The Terminator Goes to the Fair
This week Governor Schwarzenegger announced that they would move the tent city that sprung up on private property to the State fairgrounds for three months while other solutions are developed. The New York Times has a story about the rising number of Bushville camps springing up across America. We know something about overflow in Cleveland, so I thought I would send some advice to my favorite Commando Governor who single handedly destroyed Man's colony on Mars then went back in time to nearly destroy mankind on Earth.
Dear Mr. Governator:
We in Cleveland know something about operation of an overflow shelter, and so we wanted to pass along some pointers to you as you venture into sanctioning the fair grounds as the new home to the Sacramento Tent City. We opened an old high school as a temporary overflow that did not close for 3 years. Every night for three years we paid for the transportation and operation of a "temporary" overflow shelter. The NPR story mentioned about the move of the tent city stated that many of the residents do not want to move because they would be locked into the fairgrounds at night. I think I heard something about that in a movie coming out May 21. It was Judgment day and Skynet moves people into a locked facility. Anyway, operating an overflow shelter is a difficult issue, and we have some advice for you:
1. Once the door is open to overflow and tent cities it is difficult to close it. Once there is a city sanctioned place for tents it is hard to shut it down. Our overflow lasted three years.
2. You will never be able to close it in three months unless there is immediate plans to build or renovate a large number of apartments for these individuals.
3. There are three to five times as many people in need as there are spaces. Depending on the level of poverty in the city there are many more people barely holding on waiting for something better to come along. They are sleeping on floors or couches or garages while they try to find housing. If you open up something better they will find their way to those doors. While the problem will start at 300 tents, it will grow to around 1,000 people if a better option is made available to the residents of the tent city.
4. Overflow is attractive to those who just want to be left alone. These places usually do not feature social services, and some people just give up here. They mire in depression and start to hate people and society. This is not what happens to everyone, but some use an overflow space or a tent city as a place with no pressure and no responsibility to vegetate.
5. Many who use tent cities/overflow because they do not want to accept charity. They are hard workers but have made mistakes. They would do well earning their housing through sweat equity. They probably have some skills and want to work. Many probably go to work now, but return to the tent or mat in a warehouse everyday.
6. Most do not want to go to shelter if they are sleeping in a tent city or overflow shelter. They do not like the rules and the institutional aspects of shelter. No matter how nice they are, many will not go to shelter. If you force people into shelter, they will just go underground.
7. Overflow and tent cities may seem cheap to operate, but they are actually very expensive for society. The health care costs and the long term impact on the individuals especially to children is a lot to address. There is an element of PTSD that people will have to work through after finding housing.
8. The only way to solve these issues by the time it gets to overflow/tent cities is individual assessment and help. Send those human service workers out to help. Since we ended welfare, what are they doing anyway? Make them get do some real work and leave the comfort of their offices to go talk to actual homeless people. It will do them good. Figure out what each of the residents need and then go back and get it. There is no solution that will solve all of their problems.
Good luck, and remember that they all have some talents if just given the opportunity. Don't make them into criminals or stereotype them. They are just trying to survive, give them a hand up.