Your NPR news source

Champaign Says No to Homeless Tent City

SHARE Champaign Says No to Homeless Tent City

The growing need for shelter is pushing one group in the central Illinois city of Champaign to try to form a new self-governed homeless community. But, its housing strategy has run afoul of city politics.


Homeless in Chicago: Calling a Patch of Grass ‘Home’

This is a story about shelter and about political activism. It's the story of a group of people who are homeless who came together to create a new community that is self-governed and self-structured. It's a story about a tent city and residents who've been told they can't live in tents.

To hear Ron Warner tell it, it's a story that started with a need for safety—being out on the streets can be dangerous.

WARNER: I got jumped. Broke my teeth. Broke my glasses. I was drinking with this guy all day and all of the sudden he turned around and blam, he broke my teeth.

He shows me his partial dentures, now in pieces. He's thinking some super glue might help fix things up.

He's not shy about talking about his drug and alcohol use and the reasons he can't go to other shelters in the city. Warner's been homeless on and off since 1999. He's also spent some time in jail. He says he wanted to live with other people, but not in the same space as other people. Which is why he is a part of Safe Haven community, a group that started a few months ago as a small tent city.

WARNER: I'd much rather be in my tent.
HILL: Tell me why?
WARNER: One reason privacy. I miss my tent.

Warner takes me around. We start in the lawn of the Church of St. Mary's Parish Center where the tents were set up.

WARNER: I'm the one that came up with the name Safe Haven. Because this was safe and it was haven for me. And they just naturally adopted but it's so rough out there trying to survive on the street that we needed a place that was safe.

But the city of Champaign decided Safe Haven's tent city violated zoning rules. And the Safe Haven community was pushed indoors—to the tiled floor of this parish center. It's a big, echoy, open room.

HILL: So this is where you all sleep? This is where everyone sleeps now? Can you describe it?
WARNER: Bed, bed, bed, bed, bed, bed, bed.
HILL: And where's everybody's stuff.
WARNER: Out in the garage, I'll show you.

When Warner says "bed," he means sleeping bags or blankets. The church doesn't have cots. And every morning the 18 or so people now living here pack up their belongings into black trash bags and move them out to the garage. There's no privacy or even quiet space. It can make Warner a little agitated. He does a lot of cleaning up after other people. When he finds coffee creamer in two different cabinets it really annoys him.

He likes his solitude, sometimes he even thinks about leaving the community, but he does like Safe Haven's vision for what's next…

HARMON: We are working to move beyond this situation here into something more private. But I think they recognize this is a step along the way.

That's Abby Harmon. She's helping the Safe Haven community organize. She says Safe Haven wants to build micro-housing of some sort, a living structure like a yurt or a dome. She says the community wants more privacy and more dignity. It wants the rights the housed population takes for granted.
HARMON: These aren't radicals that are living here. They are people saying I deserve a right to choose a way in which I shelter myself and I deserve the right to provide housing for myself.

Harmon says there are times when the very existence of a community like this, taking a stance like this, is charged with significance.

HARMON: And that is a political statement in itself but it's not that out of the realm of our common sense.

In some ways the Safe Haven community is a product of this moment in time and history. Tent cities are reportedly popping up all around the country, more and more since the mortgage crisis started. There are also more permanent communities—including Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon—that helped inspire Safe Haven.

Harmon helped the Safe Haven community approve a list of 10 rules that govern the group—like “No theft of others' property is permitted.” Members have to perform 7 hours a week of community service. There's a committee, made up of members, that decides on reprimands. They've formed a board of directors.
In some ways, it's a political experiment that's being carried out on a small scale. But the community is also serving real need.

DAVIS: When I walked in the door and put my bags down, I knew I would be OK. I just sighed. I was grateful. I was thankful. I was a little scared a first, you know. I looked around, I talked to a few residents. And I asked them, 'Where do I put my things?'

Latasha Davis says Safe Haven was her last hope for shelter after a fight with her family left here without a place to go. Davis is trying to find a more permanent shelter—someplace that's better set up than Safe Haven.
At St Mary's parish center there aren't showers. She says one day she washed up with water from the washing machine. The water gets really hot.
Davis wasn't part of the tent community. She's been at Safe Haven for only a few days.
DAVIS: They came at me at a critical time in my life. I didn't have to sleep on the crack house floor. I didn't have to sleep at a family's home and endure abuse, whether verbal or physical and that was the important thing for me.

The need seems to be there, in the past week the number of residents at Safe Haven has grown from 12 to 18.

And the city is aware of the problem. Steve Carter is the Champaign city manager.

CARTER: We have shelters and the city has participated in financing an SRO. We've provided funding for financing different financial operations around the city. So we've been supportive. Is that adequate given the times? It may not be. That's a question the city council and local political leaders will have to decide in terms of are there more things we can do.

So far, the Champaign government hasn't been willing to go along with Safe Haven's requests to move back outside. Carter says the tent city violates zoning ordinances and police have had complaints from neighbors.

But Pastor Tom Royer, who heads St. Mary's church, thinks the city is being unreasonable. They're worshiping their laws, he says, instead of caring about people.

St. Mary's recently appealed the zoning decision that forced the community into the parish hall—arguing the city was denying the ability of the church to practice its religion—a religion that mandates sheltering the homeless. The city turned them down again.

Now Safe Haven and Father Royer are trying to figure out what options they have—well aware that winter is right around the corner.

More From This Show