I was honored today to participate in a forum at the Seattle University School of Law about “Finding Space to Solve Homelessness.” I was on a panel about Authorized Encampments, by virtue of my experience volunteering at Camp Second Chance and Camp United We Stand.
The other folks on the panel were scholars and lawyers, from: Washington, D.C.; Savannah, Georgia; and Baltimore, Maryland. (See the program for details.) I learned from listening to them that the same issues arise throughout the country, regardless of how far along a city may be on the road to authorized encampments. Seattle is a very advanced case, taken in a national context. We have six City-authorized, City-funded camps which are integrated into the emergency shelter system. No other city comes close! Most cities are still fighting the battle over whether such camps can even be allowed to exist, much less be officially sanctioned and supported.
The most universal struggle is between the impulse to “criminalize homelessness,” on the one hand, or, on the other, to use organized camps as a humane method of providing shelter in a time of emergency. Most places still treat living in public as a crime to be handled by the police. Notably, Seattle also sends the police to disperse homeless encampments – in “the sweeps” – but then we send the people who are swept to the authorized encampments (if they’re willing and if there’s room).
In other words, even when you have City-sponsored camps, the tension between criminalizing homelessness and allowing organized camps is not resolved!
The reason for this persistent contradiction is that the objections to the existence of camps go much deeper than simple questions of law-enforcement. There are deeply emotional, even psychic, impulses at play. One of my fellow panelists – Professor Audrey McFarlane of the University of Baltimore Law School – showed a slide with the following explanation:
- They make visible the breadth and depth of inequality.
- They make visible human vulnerability and suffering.
- They make visible the lie of privileged status, safety, and security of luxury consumption.
- They legitimize the homeless with a property right to public space.
Camps are an undeniable reminder that the notion of a safe, middle-class life is an illusion; that in fact we are all threatened by chaos and insecurity that is local, nationwide, and global. (This just scratches the surface of these ideas, and I hope to return to them.)
I’m grateful to Professor Sara Rankin, director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University, for inviting me to participate, and to Evanie Parr, the law student who guided our work group. I met people from Portland, Denver, Baltimore, Bellingham, Bellevue, and San Francisco with whom I look forward to being in touch. It was a tremendous day!