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How the humble camping tent symbolizes our failure on homelessness — and promises a solution to it

How the humble camping tent symbolizes our failure on homelessness — and promises a solution to it
A sidewalk homeless encampment in Los Angeles' skid row neighborhood in February 2018. (Los Angeles Times)

A few days ago I saw a man, clearly homeless, setting up a tent in Elysian Park, under a pine tree on a grassy knoll, with a fine view of the hilly landscape. It reminded me of a few nights I recently spent “under canvas” in the Mojave Desert camping with my kids. Our tents are nearly identical — a dome of nylon held taut by aluminum poles — though mine is for recreation and his is for survival.

This similarity is not an irony, but a troubling commonality that clouds our perception of the homelessness crisis. It might also point to a more agile response than we have so far mustered.

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The modern dome tent, developed to enable overnight access to the planet’s remote beauty spots, has also allowed the unprecedented spread of homeless encampments outward from the urban core, where support services historically were clustered. Wood and cardboard shanties are more fragile, less weatherproof, and harder to move at a moment’s notice. Tents, by contrast, can be taken down and easily moved from sidewalks to overpasses, freeway verges to traffic medians — anywhere there is space.

Tents are also cheap and easily available: Organizations and individuals hand them out in large numbers. Homeless people I’ve spoken with tell me they’ve been able to buy one at Big 5 or Walmart on sale for as little as $25. Even the best models are now mostly made in Bangladesh or China, products of the same globalization forces that exacerbate homelessness here — job loss, income inequality and so on.

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Still, the nylon dome tent remains the symbol of outdoor adventure, its image resurgent in advertising and marketing aimed at the millennial generation. Filmed pitched on pristine beaches or alpine valleys, tents represent freedom, health and the allure of nature — all in the use of selling SUVs and crossovers. Overlaid on the ubiquity of tents on our streets, this imagery abets a perverse normalization. People bedding down in tents or vans or RVs in the city begins to seem not so different from just … camping. And almost everyone likes (or likes to think that they’d like) to go camping. In a corrosive logic, tents begin to seem like a natural housing solution — allowing us to turn away from the urgency of the homelessness crisis.

Tents are the most ancient form of human-made housing. The oldest known tent, found in Moldova and built with hides stretched over mammoth bones, dates to around 40,000 BC. Tents are known from all inhabited continents, from the Mongol ger to the Arab beit to the Native American tipi. Herodotus described the round yurta of the Central Asian steppes, a home so practical and portable that it allowed the mounted Mongol hordes to conquer much of the known world. Pliny the Elder of ancient Rome wrote about using calf skins to make tents, and called living in tents sub pellibus — literally “under pelts.” The Legions of the Rome lived sub pellibus across the empire in vast, carefully-planned tent camps, many of which became the nuclei of future cities.

In the modern era, architects returned to the tent idea as a way to bring lightweight, adaptable housing to people and places for which traditional construction wasn’t sufficient. In a sense, the tent is a utopian building form. Even traditionalist Wallace Neff, famous for his ornate Spanish Colonial Revival buildings, also designed and built low-cost “bubble houses” based on tents. After World War II, the visionary engineer Buckminster Fuller popularized lightweight, mobile geodesic domes, which he sold to the U.S. military. In the succeeding decades, Fuller acolytes introduced a steady stream of tent design innovations, culminating in North Face’s 1975 release of the Oval InTENTion, which made the dome the dominant global tent form.

In the context of urban homelessness, what are tents? To call them a housing strategy risks normalizing society’s appalling failure to respond to soaring rents, evictions, income inequality and the rotting of the social safety net. And yet, that is accurate. Tents are manifestly a rational housing strategy on the part of homeless individuals given this economic and political situation.

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What can that teach us? Building new housing in California, even more than elsewhere in the United States due to seismic concerns, is prohibitively expensive. While high land prices are part of the problem, so too are the costs of complying with byzantine zoning and building codes. Our zoning codes generally favor single-family homes on large lots with pseudo-rural setback requirements. Our building codes prioritize a heavy, rigid response to the threat of earthquakes. We bury tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of engineered, permitted and repeatedly-inspected steel and concrete structure in the ground before even beginning to assemble a dwelling.

All this conspires to prohibit the possibility of a smaller, lighter and more flexible — if perhaps less permanent — way of building which might make our communities more inclusive and affordable. While no California city would allow tents as permanent dwellings, we should consider the broader lessons: Tent-like structures might be an alternative to our current strategy of trusting that skyscrapers, so-called small-lot subdivisions, and other luxury market-driven intrusions into the urban fabric will solve the housing crisis.

We should rewrite our codes to allow smaller lots, less setback, fewer parking spaces, and simpler but safe construction techniques, all the while preserving the low-rise, garden-centered tradition of making communities in California. The diminutive “Katrina cottages” built after the devastating hurricanes on the Gulf Coast are one example of such thoughtful solutions to critical housing shortages. Los Angeles could have its own.

The next time you pass a cluster of tents on Los Angeles’ streets, reconsider that nylon dome, and what it tells us about our humanity. Ask where the boundaries are — moral and architectural — between camping in Yosemite National Park and in MacArthur Park. And ask whether our appalling homelessness crisis can teach us to reevaluate the presumptions of our laws and redesign our urban future on more flexible and agile foundations.

Wade Graham teaches urban and environmental policy at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy. His most recent book is “Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shape the World.”

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