Organized Camps Initial Solution to Unsheltered Homelessness

Organized Camps Initial Solution to Unsheltered Homelessness
An organized camp with transitional structures. Photo by John Gibbins/San Diego Union-Tribune/ZUMA

By Paul Thomas Jackson

Editor’s note: “Organized Camps” is the second article in a three-part series on homelessness in Fresno.

Organized camps are the right way to begin solving unsheltered homelessness in Fresno because—both in terms of time and expense, and even over a few high hurdles—they’re the most expeditious way to do it.

In only 30 days, the county health officer approves an application to operate an organized camp. The application includes three sets of written plans and 10 written operating procedures. The plans are for buildings and/ or structures, pest control, health and emergency. The procedures are for supervisor qualifications and training, staff skill verification criteria and process, participant eligibility requirements, staff-to-participant supervision ratios, equipment needed, safety, emergency procedures specific to location, environmental hazards, access and equipment control, and equipment and maintenance repair. These plans and procedures are approved by the county health officer.

Indeed, the camp is “organized” and deserving of some respect across all segments of the Fresno community. It’s at least as clean as the out-of-doors safe havens unique to Oakland, furnished by that city with dumpsters and porta-potties. And it meets all the health and safety requirements applicable to an organized camp.

As part of the application process, two important roles must be filled: director and health coordinator. Proper vetting will improve the success of each organized camp; both candidates must have at least two seasons’ experience supervising or coordinating an organized camp.

Ideally, a camp director will establish a good working relationship with police, though a city does not ordinarily send police to patrol a camp, which comes under the city’s jurisdiction only regarding zoning. The well-being of the camp and its occupants depends on the director, and his/her regular communication with deputy directors to turn to regularly.

There is no worthwhile effort that does not have challenges: We anticipate the more difficult hurdle will be the selection of the proposed director, whom the county health officer screens as in a job interview. Each camp operator (a person or organization) will be held accountable for good faith and honesty in the application process. The director might also be the camp operator, but normally a nonprofit is the operator.

Counties have a financial incentive in finding candidates for health coordinator in organized camps for homeless people. Because unsheltered people live in unhealthy conditions and are alienated from a community that takes punitive measures against them, they usually avoid seeking preventive healthcare until their medical needs become urgent. Their overall health deteriorates the longer they live on the streets, requiring costlier medical interventions.

And while cities tend to drive up those costs, counties, which fund the hospitals, have an incentive to cut those costs: Informally, some counties refer camp operators to a pool of candidates for health coordinator, hastening the experience of filling it. And many people pursue a healthcare career because of their strong service ethic, which might inspire them to volunteer a year to attend to formerly homeless people in an organized camp. Yet, finding a health coordinator who possesses two seasons’ camping experience in that role remains a tough hurdle to cross.

Nevertheless, both in terms of time and expense, organized camps are the most expeditious way to begin solving unsheltered homelessness in Fresno. Unlike bigger cities, Fresno has open plots of land away from retail and residential zones. Other interventions are more costly, more time-consuming, or both.

Whereas an organized camp could be set up in a matter of months, other interventions take years to prepare. Generally, transitional housing is the costliest intervention. Permanent supportive housing (PSH) is the best practice to solve chronic homelessness: Giving people their needed support in new or old rehabbed buildings is the best way to ensure their recovery.

PSH entails expense, whether new construction or rehab of old buildings. Needing no buildings, organized camps are the most expeditious way unsheltered people can begin their recovery. Fresno Homeless Advocates calls fire-resistant tents in an organized camp “transitional structures.” Because the time and cost of setting them up is much less than buildings, organized camps are indeed the way for unsheltered people to begin their recovery.

Of course, existing buildings that need no rehabbing and are suitable and available would be an even more expeditious solution. Where such buildings exist, use of them to solve homelessness can involve a practice known as rapid rehousing (RRH). In most of the country, RRH is called a best practice to solve homelessness of veterans and families. For the last decade or so, however, California and other western states have experienced a housing crisis that clearly is a structural cause of rising homelessness today.

The city of Los Angeles is facing this reality and imposing a local tax to pay for new construction there. Fresno has yet to build a broad consensus to do likewise. Voters and policymakers here fail to collaborate as have Angelenos. Whatever gains the progressive community in Fresno has made here, an increase in the local sales tax has proven a hard sell.

In two respects, the expeditious way of organized camps is well suited to unsheltered people, most of whom are single adults. First, the alternatives are less suitable to single adults than are organized camps. Fresno Homeless Advocates reject jail as a viable alternative for someone who lacks shelter and needs to use bedding in a public place.

