Tent City USA: The Growth of America’s Homeless Encampments and How Communities are Responding
Recently, the Asbury Park Press conducted a two-part video investigation into life at a homeless encampments in Neptune.
The first video features Paul Merker who wrestles with his demons and the sub-zero wind chills. When he was interviewed at the camp, Merker says about his life in the homeless camp “I can’t leave.”
Eleven people live in the camp and on a recent cold night, everyone besides Merker left to spend the night in a hotel. Merker once worked as a carpenter but his mental illness interfered with his ability work. He has suffered from frost bite and attempted suicide multiple times.
It is transformative to watch video footage of Paul being interviewed just a few days later after he took his medication and spent time in a local hotel. It is evident how much his life would be transformed if he was given the opportunity to move into affordable housing with support services.
In the second video, Carlos Santiago, another resident of the Neptune homeless camp known as “the mayor” tries to make sense of recent hard times at the camp. This video comes with a warning about “strong language.” One of Merker and Santiago’s friends died of burns in December 2017.
Like Merker, Santiago also worked, as a cook. Santiago and his neighbors in the homeless camp were devastated when a recent storm destroyed the kitchens they used to cook their meals in the camp. The video footage shows how camp residents truly set up “homes” out in the woods where they live.
Neptune is not alone as a town facing the problem of what to do about a homeless encampment. On December 20, 2017, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty released a new report, Tent City USA: The Growth of America’s Homeless Encampments and How Communities are Responding.
The report reviewed the rapid growth of homeless people living in tents across the United States over the past decade, as measured by documentation in media reports. Research for the report found one homeless camp in New Jersey in 2017.
Research showed a 1,342 percent increase in homeless encampments reported between 2007 and 2017.
Encampments ranged in size, with half showing a size of 11-50 residents, while 17 percent had more than 100 residents. The report tracked the number of unique encampments as reported by the media, acknowledging that there are likely more encampments intentionally hidden or forced to move, and therefore not documented.
As encampments become increasingly common, local governments have enacted laws to prohibit living in tents.
- Three-quarters of all encampments recorded in the report are prohibited by law;
- only 4 percent were reported to be legal.
- Cities such as Denver, CO, Olympia, WA, and San Diego, CA, were cited in the report for particularly harsh laws and sweeps that criminalize people experiencing homelessness.
- The report notes that evicting-or “sweeping”-people from tent communities is costly and ineffective, and shares principles and practices for how communities can meet people’s basic needs in the short term.