Here is a paper I wrote for my Social Movements class on Tent City, a homeless community located in St. Petersburg, FL. I thought it might be useful or interesting to those on these lists. This paper explores the history and development of tent city and analyses the movement using social movement theory. The research is based on dozens of newspaper articles, blog entries, websites, and videos. Please excuse minor typos.
A Sociological Analysis of St. Petersburgs Tent City
Tent city was an impromptu response to problems relating to housing and homelessness in St. Petersburg, Florida. In this movement, a group of homeless people and organizers sought to create a community based on participation and mutual aid. This analysis of tent city uses social movement theories relating to organization, frame alignment,
repression, and resource mobilization to try to understand the development of the movement. In this paper I use these theories to come to the following conclusions: (1) The collectivist organization of the movement results from an ideological commitment to participatory democracy and reflects the homeless peoples desire for self-organization; (2) religious doctrine, culturally constructed conceptions of homelessness, and the media all play a role in influencing the movements public reception; (3) repression against a movements can be beneficial if the repression is seen as unjustified; and (4) the ability to generate resources will be the decisive factor in determining tent citys immediate ability to survive.
The Story of Tent City
Although tent city is only less than half a year old, its story is a long one. Since the beginning of tent city, the St. Petersburg Times alone has published more than 30 articles, editorials, letters, columns, and features relating to tent city. Other newspapers and local news channels have also extensively covered the events surrounding tent city. Heavy media coverage has forced the issue of homelessness into the consciousness of the residents of St. Petersburg and other surrounding areas. As a result, heated debates among residents, homeless people, city officials, business owners, police officers, and
organizers have ensued.
The movement began on December 29, 2006 when
a homeless community called "Operation Coming Up" was established on an empty
lot owned by St. Vincent at the 1200 block of 4th Ave. North in St. Petersburg , Florida .
On this lot, homeless people erected tents to serve as a place to
live. This community later became widely knows as tent city. This effort was largely organized by Reverend Bruce Wright and the Refuge Ministries, which was established by Wright 17 years ago.
Two weeks after the establishment of tent city, Mayor Rick Baker order tent city to shut down. Two new tent cities sprung up in different locations. These new tent cities were quickly ordered to shut down, although many people refused to leave. During this time, two homeless menDavid Heath, 53, and Jeff Shultz, 43were murdered.
It is believed that they were targeted for being homeless. One of the men was a tent city resident who left after the city evicted all of the tent city residents. Many people assert that, had the city not evicted all tent city residents, the man may not have been out on the street, and thus may still be alive.
Just two days after the murders, as residents were still shaken up, police officers raided the two tent cities with box cutters that were used to slash and destroy the homeless peoples tents.
This aggressive act of repression was captured on film by tent city resident Tina May using a $30 disposable digital video camera. The video of the police slashing the tents was quickly uploaded onto the video sharing website YouTube, where it was watched over 13,000 within several weeks.
Police claimed that they raided and destroyed the tents because they were a safety hazard. However, this is a strange justification considering the police resorted to slashing tents with people inside them, an action that would be considered dangerous by most people. Many people, including local officials, did not see the action as justified. In response to the incident, Mayor Rick Baker said, I did not know that the operation had occurred until it occurred. I was aware that the fire marshal had identified a very grave concern. I did not know the specifics to the solution. Council member James Bennett commented,
What we saw on Friday night was an embarrassment for this city. Police Chief Chuck Harmon was also regretful and went on to admit that
the way we [the police officers] did that was a mistake.
Since the police raids, tent city has continued its struggle to survive. The camp has been forced to move locations multiple times and continues to struggle financially. Violence against homeless people continues to grow. Several homeless people who have been brutalized have gone to tent city for safety because they do not trust the cops since the raids happened. Murders and violence toward homeless people continue to be a problem. The National Coalition for the Homeless reported that attacks against the homeless have risen
from 86 in 2005 to 142 in 2006.
In March, tent city would be faced with another challenge. During this month, the city would pass an ordinance that would basically render tent cities illegal.
This ordinance was met with great residence by local
activist; however, efforts to block the ordinance were shot down by city officials who voted in favor of the ordinance.
Recently, three protestors have been arrested for acts of civil disobedience.
These protestors refused to leave the area that was loaned to homeless people by the city. This land was supposed provide homeless people with space to camp for 90-days. The city closed the temporary camp prematurely leaving many people without a place to go. There have been no updates about what has and will happen now that there is no
land available for people to camp on.
Organizational Structure of Tent City
As a result of the tent city residents ideological commitment to self-organization and community autonomy, tent city has a highly participatory structure. It has been governed directly by the homeless occupants, with oversight from several organizations.
Homeless people find tent city more appealing than other more bureaucratically run shelters because it gives them greater freedom. However, there are community guidelines that homeless occupants must follow in order to be allowed to stay at tent city. In a letter published in the St. Petersburg Times
, residents described the organization of tent city:
We have all signed a contract that we have written. For instance, No. 2 of the rules is "I WILL pledge a minimum of FOUR hours a week to maintaining the integrity of the SPTC beyond my own tent." And what do we do? We pick up the trash, maintain the portable toilets, work in the tent city's office, and work as part of the tent city press group. We are barbers who cut hair. We have two men who fix bicycles donated to us so that members of our community can have
transportation to work. We have people who are mediators in disputes, guard our community, cut our grass, and trim our trees. We contribute to both our community and your city.
