes.
  • 2013: Mobile Loaves & Fishes plans the project for 27 acres it owns in eastern Travis County. The project is OK’d by an Austin zoning board in July and county commissioners on Tuesday.

Three Articles in Defence of America’s Informal Settlements


In defence of America’s informal settlements: the campers of San Francisco

We tend to believe that wealthy countries like the United States don’t have informal settlements. Not only is this false, but it allows western governments to further marginalise an already misunderstood community. In the first of three articles on America’s informal residents, Martha Bridegam meets two residents of one such harassed community in San Francisco.
Martha Bridegam

20 November 2012
While informal settlements exist in advanced cities like San Francisco, they often take very different forms to those seen in the developing world. Here, in a scene typical of the city, a small community of informal residents cluster their RVs–recreational vehicles or caravans–discreetly together under a freeway viaduct. Photo: Martha Bridegam
In August this year, city and state authorities in San Francisco raided a camp of makeshift homes under a freeway ramp and beside a commuter rail yard near the downtown area, destroying some residents’ property and evicting them from the site.

The San Francisco Chronicle‘s Kevin Fagan described the camp this way: ‘a sprawling mini-city of tents, suitcases and makeshift Conestoga wagon-style trailers, and a 50-strong homeless population that had been there for years. It was the biggest street camp in San Francisco.’ One resident has denied it was so large, but it was certainly substantial for a town that discourages group camps.

Residents were given 72 hours’ notice to vacate but some were offered and accepted temporary city-rented hotel rooms. The San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness (SFCOH), an activist group largely staffed by precariously housed volunteers, reported the eviction proceeded relatively respectfully but later posted complaints about promised rooms that didn’t ‘pan out’.

When thousands of Americans make the same housing decision, and stick with it through cold nights and police harassment, they can’t all be suffering defects of character or logic. For them, informal housing must be the best bad deal available.

Respectfully or not, campers who didn’t leave were ordered out. Some of their property was taken to maintenance yards for later claiming; some was destroyed, in part by workers wearing paper suits and masks. After the raid the camp re-formed, but smaller and under heavier weekly harassment. From past experience as a volunteer advocate for informal campers (in part through SFCOH) I expect the size of the camp may be ratcheted down over time.

San Francisco is dotted with small clusters of makeshift homes, especially under elevated freeways and in the remaining warehouse districts. The housing may be tents, shelters built around shopping carts, or vehicles, especially older recreational vehicles (‘RVs’, American English for ‘caravans’). Police and public works staff regularly disperse these unauthorised communities and destroy portions of their property as waste. The campers regroup. The cycle repeats.

I think our officials justify clearances of camps, and conventionally housed neighbours accept them, out of civic perfectionism. They presume informal housing can’t really be necessary, not in the prosperous United States. Taking comfort from the existence of government and NGO services for homeless people, they assume these services can meet all homeless people’s needs — hence that informal housing is a choice made by people who refuse to be helped.

They are proven wrong by the quiet ubiquity of makeshift housing in San Francisco and across the United States. When thousands of Americans make the same housing decision, and stick with it through cold nights and police harassment, they can’t all be suffering defects of character or logic. For them, informal housing must be the best bad deal available.

There are indeed chances to stay indoors. San Francisco’s aid program for indigent childless adults provides accommodation for up to 27 or sometimes 33 months, though many initial placements are in shelters rather than hotels. The program typically uses old-style downtown residential hotels built during San Francisco’s post-1906 earthquake recovery. Solid shelter despite the risk of crime, noise and bugs. To keep a hotel or shelter placement, though, residents must meet paperwork requirements, follow rules on matters such as dogs, clutter and visitors, and, in most cases, pursue either paid employment or federal disability benefits.

People easily fail or bolt out of that system. Other forms of subsidised housing have long waiting lists. The city’s nightly shelters, though disliked, turn people away regularly. That leaves informal housing.

