April 9, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 15

News

Tent encampments across the nation increasingly on the wrong side of the law, report finds

By Aaron Burkhalter , Staff Reporter

After the city of Seattle evicted Nickelsville from a site on West Marginal Way Southwest last May, other Nickelsville camps like this one in the central district sprouted up.

Photo by: Wes Sauer , Contributing Photographer

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Most homeless tent encampments that operated around the United States over the last few years were illegal, according to a study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the Yale Law School

A report titled “Welcome Home: The Rise of Tent Cities in the United States” surveyed 117 tent encampments across the country and found that most were unwelcome by local governments, which often evicted them.

Eight of the 117 surveyed encampments were legal based on city laws. Ten more were not formally legalized, but local cities were not evicting them.

In most cases, cities shut down camps without providing alternative shelter, the report found. More than 50 of the camps the study surveyed were evicted. Cities have threatened to evict several more.

Washington was the exception. The state is home to four of the eight tent encampments that were considered legal by researchers. These include Tent City 4, Tent City 3 and Nickelsville. The Washington Supreme Court determined in 2009 that churches have a constitutional right to host tent encampments. Washington cities can regulate but not block churches from hosting tent encampments.

The Seattle City Council declined to legalize tent encampments on non-church property in 2013. The city evicted Nickelsville from city-owned property on West Marginal Way Southwest in 2013. Nickelsville now operates two encampments through Seattle-area churches.

Encampments arise when cities do not provide sufficient shelter for the growing homeless population, according to the report.

“Tent cities are a result of the absence of other reasonable options,” the report states.

The report recommends that cities create more shelter and housing options, stop enforcing municipal laws that criminalize tent encampments and create Homeless Bill of Rights laws that establish that people have a right to housing.

Forty-five states and the District of Columbia had tent encampments at least once from 2008 to 2013. The report accounted for 117 encampments across the country, but there are likely more. More than half of the encampments were established in the last five years.

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