Loitering in a public place is a constitutional right. And unless the loiterer hinders or blocks foot or motor traffic, or panhandles aggressively, he doesn’t abuse that right. Scheming up ways to do an end run around someone’s constitutional rights is an ugly way to try to beautify our community. An attack on the fundamental rights of one of us—yes, even if that one is homeless—is an attack on the rights of us all.

But micro-housing, also known as tiny homes, can be a viable alternative: It’s used as intervention in or prevention of homelessness in short order. Over the long term, micro-housing holds a great deal of promise in our solving of homelessness in Fresno and the country’s other homeless hotspots.

Across the country, the tiny house movement has made real strides in cities such as Austin, Texas; Portland, Ore.; and Olympia and Seattle, Wash. Here in California, lawmakers have seen to it that cities adopt zoning permitting micro-housing. And in the last couple of years, Fresno and Clovis have adopted such zoning, and the door to the lobby has been opened to us.

Here in California, the most promising organization that uses tiny houses to solve homelessness is a nonprofit named Destinato Rigore. The model used by Destinato makes them available to house youth and families. Meanwhile, the main demographic of unsheltered people is single adult. To solve unsheltered homelessness, then, organized camps, which can shelter single adults, are suitable.

The other respect—known to any parent of a teenager who aspires to be an adult—is that a single adult is apt to make her or his own decisions. In that respect, too, organized camps are well suited to unsheltered people, most of them single adults.

In the present plight of an unsheltered person, one’s ability to get necessary things for oneself and one’s “street family” is usually a great accomplishment. Though humans’ survival instinct compels some people to get much more than they could possibly use or give away, an unsheltered person possesses remarkable abilities to live by one’s wits and build community. South of downtown, Fresno has enough unused land for organized camps to allow campers to stay there with space for some expression of those natural abilities and human instincts.

The traditional, paternalistic view of recovery from homelessness uses the service provider’s buildings to bring clients off the street and away from its destructive influences. On a mission to rescue clients, their failure to use adultlike responsibility for their actions incurs its loss until they earn opportunities to use it again.

Upon enrolling, a client governs only the most basic things in his or her own life. Gradually, with continued full participation in the program, the client is allowed to make a wider range of decisions and given more amenities. Eventually, the client becomes “housing ready”—also a name for that model, which, of course, is paternalistic.

The linear or housing-ready model takes account of clients’ individuality and adulthood, but only in the way and on the terms of the program, however parochial. The model’s paternalism is reinforced, not only by one’s need of housing and recovery from addiction but also one’s placement in the buildings of the provider and under the supervision of its trusted graduates.

Recognition of the dignity of the individual is the cornerstone of our moral values. So long as a person is seeking recovery, his or her decisions deserve respect and a supportive environment. The organized camp in San Diego offers a supportive environment; while responding to the recent outbreak of Hepatitis A in that city, its city council has collaborated with a nonprofit there in meeting other urgent needs of homeless people there. A commendable effort, to be sure.

But organized camps in Las Cruces, N.M. (and to a lesser extent those in Portland), stand out as exemplars to homeless advocates here in Fresno. With their modest resources, the residents of Las Cruces appear to live by its motto, “People Helping People”: Without needing the label of homeless advocate in a community flourishing with homeless advocates, people work from across economic sectors to solve homelessness. And camps served by nonprofits there treat homeless adults as adults, many of whom did indeed make a few bad decisions in their lives.

The supportive culture of Las Cruces has crystallized in a practice of simply letting unsheltered people live in their tents in parts of the city away from commerce and residences, but within reach of vital services. These are maintained like the out-of-doors “safe havens” in Oakland.

Rather than desert people as in Oakland, or refer people to services they might or might not be ready for as here in Fresno, New Mexicans bring the services to the people, who on their own terms and in time come to a decision to use the necessary services to the fullest in making successful recovery, a good many even becoming self-reliant and now living independently. Such impressive results of homeless advocacy, exemplified by the New Mexicans, are possible in organized camps that respect adults’ aptness to make their own decisions, which of course are firmer than otherwise.

Author’s note: Thanks go to Kathryn Saari for proofreading this series.


Paul Thomas Jackson prepared the claims that paved the way for the homeless lawsuit that in 2008 settled for $2.35 million. Paul is now the secretary of the Fresno Homeless Advocates (FHA). He’s also its acting social media director, playing a key role in its Facebook group of more than 500 members. The FHA regularly meets at 6 p.m. on the third Sunday of the month. Notice is posted on the wall of the Facebook group.


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