Another article goes on to explain the role of Kathy Hines, an elected leader of tent city.
The new mayor at Bruce's [tent city] is Kathy Hines, 57, homeless five months. They call her Mom. She gets everyone to sign contracts, takes charge of supplies, keeps the cell phone and calls Bruce when someone breaks the rules.
Tent city follows a more collectivist organizational model as opposed to a formal, bureaucratic model. Tent city residents prefer the participatory structure because it empowers occupants while fostering community cooperation. In early March of 2007, homeless people were ordered by the police and local officials to vacate their tent camp near a sidewalk. Local officials demanded that residents move to a newly established 90-day temporary camp that would have stricter rules in addition to stripping homeless
occupants of their decision-making rights. As a result,
several tent city residents and advocates said the homeless would refuse to move unless the city agreed to sign a proposal guaranteeing a voice in decision-making.
Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis responded by asserting that the city would not give into their demands and, if needed, arrests would be made of those unwilling to cooperate.
Frame alignment is concerned with the social production of meaning through rhetoric, ideology, and culturally and socially loaded symbols. When applied to social movements, frame alignment attempts to understand how meaning is constructed, how movements are interpreted, why interpretations change and how this affects public perception and participation in movements. In other words, frame alignment attempts to understand social movements by understanding the discourse surrounding the movement.
Human behavior is partly contingent on what the object of orientation symbolizes or means. Furthermore, the meanings objects or events hold for us are not intrinsicthey do not, in other words, attach to them automaticallybut are assigned or imputed through interpretative processes. Additionally, it is assumed that these meanings are not fixed or static but subject to change as the social context changes.
This theory can easily be applied to tent city considering the movements focus on
homelessness and its religious foundations. Religion carries both positive and negative cultural connotations. In the case of tent city, its affiliation with Christianity is positive in that it makes participants appear innocuous and deserving of compassion.
On the other hand, the concept of homelessness carries negative social weight. For many Americans, homelessness symbolizes joblessness, laziness, drug addition, and criminality. Many of the deeply engrained stereotypes about homeless people are unfounded. For example, people often assume that all homeless people are unemployed. In actuality, many homeless people have both full time and part time jobs. In a letter published in the St. Petersburg Times and written on behalf of the 73 homeless occupants of tent city, residents said:
Who are we? More than 60 percent of our tent city people work full time. We build your condominiums, clean your houses, and serve and cook your food in the restaurants. We have slept on the streets, in your alleys, on your beaches and in your parks, trying for nothing more than to get a good night's sleep without being arrested, beaten or rained on.
This letter, written directly by actual residents of tent city, attempts to undo negative homeless stereotypes by representing homeless people in a more humanistic way. By
doing this, homeless people are trying to change the cultural meaning of homelessness by reframing what it means to be homeless. In addition, this letter also attempts to shift the cause of homelessness from individual laziness to an unjust social system. The residents of tent city assert that they are not the problem; the problem lies in the society at large. The letter continues to say,
The crisis is that we live in a society that refuses to support those in need.
The tactic of humanizing homelessness in an attempt to debunk and reframe the meaning of
homelessness has been used throughout the movement. In addition to the homeless populations attempts to represent themselves as real people worthy of consideration, the media has also approached the homeless crisis in St. Petersburg in a more humanistic way. Personal profiles (of homeless people) that are published in newspapers function to shift the publics perception of homelessness. These profiles emphasize the struggles of homeless peopletheir hopes, their dreams, and their often traumatic backgroundsand are frequently accompanied by poignant photographic portraits and moving images of the tent city community working together. A story published in the St. Petersburg Times, titled Faces of hope in tent city, describes the struggles and aspiration of four tent city residents. The story opens:
They came from different backgrounds, different generations and
with different problems. But for two weeks, the men and women in the tent city on St. Petersburg 's Fourth Avenue N have been a community.
Despite the compassionate depiction of homelessness, the media did not immediately succeed at changing the publics perception of homelessness. The articles and letters published prior to the tent city raids and homeless murders were often met with extreme hostility. On the St. Petersburg Times website, readers
responded to stories by making comments such as,
You are not a community just like mine -my community pays the taxes which support you! You know who else cooks my food and builds my condos? People who aren't homeless! If they can do it, so can you.
The comments made in response to the earlier tent city articles reflect a divergence in views. The publics response can be divided into three main camps: the religious camp (who have more a benevolent idea of how homeless people should be treated) the liberal or progressive camp (who see homelessness as part of
a larger injustice) and the individualist camp (who feel that homelessness is the result of personal inadequacy).
The comments made by the religious camp are reflective of the idea that helping people is a moral obligation. The people that fall into this category often criticize Mayor Rick Bakers actions toward the homeless population of St. Petersburg, making comments like,
Baker, who professes to be a Christian man with strong moral character and family values, is instead a man who willingly will hurt the lives of those unfortunate souls who do not have a place to call home.
