One of the nearly endless frustrations I have with this work is how there is not even a basic curiosity of how these homeless camps work.
I've never understood why anthropologists aren't swarming homeless camps to try to get a better understanding of how early civilization was formed.
Every single homeless camp I've got to be part of shows incredibly interesting behaviors and formations that seem to occur over and over again. We get this incredible opportunity to see how the earliest civilizations might have behaved and sometimes thrived and probably oftentimes failed.
Another truly fascinating occurrence just happened in an unsanctioned camp here in Akron Ohio.
Coronavirus has significantly cut back employees in our city. So, we don't have the normal workforce to dismantle homeless camps. Additionally, the CDC and HUD have both explicitly stated that we should not break up camps as it likely will increase the spread of Covid-19.
So, one larger camp has been permitted to remain intact for quite some time. I would say at it's largest it maybe had 40 people.
Last week we went to the camp and everyone was gone. EVERYONE.
We know the people at this camp. We work with them regularly. They all had left without any notice or any reason why.
It looked just like every shut down homeless camp. Many abandoned items that couldn't be carried out. Endless trash. And just this eerie feeling of being in a ghost town.
This is interestingly strange because the Summit County Continuum of Care recently put a porta-potty and hand washing station just outside this camp.
Here's Becca posing with these items. She was a long-time resident of this camp.
This was a HUGE step forward in our collective care for Akron homeless people. Never have anyone in the main homeless services sector supported our houseless friends in such a way.
So, why would you leave a place where there is water, a toilet and all the people who support you know where you are?
I believe the fundamental problem is that there is no ownership.
This is how every camp I've ever known develops: One person (or a couple) set up a tent. They create a safe environment. They make a fire pit, a sitting area, a tarped area so you can sit outside if it's raining.
Then one of your friends asks if they can come. It's no problem because your friend is a good person and it would be nice to have another person to help with chores like hauling water and burning trash.
Then their friend shows up. You don't really know them. But you hear they are "good people". And so it goes.
And then one day someone shows up that you specifically DON'T want at your camp. There is drama over it. Some people say the person should stay and some people say the person should go.
Ultimately, the person stays because "what are you going to do about it? You don't own this land."
And then that's when things break down. People start getting things stolen. People start using drugs that you absolutely never wanted in your camp. Meth users stay with meth users. Alcoholics stay with alcoholics... And opiate users... nobody wants to be around opiate users because they bring overdoses which bring cops. And cops bring parole violations which puts everyone at risk of going to jail. (Homeless people always have parole violations because they can't afford a phone or transportation to get to court hearings or even a calendar to know what day it is.)
So the drama rises.
And then the stealing expands to neighbors around the camp. Water is stolen. Electric is stolen. Unlocked cars are opened and searched for money and charging cords. Trash piles up. Scrappers bring the most bizarre things into and around the camp... broken couches, shopping carts with 2 wheels, pieces of wood, things that look like treasures while on meth yet are truly just trash.
Like a star, the camp begins to explode and then ultimately the camp implodes.
No one has authority. The people who are more criminal in their behavior tend to be more aggressive. The "live and let live" homeless people are typically gentle and quiet and kind. So they get rolled by the people causing the trouble.
It then appears that people ultimately scatter. Like dust in the wind they just move away. Everyone just moves away.
While this is the first clear case of watching an unsanctioned camp grow and ultimately implode, I truly believe this is the natural course of events. I've seen it happen in smaller circumstances before. But I've never really gotten to see it naturally fully take its course because the city usually intervenes and shuts it down before we can see what happens on its own.
Simply put: society can not prevail without clear authority and rules.
The homeless tent village on my personal property functioned pretty well because we had clear authority. The villagers elected a tri-council from the village to be the ultimate overseers of rules and who came into the village and who was kicked out. They appointed security personnel who had very clear roles and realms of authority.
VERY interesting things occurred in this setting as well. Overzealous security people would sometimes become too powerful. And at one point there were so many meth users in the camp that they elected themselves into the tri-council (that was one of the few times I stepped in and removed all of tri-council and had people vote on tri-council members from a select list of candidates.)
I simply do not understand why A) people aren't endlessly fascinated by these unique and incredible society structures and B) why are we so adamant to not engage these people where they are today and helping them move back into society one step at a time?
I sometimes feel like I'm one of the very few sane people in the insane asylum of American society. How can people not care about these people? Why must we always say "it's our way or the highway?"
* The featured image here is of Ashleigh Hughes the Community Director of The Homeless Charity standing in this abandoned camp.