An increasing number of people are sleeping outside in tents, doorways, and under bridges. In England, 4,751 people “slept rough” on a single night in autumn 2017, an increase of 15% from 2016. In the United States, 192,875 people were unsheltered on a given night in January, a 9% increase from 2016.
Both the UK and the US, and many other countries around the world, are witnessing a visible rise in tent encampments, legal and illegal. Tent cities have been reported in London, as well as in Milton Keynes, Bristol, Cardiff, Manchester, Oxford and Sheffield. Across the US, tent cities are growing in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, St. Louis, Las Cruces, Indianapolis and Honolulu.
In the US, the city of Seattle is as an important – but relatively overlooked – part of this trend. Seattle recently declared a state of emergency on homelessness and is expanding legally sanctioned tent cities, setting it apart nationally and globally. Seattle’s Tent City 3 is the oldest sanctioned tent encampment in the US. The democratically organised encampment operates under a strict code of conduct and moves between churches, neighbourhoods and universities every 90 days in accordance with a city charter.
Between 2012 and 2018, Seattle Pacific University has hosted Tent City 3 three times. During their stays we conducted interviews with over 60 residents. The data challenges what we think we know about the causes of homelessness and the character of the people who experience it.
Myth 1: People who are homeless have greater pathologies
The stereotypical image of a person who is homeless is a mentally ill, dishevelled man who self-medicates with drugs or alcohol. While single men are the most likely demographic to be homeless, in the US, families with children represent one-third of the total homeless population – falling into homelessness because of job loss, domestic violence, divorce, evictions and health crises.
In the case of those very visible homeless suffering from mental illness or addiction, these health problems often begin after losing their homes, due to the stress of living on the streets. Wade’s life, for example, unravelled after his daughter was seriously injured and his trucking company failed. With his company gone and without health insurance, Wade “started drinking … and became despondent. It caused my divorce … that was the beginning of the end”.
Alcohol and drugs often come after the fact, used to numb the pain, loneliness, and depression of homelessness. In Tracy’s case, being raped while homeless resulted in mental health issues, which she treated through drugs and alcohol:
I wanted counselling, and so the caseworker set me up to see one of their shrinks and it was actually going to, we had a plan … but I did not qualify for help because I self-medicate … but I self-medicate because I can’t get the help.
In academic circles, medical intervention and treatment is often seen as the solution to homelessness. While this is sometimes true, it is an incomplete understanding.
Myth 2: Homeless people do not want regular work
Individuals are often blamed for their own homelessness. People who are homeless are frequently seen as lazy, lacking a work ethic and irresponsible. Yet our research shows that many people who are homeless continue to work. Some 25% of Tent City 3 residents were working full or part-time, another 30% were actively seeking employment and 20% were retired or unable to work due to disability or other health issues. Rather than being lazy, a lack of jobs, limited skills or education, and low wages kept them homeless. As George told us:
If they lowered the rent, I could live here. It’s that rent. It’s not good, it’s too high. Some people got two jobs and still can’t afford a place with that rent.
This is especially true in light of the recent financial crisis. “Anybody out there is just one paycheck away from being homeless,” suggested Alonzo.
Myth 3: People choose to be homeless
Stories from Tent City 3 residents are full of economic travails, family disruptions, and health crises as precipitating causes of homelessness. In fact, based on a 2018 survey in Seattle, 98% said that they would move into safe and affordable housing if available. There are rare cases of personal choice favouring a homeless lifestyle – evading work and responsibility – but this is not the norm.
For some, childhoods riddled with strife and instability – from living in the foster care system to living in abusive families – led directly to homelessness. Miguel told us how he came from a typical alcoholic home:
I was put in foster care on and off and … I became a problem kid, you know, and everything like that and started drinking and drugging when I was 11 years old.
There are choice examples of people “choosing” to become homeless, such as Candi, who did so after her daughter died:
This time I can honestly say I chose it … I chose to put my daughter away peacefully rather than pay my bills. It was by choice, I chose to bury my child.
While this is an extreme example, very limited choices are typical. We should be sceptical of stories about choosing to be homeless. Such declarations are assertions of agency avoiding the pain, loss, and failure and attempts to “salvage the self”. Residents expressed wanting a way out of homelessness.
Myth 4: Social services are handling the problem
Local governments, non-profit organisations and churches mostly address homelessness by providing basic needs, such as food and shelter, but they do little to help people actually find homes. Even with Seattle’s progressive politics and expanding economy, the city has neither the resources nor the plans to adequately address the scope of the problem, which continues to increase.
Jen recounted how she lost her apartment after her partner was hospitalised:
If you tell them you’re homeless, they send the social worker in, and she basically had no idea. She was like ‘here, here’s a pamphlet’, and I was like, ‘great, thank you, that’s really helpful’.
The resident’s sarcasm signifies the lack of useful services and resources for people, especially inadequate housing and social workers. Frank, a single father, shared the support the he and others desperately need:
So, I’m at the bottom, I can’t do nothing but go up. And I know I can’t do it by myself. I need caring people to support me.
Public perceptions about homelessness matter. They can both broaden our understanding or serve to reinforce our biases. While residents of Tent City 3 may not be typical of the entire homeless population (they are more likely to be white, exhibit less serious mental illness and fewer suffer from drug and alcohol dependency issues), they shed light on an increasing population of the working poor, who cannot afford housing.
Stories from tent cities reinforce much of what scholars of homelessness have long reported – that broader social systems (economic inequality, weakened social safety net, weak labour market, and rising housing costs) are the primary causes of homelessness.