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The Original San Francisco Tent

The Ohlone Tribe, on whose land San Francisco was built, lived in beautiful structures reminiscent of many of the tents we see on the streets of the Mission today.  I recently saw a replica of one of these native structures in the Mission Dolores Graveyard, within walking distance of where I live.  The fact that it sits in the graveyard is rich with too much irony to get into here, but I share it to show that we are not historically far away from “tents” in San Francisco. They are actually more a part of our cultural heritage than Victorians and skyscrapers.

Source: SFMission.com

I don’t see tents as a solution to homelessness in San Francisco but as a symptom of the lack of affordable housing.  The debate should not be about whether we allow tents or not; it should be about inequity and exclusion.

When people set up a tent and invite others to camp nearby, it is a testament to the human spirit and our biological need to belong to a community for support and protection.  Saying tents are the problem denies the humanity of the people living on our streets.  Framing the discussion this way also leads to the type of vigilantism that recently came to light in which nightlife-business owner Peter Glickshtern  is videotaped coordinating the illegal removal and theft of homeless people’s property in the middle of the night. This paramilitary approach has no place on the streets of San Francisco.

I also realize that not all tent communities are created equal and that some cause significant neighborhood impact.  There is an encampment near my house, and it is affecting an entire block with personal items scattered about and a barricade blocking a large portion of the sidewalk.  I told Kurt and Neal, who live there, that I consider them and others to be my neighbors. But I also explained that the way that they are operating is a detriment to the neighborhood.

At the same time there is another group of tents also nearby that is a model of community building.  In spite of their differences, both groups of tents are  home to individuals, people like you and me, trying to make the most of their circumstances.

When a person experiencing homelessness gets a blanket and is no longer shivering in the cold, that person’s life is a whole lot better. When that same person finds a doorway out of the rain, he is much more comfortable. If he gets a tent, his quality of life continues to improve, and if that tent is set up in close proximity to other tents, he is much more complete because he has entered a community again.

None of these options are ideal but they each point to the resiliency of people, like Kurt, Neal, and our neighbors from the weekend’s tent sweep, who currently live on the street. Too often our housing solutions ignore and even dampen this resiliency in favor of an over-reliance on solutions that take too long and are prohibitively expensive.

For all of our sakes, we can’t waste time, and we need to be smart about how we use our resources.  It’ll take all of us to do that – to continue raising our voices to call for transparency and community-wide accountability, and most importantly, to appreciate that addressing homelessness requires us to see the person sleeping next to a tent as a person, not a problem.

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