Two residents of San Francisco

The Chronicle spoke of conventionally housed people as ‘residents’ but of informally housed people as ‘homeless’. That phrasing reflects an established asymmetry: campers may see conventionally housed people as neighbours, but property owners and neighbourhood associations tend to discuss campers as inarticulate elements of a category, ‘the homeless’.

City and Caltrans policies require property of value that is not abandoned to be stored for later claiming. But Sticks said, ‘they don’t give us no option. Whatever they take, whether it’s personal or what, it’s going to the garbage.’

When I visited the camp site in October the man who welcomed me was a lifelong San Francisco native. He introduced himself as Sticks (‘I shoot pool’). Now 56 years old, he said he had lived in the camp much of the past seven years. I asked him what people called it. He said, ‘we call it home.’

Highway workers had fenced off only one small camping area. Tents and shelters had returned, though fewer than in August. (Later I met more residents: some seasoned campers, some recently homeless.)
Sticks found the August eviction less worrying than the new severity of weekly sweeps by the state highway agency, Caltrans. One such raid had destroyed his own property. ‘They took all my clothes and everything and just put it in that big-ass truck that crushes everything.’ He meant a garbage compactor truck, the kind that breaks and compresses property and takes it to the landfill, beyond recovery.

City and Caltrans policies require property of value that is not abandoned to be stored for later claiming — rules reinforced this September by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Lavan v. City of Los Angeles. But Sticks said, ‘they don’t give us no option. Whatever they take, whether it’s personal or what, it’s going to the garbage.’

For water and restrooms he said the camp relied on a public park nearby. It has an outdoor drinking fountain and an indoor restroom that closes overnight. Sticks said an unguarded tap nearer the camp had been shut off. Had residents asked for portable toilets or other amenities? He said, ‘we’ve talked to them about a whole lot of things,’ mainly through an ex-schoolteacher spokesman, but they claimed to be ‘having too many complaints.’

It’s a circular problem: there will always be complaints about crime and sanitation at an informal community if authorities approach these problems not as governance and civil engineering challenges common to every human settlement but as proof that the camp must be removed.

Sticks believed the harsher weekly sweeps were reactions to a series of maliciously set fires that followed the August eviction. Sticks and his friend Rashan, who joined us mid-conversation, said the fire-starter was not part of the camp: he was a resident’s bitter ex-boyfriend.

Rather than discuss guarding the community from further attack, Bevan Dufty, lead official on homelessness in the office of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, responded to the worst of the fires by telling the Chronicle, ‘an incident like this can make people more accepting of services, and it also sets off bells that this is not a safe place to live.’

Rationalising the eviction

Public rhetoric surrounding the eviction reflected support from a liberal-conservative consensus. Expressions of solidarity on the left and objections from the Coalition on Homelessness represented minority views.

Bevan Dufty is a popular liberal figure, formerly an elected member of the Board of Supervisors (similar to local council). Speaking to the Chronicle before the eviction, he portrayed the freeway camp as dangerous to its occupants and said city employees were reaching out to provide appropriate services and housing instead. He told the paper, ‘we’re going to say, “this change is coming and you need to think about what you want to do and can we help you figure that out.” The worst that could happen would be for 50 people to be kicked out onto the streets.’

A representative of the less liberal California Highway Patrol interviewed by a local television station spoke more bluntly: ‘mainly, it’s to remove garbage, excrement, rats, that kind of thing.’ A Caltrans spokesman told the Chronicle of plans to bar returners with a stronger fence. His comments were consistent with other Caltrans statements that portray ‘encampments’ as a problem of  trash removal. (Caltrain spokeswoman Jayme Ackemann said the commuter rail system does not own or police the freeway camp area but does remove campers from its own land, offering services when it does.)

Right-wing anti-homeless messages bloomed in the Chronicle‘s online comments. One commenter used the rhetoric of addiction recovery, which holds the addict responsible for self-improvement: ‘Enabling the homeless lifestyle is not compassion. When you make it comfortable for people to be homeless, they will stay homeless. The cops need to be tearing out these homeless encampments as soon as they crop up. The only money we should be spending toward the homeless issue are [sic] in drug rehabilitation and psychological services. That way the homeless have two options: Get treatment or move.’

