Economic Justice

Why Our Tent Village Worked

Let me get this out of the way, right off the bat. We had our problems.

Keeping drugs out was a full-time job.

Our founder, Paul Hayes, was really anti-drugs. He was more forgiving of alcohol. But man, did drugs get his goat.

In fact, the beginning of the end of him being with us was that our board of directors told him to stop doing random drug tests. They were concerned that we might have been violating people’s rights. I was also worried that the village leadership was using drug tests as a weapon.

If two people we knew perfectly well were either using drugs or drinking, the person who was not part of the inner circle would get heavily targeted, and the other person would get overlooked. It infuriated me (not to mention the people who weren’t in the inner sanctum).

Something that was surprisingly not a huge issue was stealing.

On the street, stealing is a never-ending issue. Shoes, tents, blankets, pillows, phones. You name it; people will steal it. Stealing is such an issue it borders on absurd.

But stealing rarely was an issue inside our village. My theory is that stealing is universally hated. We could debate all day about if marijuana use was an excommunicable offense. But everyone agreed: stealing was the worst.

There was a villager that left to go to jail for well over a month. When he returned, not one single thing was missing from his tent.

Those were the two issues we regularly dealt with: who was using drugs and don’t you dare steal your neighbor’s things.

When you contrast how poorly unsanctioned villages work, it really was a fantastic feat.

In an unsanctioned village, the overarching rule is: “you don’t own this land.” So, things almost instantly degrade into chaos.

Homeless people, almost to a fault, are passive people. They have been so beaten down that almost no fight is left within them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve exploded with rage at something the city took away from us. And my homeless friends take it with a Zen-like acceptance. Their go-with-the-flow attitude is humbling and inspiring. But it comes from a place of total loss and theft of their humanity, stolen from their government and neighbors that now scorn and hate them.

So, when someone comes into an unsanctioned village and says, “you don’t own this land,” when another villager complains about their actions, it is almost always met with a sense of futility and acceptance. The village nearly always falls into lawless chaos.

And then, typically, the nuisance department is called to break it up. Or, as in the case of Covid-19, it implodes on its own, and people disband. They move apart and further into the woods. They move further away from society and further away from services that would help them transition out of a life of chaos.

In our village and any sanctioned village, the fundamental construct is different. The land is owned by someone letting you live on it. The landowner has ordained a governing body to oversee the village. If you break the rules and the governing body determines that you must leave, the standard rules of society kick in. Management says you need to go. If you don’t leave, the property owner gets involved. If you still don’t leave, the police get involved.

This is why sanctioned villages work, and unsanctioned villages don’t work. Unsanctioned villages are outside the constructs of a functioning community. Sanctioned villages are just like any other part of society. But instead of having apartments, people have tents or tiny houses.

Your “payment” for living in the village was contributing a minimum of an hour a day to the village.

Every morning each villager would report to Herman, a fellow villager. He would assign you a job for the day.

It could be sweeping the common room, picking up trash in the village, or washing dishes.

“I’m not your mom” was pretty much an everyday saying.

People get into helping homeless people for many reasons. It’s interesting to watch how people help because they typically want to share what is important to them with homeless people.

A lot of people like giving out stuff. Like food and clothes and tents. In particular, food is something people love giving. That’s often because of what food means to them. It’s not just that food is delicious and life-sustaining. While it is definitely that, for these people, food is so much more.

For them, food is love. Making a meal is showing people that you love them.

People would bring fully cooked meals endlessly to our village. There was a prepared meal almost every single day of the week.

And the clothes. Our clothes room was a full-time job. People constantly wanted to share clothes with us. Our clothes situation became a dirty little secret.

People would bring us clothes and tell us they didn’t want to give the clothes to Goodwill. They didn’t like that Goodwill charged poor people for clothes they were given for free.

Most of our clothes went to Goodwill.

But that was simply because clothes were becoming a fire hazard. The fire inspectors were constantly showing up. And we constantly had clothes lining the hallways. Fire inspectors hate seeing anything in hallways.

We gave clothes to every local church. We gave clothes to every other homeless service provider. We stuffed clothes in every metal clothes receptacle we could find in a 10-mile radius. Goodwill was the only place that would not turn us away.

Homeless people sorted and organized clothes as part of their jobs at the village 10 hours a day, seven days a week.

My theory was that I didn’t want to stop people from giving. I wanted the larger community to feel connected to our community. I wanted middleclass people to walk into our basement community center filled with homeless people of every variety and be engaged with them. Clothes were the way people could think to do that. And I didn’t want to stop them.

I don’t know if I’d do it that way again. But on the other hand, if you want some clothes, no matter what you tell people, suits and ties and dress shoes will invariably find their way into your possession. And while that’s a lovely and charming idea, homeless people are not applying for jobs that require a suit and tie. Most homeless people are entrepreneurs. Like me, they are not usually cut out for the 9 to 5 life.

These clothes mean something to the people that give them. They loved the clothes. And they want homeless people to love them too.

Food and clothes are how most people show love. I didn’t want to turn down their love. Because ultimately, it’s not food and clothes that homeless people need. They need our love. They need our validation and respect. Without that, they are nothing more than an empty husk that is being fed and clothed. Humans are not squirrels or birds that just need a feeder stuck in the backyard. Humans are complicated beings that come to life, not through food and clothes. Humans live on dignity and respect. More than anything, humans require a community that accepts them and values them.

Drug addicts and homeless people (which society stereotypes all homeless people as) are not accepted. They are not valued. Not being accepted and not being valued is the greatest death any human being can experience. You are dead to the only thing that keeps you alive: your community.

A homeless tent village cannot exist without accepting and valuing homeless people. Unless you can raise millions of dollars, the only way a tent village will survive is by having the people that need the village to run the village. And I assure you, they will step up and run it. Because, as human beings, they need the community part of it most of all.

– We ran a 50-person tent village on private land, with private money for 2 years. The city forced us to close everything. The village, the day center, the food pantry. Everything. Today the Houseless Movement illegally shelters a few people in one house, a tiny house and two tents. We will remove these shelters when no more people in Akron, Ohio need a place for emergency shelter.

This article is a chapter from Sage Lewis’ new book, “The Homeless Activist.” It will be coming out in late September 2021.

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