Figure 1. Protestor uses religious rhetoric on banner.
Similarly, religious rhetoric is frequently used during tent city demonstrations. A popular slogan painted on signs during homeless rights demonstrations in St. Petersburg is the phrase, Jesus was homeless. This is an example of frame extension, a theory that attempts to reveal how movements can extend their framework to include adherents that might have values that are congruent with that movement. By using religious rhetoric, homeless rights activists are extending their frame to include adherents that have Christian values.
Although both the religious camp and progressive camp side with the homeless people of St. Petersburg, the comments made by the progressive camp often
differ from the religious camp in their view of what causes homelessness. Many progressives have a broader critique of homelessness that sees the problem as an economic and social injustice. Numerous people responded to articles about tent city by emphasizing the inadequacies of the economic system. One comments notes,
There will be more of this [homelessness], as the rents get higher, jobs more scarce, corporations working workers like slaves with no raises and gas prices going higher. Homeless pay taxes like you do. If they are single, they are not eligible for social programs.
While the commentary of religious and progressive people often differ in their views, it is important to keep in mind that these two ideological camps are not always mutually exclusive. Reverend Bruce Wright, the main organizer of tent city, sees homelessness as a social and economic injustice in addition to linking the fight for homeless rights with religion. Wright was quoted in the St. Petersburg Times saying, This isn't just a political issue, it's also a spiritual issue. ... Jesus spoke up for the poor. Not only does Wright want to help the poor, but he also wants to change the system itself. Wright has been described as a radical and a revolutionary by the media. He is the grandson of a Marxist labor organizer and the son of a Unitarian Democrat. He has studied criminology, sociology and theology at various colleges in addition to being involved in religious, peace, and social justice groups. Wrights ideological background also manifests itself in his commitment to self-governance.
Theories of Repression
Furthermore, there was a shift in the framing of homelessness after tent city was met with repression. After the murder of two homeless people and the slashing of tents, homeless people were seen by the public as victims rather than perpetrators. This restructuring of the meaning of homelessness and the deconstruction of homeless stereotypes can be seen as a frame transformation.
Repression has the potential to impede a movements progress, but it also has the potential to fuel the movements strength. Whether or not repression helps or stifles a movement depends on whether or not people interpret the repressive actions as justified or unjustified. It is important to also keep in mind that peoples interpretations of events are, to some extent, shaped by the social climate. In this case,
the media contributed to the restructuring of the meaning of homelessness by harshly criticizing the actions of the police. Furthermore, many local residents, who were previously uninterested in homeless issues, became interested because they were appalled by the actions of the police. It is likely that the police repression generated public attention that increased support and contributions of resource to the movement.
The repressive actions of local officials were largely perceived to be unjustified. The incident sparked a huge media backlash, with headlines such as, St. Petersburg, meanest city in the nation?" Another journalist said that the video of the tent slashing
St. Petersburg as a national poster child for cruelty against the homeless.
Several days after tent city was met with police repression, the newspaper published a series of letters to the editor, all of which reproached the actions of the police. However, many of the comments to these letters continued to be hostile toward homeless. Thus, one can conclude that part of the local populations view of homelessness was transformed (those who thought the repression was unjustified), while others
maintained their negative view. On the other hand, the responses to the article about the murders of the two homeless men were overwhelming sympathetic toward the homeless deceased. This is because the murder of innocent people is rarely seen as justified.
Resource mobilization is an important theory to apply to this specific case. Resource mobilization is a theory that emphasizes the role of resources in fostering or limiting a movements
capacity. The last tent city, a temporary tent shelter at Lakewood United Church of Christ, cost about $1300 a week to maintain. Costs included vehicle maintenance and gas, food (when it isnt donated), supplies, two security guards, and support staff (case management), as well as miscellaneous items. The Refuge currently runs short about $600 dollars a week. Tent city depends almost solely on donations from the community. The Refuge also frequently puts on benefit shows to generate money for tent city; however,
these efforts are unable to fund the camp entirely. Needless to say, the tent city in St. Petersburg has been having severe financial problems. Lack of resources makes the entire project vulnerable to collapse. The latest challenge to tent city is the current challenge of finding land for tents or other types of housing now that the temporary city-sanctioned tent city is closing. In the latest tent city update Wright wrote, As of yet, we have not had any Church or Faith based group come forward to offer their site as a sanctuary to move to. We have, in fact, been told by 7 different Churches that they are unable to help at this time. So, we are faced with having no where to go at this time. The Importance of resources to tent city is again revealed later when Wright says, We are still in need of financial help of any kind to keep this effort going. And, we still need 2 fairly new laptops, food and hygiene support and bus passes.
The residents and organizers of tent city are now facing its
major challenge: the challenge of generating enough resources to run tent city. This challenge is perhaps the most vital to tent citys immediate survival. Not having land for camps or shelters to house homeless people could bring tent city to an immediate halt in the upcoming weeks.
 What theyve said about the
homeless, St. Petersburg Times, February, 18, 2007.
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