Learning from the developing world

Although unauthorised settlements have legitimacy problems everywhere, it’s inspiring to consider that in some parts of the developing world, informally housed people count as ‘residents’.

Rashan responded warmly when I suggested the freeway camp might elsewhere be understood and respected as a town. He mentioned people he had seen invoking squatters’ rights during his childhood in Jamaica. ‘They would just plant a little food and put up a little shanty or whatever they could use — bamboo or wood or whatever they find … not just thrown together, I mean, well-knit, you know, I mean, well done … some people just have to live like that, you know? And a lot of them had kids and stuff and their children were always the brightest in school, just, I mean, incredible, you know?’

In San Francisco I do think formally and informally housed people may yet learn to negotiate with each other as neighbours — not beloved neighbours, just neighbours who admit to sharing the same plane of existence.

As I’ll discuss next, hard times in the United States are drawing attention to informal housing. Some punitive raids and legislation have followed, but there’s also a current of sympathy, especially for newly homeless people living in their cars. With that, I think, comes hope for improvement.


The criminalisation of homelessness and informal settlements in US cities

Why do “squatters” in houseboats become residents, but campers in tents and caravans remain “homeless” and unwanted? In her second of three essays on America’s informal residents, Martha Bridegam describes a recent increase in criminalising legislation and policing against homeless and informally housed Americans but asks, is this a short-term backlash against changes in the nature of US housing?
One of several houseboats on Mission Creek in San Francisco. In the 1960s residents of houseboats were treated almost as squatters and threatened with eviction at short notice, as campers are today, but houseboat living is now viewed as a legitimate lifestyle. If attitudes towards these erstwhile “squatters” can change, could attitudes towards campers in tents and caravans in public space also change? Might camping one day no longer be seen as “homeless” but as a legitimate form of residence, however imperfect, and campers given the chance to stabilise and improve their liing conditions as houseboat residents have done? Photo: Joel VanderWerf

The United States has seen a recent striking increase in local laws and clearance campaigns against visibly “homeless” people — a category that, to Americans, includes residents of makeshift housing  such as those I introduced here last month. Infomal shelters were not the sole targets of these campaigns but group camps and some organised “tent city” communities did suffer raids and removals.

Headlines about backlash measures suggested that poor people had become more visible as users of public space. On the other hand, with mainstream news reports full of no-fault misfortunes, such as evictions of foreclosed borrowers’ tenants, it seemed Americans might be attaching less moral blame to the loss of housing. There were hints of selective sympathy, especially for recently displaced people, those living in vehicles, and residents of orderly “tent cities”.

Campaigns against visible poverty

At that, Boden’s customary fluent profanity deserted him: he emailed a copy of a photo from a somewhat later Fresno demolition in December 2011. It showed men in paper suits kicking down makeshift plywood homes. Boden wrote, “Has she even looked at the HUD budget lately?”

As the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) reported in 2010, uses of public space by homeless people have been contested for decades through criminalising legislation and civil rights litigation. Civil rights precedents on the use of public space require that arrests be made only for discrete prohibited acts, not for characteristics such as lack of housing that were formerly defined as “vagrancy”. To get around this, modern anti-homeless laws criminalise acts such as sleeping, sitting, trespassing (including sleeping in doorways), begging, drinking alcohol, erecting shelters, or sharing food.

But mid-2012 produced a special hail of punitive local ordinances and eviction sweeps against people described as “homeless”. In May the city of Denver passed an ordinance against camping on public or private property. Camping bans are common nationwide, but Denver’s ban was especially strictly worded and represented a sharp break from the city’s prior level of tolerance. It banned “eating, sleeping, or the storage of personal possessions” in conjunction with any “shelter” consisting of tents, bedding, or “any form of cover or protection from the elements other than clothing.” Although arrests had not been made under the law as of October, just its threat was said to be clearing usual camping areas, with homeless people being “driven underground“.

