Sunday, June 8, 2008

Tent City is Coming--but won't help the Homeless

It's almost Shavuos, the Jewish holiday celebrating the receiving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. Certainly one of the commandments we received (subsumed in the Big Ten and expressed in the 613) was to be charitable, to care for our fellow man, right? Lots of Reform Jews think the idea of "tikun olam," perfecting the world, means generosity toward the homeless, no matter whether they sleep in business' doorways or beg at freeway off-ramps. They're clearly down and out, and so, we must come forward as the altruistic and compassionate folk we are.

Well, no. And I don't say that just because a homeless Tent City is about to move to my
suburban community, but because our misplaced caring doesn't help these parasites one bit.

About a year ago, an article appeared in our community newspaper signed by a coalition of pastors of local churches explaining why it is our duty to host the Tent City in the parking lot of one of their institutions. Tent City is a bundle of about 100 homeless people who pitch their portable homes like nomads, moving from church to church every three months. In this way, they have permanent "support." Supposedly the residents must abide by rules that include no alcohol. Other churches who have hosted them have reported minimal trouble.

As far as I'm concerned, whether or not the Tenters cause major problems is not the issue.
The question for me is--how does providing such a living arrangement help these people? There are lots of shelters with available beds. Heck, Seattle is famous for even building apartment-style housing for alcoholic homeless, nicknamed the "drunk dorms" because residents there are allowed to drink in their rooms. The kindly citizens of the Emerald City also imported expensive European automatic toilets and put them in public places for the homeless to use at any hour--which were recently removed because they were more often used for dealing drugs.

When the Tent City fait accompli was first announced, I wrote a letter to our local paper in response to the pastors' cheery endorsement. I proposed that if neighbors really wanted to help these chronic homeless, that they take one of them into their homes, allowing him/her to live there and learn from the homeowner, as a student with a mentor, how to live a responsible life. How to get a job and show up on time. How to find a room-mate or other inexpensive living arrangement, and maintain a home. There's no reason why these people, if fit enough to live in our midst in tents, can't learn the skills to live in our midst in apartments, rented rooms or homes.

The pastors didn't think much of my idea of making personal contact with the homeless. No one volunteered to allow such a disadvantaged person to live in his home; no one wanted to mentor someone in need. My compassionate neighbors would rather have these people pitch tents on a concrete parking lot and use Honey Bucket portable toilets.

Looks like we'll get to admire these newcomers close-up this August. I plan to take an afternoon or two and visit our new neighbors and find out some of their stories. I'd like to know how long they've vagabonded with Tent City, and what their future plans are, and why they find living in a tent on concrete preferable to the many options provided by religious institutions like the Salvation Army, Union Gospel Mission and many others who scour the streets offering them aid. Frankly, I find it insulting to these folk to relegate them to a Tent City if our goal is to teach them how to live self-sufficiently.

It's true, I don't want a hundred homeless folk added to the population of our small community. I am indeed prejudiced against them. Not because of characteristics they were born with--as individuals, every soul is made in God's image and in that way is inherently worthy of respect. But because of choices they have made. Perhaps long-ago choices dragged them down into a place difficult to escape, such as drug addiction. Perhaps they are victims of mental illness. But choices not to avail themselves of means to leave their dependent status bring my ire, my lack of sympathy, and my opposition to Tent City. Maybe when I go meet these folks, my opinion will change. I doubt it. But until August, I'm writing letters and campaigning to disband this artificial "community" in favor of real and permanent help for these down-and-outers.


  1. Thank you for your honesty about your faith and how that affects your social views. I admire it. And I agree that this Tent City doesn't seem to help anyone, only to make them more dependent and less accountable.

    Lynn in NH

  2. thank you, Lynn, for your supportive comment. I have yet to hear any experiences whereby this kind of arrangement made a permanent positive impact on a vagrant's life. Or on a host community except the self-congratulatory exclamations that ultimately serve merely to let well-meaning people off the hook.

  3. I'm glad you wrote this... I appreciate your challenge to us comfortable suburbanites, whether you meant it seriously or not. I hope the locals will actually talk to the Tent City folks, since they are coming, and try to do them some good, if that's possible. I don't know too much about shelters, but saying you have a "bed" in one is a bit misleading - I think people are shifted every night (?) from place to place (but I'm only going on one person's account of it), and what do they do with their belongings? Just shlep them everywhere? Compared to that, Tent City sounds like a step up. But maybe you're right to be a pessimist, or a realist, about it... I can't decide. Hugs and kisses... and Good Shabbos!!!!