In June USA Today reported on a national trend of punitive ordinances: the Denver law, talk of public space restrictions in upscale Ashland, Oregon, and a Philadelphia ban on food sharing programmes in parks — a ban defended in let-them-eat-cake style by Philadelphia mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald: “We think it’s … much more dignified … to be in an indoor sit-down restaurant.” From the Tampa Bay Times: laws were passed against sitting or lying on sidewalks and rights of way in parts of Clearwater, Florida.

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors passed a law prohibiting the parking of large vehicles on specified streets, ironically including some where inhabited RVs (caravans) have traditionally been herded by police. (A friend has described her first-hand experience.) Nearby Berkeley came close to passing a ballot measure in imitation of San Francisco’s largely unenforced 2010 ordinance against sitting or lying on the sidewalk, but the proposal was narrowly defeated in the left-tending November 2012 election.

Formed in the 1960s, the houseboats along Mission Creek have outgrown a past semi-squatter status that at one point saw an abrupt threat of 30-day eviction notices. It’s now viewed as a chic bohemian enclave with no questions asked about residents’ trustworthiness…

California’s state highway agency, Caltrans, demolished camps in the towns of Vallejo and Los Gatos. In Sacramento residents have been evicted from generations-established campsites along the American River, in one case displacing approximately 150 people. A “cleanup” campaign on Los Angeles’ notorious Skid Row included both much-needed waste disposal as well as destruction of campsites, sometimes including arrests.

But the September court ruling Lavan v City of Los Angeles, which arose from property destruction in prior Skid Row raids, presented a major advance by protecting campers’ rights to possess “unabandoned” property left on the sidewalk, though the city still can and does dismantle campsites. And this October, activist attorney Mark Merin won payments for 1,143 past residents of Sacramento encampments who lost property in evictions dating back to 2005.

Compassionate demolition?

At the national level, responses to criminalisation vary substantially and, surprisingly, by agency. At the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), spokesman Brian Sullivan chose words carefully about local measures directed at homeless people. He said he didn’t know if HUD had a policy on “sanctioning” or on “depopulating camps”, but “the law enforcement approach doesn’t answer the fundamental question about how are you going to house homeless people”.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) contributed to a recent report on alternatives to criminalisation but has also funded a policing think tank, the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, that provides an intelligent but prejudice-skewed guide to removing “the problem of homeless encampments“. It presumes that camps pose crime and safety hazards by and to “transients” and must be removed.

Given that the US Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) participated in the report on avoiding criminalisation, it was surprising to see the mayor of Fresno, California quoting approving comments from USICH director Barbara Poppe in a press release about a November 2011 camp removal.

The statement attributed to Poppe apparently responded to local officials’ assurances that many displaced people had been or would be housed. It reads: “I applaud the City and its partners for focusing on the housing-first approach to addressing this issue and getting the public, private and nonprofit sectors aligned to services and housing to the men and women living in the encampments … The City and its partners have shown true leadership in energizing the community to respond in a way that is compassionate to individual needs and also makes sense for the greater community.”

I heard about Poppe’s comments from Paul Boden of the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), who headed the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness when I volunteered there as a lawwyer. He told me USICH confirmed the quote and provided further material from Poppe saying in part: “The costs associated with trying to ensure the safety, health, and well-being of people in encampments would be more strategically spent on housing.”

At that, Boden’s customary fluent profanity deserted him: he emailed a photo showing men in paper suits kicking down makeshift plywood homes (see photo gallery). He wrote: “Has she even looked at the HUD budget lately?”

That is, Poppe’s comment presumed it is possible to get all campers into conventional housing — except it isn’t. As Boden and WRAP point out persistently, HUD spending on housing construction and subsidies has been steadily far below the level of need since the cuts of the 1980s.

The man who took the demolition photo, homeless-rights campaigner Mike Rhodes, writes that Fresno authorities and NGOs have created some housing meant for homeless people, but nowhere near enough. During late 2011 his activist Community Alliance Newspaper chronicled an especially heavy series of multi-site demolitions in which bulldozers destroyed residents’ structures and property. He wrote to me about Fresno authorities: “They see providing any public services to the homeless in these encampments as helping them to live in these degrading conditions, therefore they refuse to help.”

Why the sudden visibility?

“Tent cities” became discussed as a rising US trend as long as three years ago. The National Coalition for the Homeless reported extensively on West Coast examples in 2010, calling them “America’s de facto waiting room for affordable and accessible housing”. Meanwhile its Twitter feed (a source for several items reported here) has been monitoring the nationwide backlash — including for example a Talent, Oregon, report about a sudden “homeless problem“.

Homelessness isn’t new since the global financial crisis. It had a long remission in the US from the Great Depression of the 1930s through the 1970s but substantially reappeared in the 1980s with the Reagan Administration’s cuts in social support programmes. It became institutionalised a quarter-century ago: July 22, 2012 marked the 25th anniversary of the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the first federal law to dedicate major spending to homelessness, though it spends less than was cut from welfare and housing programmes.

City populations are now presumed to include a stratum of unhoused and underhoused people, described as “homeless”, circulating among weekly-rental hotels, shelters, subsidised housing programmes and campsites. Homelessness is understood as a condition of life, even a quasi-ethnic social status or, in the case of “chronic homelessness”, a housing status elided with medical diagnosis.

What is new is that homelessness has overflowed into public view from a system of services that, while they didn’t end homelessness, managed for a generation to partially contain and routinise it.

Waiting rooms or living rooms?

It is beginning to seem optimistic to view informal communities as “waiting rooms”. Moves toward legalisation of makeshift housing are already appearing as cities admit to the need. Unfortunately, some combine substandard conditions with the paternalism of traditional US shelters.

Rhodes is a long-term critic of one such complex in Fresno, Village of Hope, run by an NGO called Poverello House. It provides sleeping space in tool sheds without utilities. His 2004 photos of closely spaced sheds behind a wire-topped fence induce a slight shudder. Poverello House’s website states the village is self-governing but Rhodes has written that homeless people tend to dislike the strict rules, which include a requirement to leave the site in daytime.

Similarly, town governments have experimented with legalised parking “programmes” for RVs. One in San Luis Obispo is limited to “only those people who commit to case management and remain drug-free and alcohol-free.” In nearby Arroyo Grande the police reviewed applications for spaces in a small parking area.

The police chief of Nevada City, California, began to issue permits to sleep in public.

A few camps of the autonomous type are hanging on, offering valuable chances to prove that people without money have no special need to be told how to live. After many past evictions, the large self-governing Nickelsville community in Seattle is being allowed to remain at a site on appropriately named Marginal Way. However the organisation still seeks legitimacy. A resident said the community is allowed to contract for portable toilet and garbage pickup service but the city will not help with those costs nor provide utilities — yet city service programmes sometimes refer people there to stay. Last year the Seattle Post-Intelligencer found 130 residents including children and pregnant women.

In Sacramento, the uniquely sophisticated and reportedly democratic Safe Ground initiative seeks refuges for campers on both public and private land. It has drawn national and international human rights attention. Significantly, a news report on City Council skepticism toward Safe Ground led with the question: “Should a group of homeless people be allowed to camp together in Sacramento without outside monitoring?” Currently lacking a main campsite, the organisation continues to search.

Better, but more elusive, is the possibility that unauthorised communities could become regularised as neighbourhoods, with residents accepted simply as townspeople. A heartening model is available in San Francisco: the houseboats along Mission Creek, a frequently polluted but picturesque channel in the same urban renewal area as the freeway camp I’ve described previously. Formed in the 1960s, the houseboat group has outgrown a past semi-squatter status that at one point saw an abrupt threat of 30-day eviction notices. The community has become more conventional in legality and lifestyle over time. It’s now viewed as a chic bohemian enclave with no questions asked about residents’ trustworthiness, though the group had to campaign fiercely for a while to stay put amid development.

Unfortunately, the houseboaters are distinct from poorer residents of RVs who parked around that shore until gentrification drove them out. A recent article on the colony underscored the class difference between houseboat residents and RV campers by saying of the houseboaters, “until recently, they were the only people out there.”

As I’ll discuss further in the next article, it remains to be seen whether informal community legalisations can be a means for residents to escape the irregular, second-class status of “homelessness” or whether such places risk becoming institutional holding areas where people wait for a chance at conventional affordable housing.


Accepting each other as neighbours: the settlements demonstrating the dignity of informal US housing

In her third piece on homelessness and informal settlements in the US, Martha Bridegam describes Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon, and other settlements across the country which are setting out to prove that informal housing can be just as peaceful, lawful and neighbourly as any other residential area.
Overlooking a corner of Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon. Photo: Steve Wilson/American Street Philosophers
In this third article on American informal housing, I’m glad to turn from accounts of a group camp’s repeated decimation in San Francisco and of other criminalisations of homelessness to more hopeful talk about progress eroding the all-or-nothing view of housed status that I earlier called “civic perfectionism”.

The visibility of informal housing in the US is a new factor that may reduce social exclusion of people defined as “homeless”. An archipelago of encampments has formed — “movement” is too definite a word — where residents are inching toward acceptance with conventionally housed neighbours.

Such acceptance is needed because Americans will not all be in formal housing any time soon. Those without it need recognition in the meantime as community members with their own goals and rights.

Feldman suggests Americans over-idealise the “proper home” and view the house-dweller as the archetypal solid citizen. Such nostalgic respect has a harmful side: it tends to make conventional housing a prerequisite for acceptance as a fully fledged person with rights, therefore defining “the homeless” as incomplete people without rights.

Homeless Sacer

Arguably informal communities reduce housing-based social exclusion by creating a visible middle layer of housing between reductive stereotypes of “housed” and “homeless”. The new prominence of “tent cities”, groups of cabins sharing washhouses or kitchens, or groups of RVs (caravans) parked together, can encourage a view of housing quality as a continuum from worse to better. The continuum approach keeps the focus on improving people’s real circumstances — what Jane Jacobs called “unslumming“. That’s healthier than the too-common official practice of destroying makeshift housing on the principle that it’s not good enough to be real housing.

I’ve drawn some of these thoughts from a post about Giorgio Agamben and American homeownership by Aaron Steinpilz and much more from political scientist Leonard Feldman‘s 2004 book Citizens Without Shelter: Homelessness, Democracy, and Political Exclusion.

Feldman writes that Americans have been taught, in ways that feel apolitical but aren’t, to see “the homeless” as victims or criminals, but not as political actors nor as townspeople. Drawing on Hannah Arendt, Agamben and others, he suggests Americans over-idealise the “proper home” and view the house-dweller as the archetypal solid citizen. He argues that such nostalgic respect has a harmful side: it tends to make conventional housing a prerequisite for acceptance as a fully fledged person with rights, therefore defining “the homeless” as incomplete people without rights. Campaigns for acceptance of informal housing are a way for people defined as homeless to claim the rights and social significance of “complete” people.

Legitimacy in tent cities

Tent cities and other encampments have made progress winning legitimacy, perhaps because the public now believes residents who say they have nowhere else to go. By living openly and unremarkably in informal housing, and appearing as civic participants in their cities, residents prove that “homeless” people are real Americans, not figures waiting to resume life as Americans if or when they return to conventional housing.

Mitch Grubic, elected CEO at the uniquely self-managed Dignity Village camp in Portland, Oregon, knows that potential. Having lived in his car, he understands the hassling and contempt. “That attitude of ‘omigosh, a homeless person coming into my neighbourhood, omigosh’ — I don’t know what it’s going to take for that attitude to change.” He said the subject comes up constantly in his community of 50 cabin-dwellers, which has contracted to use space on the edge of a city recycling yard. He said “we have game plans” to change public perceptions: to say “we are empowered people, we’re not what you think we are …

That’s going to come from the camps. The shift in paradigm is going to be coming from camps like us.”

By living openly and unremarkably in informal housing, and appearing as civic participants in their cities, residents prove that “homeless” people are real Americans, not figures waiting to resume life as Americans if or when they return to conventional housing.

Photojournalist Steve Wilson, who for five years has been documenting Dignity Village, calls some villagers “upper-class homeless”. He defines them as “those complete enough within themselves to succeed in America’s decades of ‘more than my share is my share’ but have opted out.” He wrote: ”Upper-class homeless’ are experimenting with minimalism: villages responsibly sharing, environmentally aware and self-governing by choice, not economic necessity.”

Grubic says many people in Dignity Village are around his own age of 50 and fed up with a society that rejects older workers and demands too much striving to reach a too-high standard of living. Their minimalism seems a virtue created by necessity.

Working tent cities aren’t utopias. The strongest ones enforce membership standards and conduct rules. Grubic imposes sanctions at Dignity Village, appealable to a resident council, ranging from one-day expulsions to permanent banishment. During our phone conversation he broke off repeatedly to judge a dispute: “Larry, you go back to the commons, Jerry, sit down, OK? … Don’t fight with him, OK? I appreciate it … Larry, let me just deal with it, OK?” He was promising to impose a 24-hour expulsion on a resident. “I’m gonna get him out of the camp. But you cool off too, OK? How about that?”

So nobody’s claiming to resolve the eternal tension of community versus individual rights. But at least tent city communities are starting to claim the equal protection of the laws: when police are called to Dignity Village, it’s not to arrest the group for camping, but to address a crime on behalf of the group.

Grubic spoke warmly of the possibility that US encampments might form a national organisation. It’s natural: they are starting to seem numerous and they’re starting to find each other. In this regard Grubic pointed out the work of Andrew Heben, a researcher and activist now working on the Opportunity Village project in Eugene, Oregon. Heben maintains an impressively crowded if not comprehensive wiki map of U.S. tent cities online. His online PDF book and web site, both titled Tent City Urbanism, build on the 2010 west coast tent cities report by the National Coalition for the Homeless to describe a nationally extending world of voluntary encampments and makeshift homes.

Plumbing as acceptance

To a surprising extent, encampments’ levels of acceptance are indicated by the infrastructure allowed to them. Even clean water is something not always offered to campers, since to offer water is to recognise that campers have a right to exist. Sanitation arrangements seem to represent the next step upward, then formal permission to remain on sites. With full utility hook-ups, an encampment is on its way to becoming a neighbourhood.

San Francisco provides many services to individual homeless people but does not directly serve informal housing areas except through antagonistic “clean-ups”. The park restroom pictured in my first article, a block from the freeway camp mentioned there, is comparatively one of the most convenient and welcoming to campers. It’s sad to remember that in 1998 the Vehicularly Housed Residents’ Association, assisted by SFCOH, nearly created an authorised parking area for RVs and other inhabited vehicles. It would have had a washhouse and formal self-governance; there were architectural drawings. Then apparent support evaporated at City Hall; the plan collapsed. (A local news feature conveyed the possibilities though it understated police harassment and offended several interviewees.)

This year, in passing a parking ordinance directed against RV dwellers, some members of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors (similar to local council) called for an authorised RV parking or storage area. However, the site suggested was remote Treasure Island; the purpose sounded like containment, not empowerment. Supervisor Carmen Chu told the San Francisco Chronicle, “Traditionally, vehicularly housed individuals have been very difficult to get into city services … We are hoping that this will get these people to them.”
In Sacramento, members of the Safe Ground Sacramento tent camp in 2011 secured a fact-finding visit from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the violation of their human right to safe drinking water and sanitation. (I’ve discussed this on my own blog.) However, Steve Watters, director of the Safe Ground Sacramento NGO, said his group has given up assisting unauthorised tent camps because local elected officials would not stop the police from repeatedly evicting campers. Instead, the group is serving immediate needs with indoor shelter arrangements. Later members hope to create an authorised “transitional housing” site with solar-powered cabins surrounding a community centre with utilities.

Residents would stay one year. Ideally they would move up in life, but in case not, the group was struggling with “what do you do at the end of the year?”

Mike Rhodes, the embattled Fresno, California advocate I mentioned in previous articles, has managed to contract for portable toilets at camp sites without city objections. For six months he contracted for a Dumpster (skip) to remove residents’ trash regularly from one large camp. He says Fresno is unique in that camps tend to remain for six months to two years, sometimes with solid wooden structures, between city demolition campaigns. Rhodes is involved now, for at least the second time, in a federal lawsuit over such demolitions.

In Seattle, in addition to Nickelsville (also mentioned previously), the SHARE/WHEEL local NGO supports two tentatively authorised tent camps. Since my own past advocacy experience in San Francisco has involved frustrating efforts to protect formerly tolerated RV campers against gentrification, I’m glad to see academic researcher Graham Pruss winning respect and empathy for vehicular residents in Seattle, recently as lead author of an advisory report to the Seattle city government that explains hardships of vehicle camping from the inside and calls for “safe parking” arrangements in the city.

Dignity Village is one of several sites with groups of cabins. Residents have shared water taps, portable toilets, propane heat in cabins, hot water at central showers with authorised drain hook-ups, a computer room, electric coffeepots, and a microwave oven. Grubic regrets, however, that permits haven’t come through for a real kitchen: “We get low marks on cooking.” And he hopes for a better location: the current site gets leaf mould smells from the city composting facility and noise from the nearby airport.

Of course there’s always room to improve, to “unslum”. But it’s great to see these sites steadily improving conditions on low budgets without waiting for someone to raise the absurdly high costs of conventional subsidised “affordable housing”.

I have one more storehouse of knowledge to recommend on informal housing. Significantly, it’s the guide offered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to counting “unsheltered” people in HUD’s controversial “point-in-time” enumerations of homelessness. The document’s authors are required by laws and rules to define nearly everyone in informal housing as “unsheltered,” yet they provide knowledgeable introductions to cases that ought to be viewed as exceptional, some third thing other than “unsheltered” or conventionally housed: “snowbird” RV-dwelling retirees; the “off-the-grid” community in

California known as “The Slabs“; the “colonias” near the Mexican border, where houses are formally owned or rented but lack proper utilities; other substandard rural housing; trailers in rural areas whose residents count as “housed” or “unsheltered” depending largely on where they are parked with what level of


It begins to seem that official knowledge unofficially includes significant awareness of informal housing; officials simply need to bring that knowledge out in the open and admit that it concerns housing.

Other encouragements

Informal housing could benefit from a trend begun when the state of Rhode Island passed a Homeless Bill of Rights protecting, among much else, the right to exist and possess property and privacy rights in public space. WRAP is now campaigning for a recently introduced California legislative bill that would grant rights similar to the Rhode Island measure.

Another hopeful development is that Occupy encampments introduced middle-class demonstrators to homelessness in fall 2011 and 2012. As Barbara Ehrenreich explained, voluntary and involuntary campers together faced the hounding and property destruction that police use against the poor in ways viewed as apolitical. News reports suggested Occupy campers who had nowhere else to live were not real protesters — illustrating Feldman’s theory that homeless people are viewed as outside politics. Maybe fellow demonstrators learned otherwise.

There’s always danger that tent cities or parking areas could become places of enclosure rather than welcome. But it seems possible that democratic governance can emerge or persist in voluntary encampments.

The “homelessness” state of exception is an internal exile more populous than many US states. For most, the way out of this virtual prison isn’t past formal gatekeepers into formal housing, but by blurring the lines drawn around people called “homeless” — and that requires people inside and outside the lines to contest their absurdity. People are starting to do that. And in the process, more Americans may be recognising each other as neighbours.

Martha Bridegam is a lawyer and writer in San Francisco with a history of volunteer advocacy for informally housed city residents. She tweets @MarthaBridegam.

Interesting Report–with a usable link!

To reach  the Housing report go to & then click the links in the following sentence.

In 2006, WRAP published a Without Housing report that clearly showed the world why America’s “approach” to ending homelessness has been overwhelmingly ineffective. In 2010, we updated the report, now available in both English and Spanish.

Robert Norse