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Are We Camouflaging Homelessness by Giving Tents?

31skidrow.xlarge1It is so compelling. Our compassionate impulses race through our bodies when we see a person sleeping on the sidewalk. Especially if they appear to be a senior struggling with an illness, or a veteran with his military cap.

To many of those who are privileged, these individuals experiencing homelessness look like refugees from a war-torn country, or survivors of a natural disaster in a developing country, clinging to life. They certainly do not look like most of “us”…part of the proud, successful nation we call America.

We are compelled to extend a helping hand to these “lost” souls by providing sack lunches or our leftover dinners. We may toss them a couple of bucks as we walk or drive by them.

A more common response, in recent years, has been to give them tents. These pup tents have become synonymous with homelessness, especially in urban neighborhoods. They used to primarily only be seen in the “skid rows” of downtown cities; now, they are everywhere.

A row of tents clinging to a chain link fence along a city or suburban sidewalk are the new “skid rows” of our country. People living on the streets hide in these tents and their possessions are stored inside.

Let us all be reminded that giving a person a pup tent is not equivalent to providing them with a safe, secure place to rest their head. A tent is not a home. In fact, a tent is not even a safe shelter.

Perhaps, if we give away tents to everyone on the streets, we could hide them. We would just see their shadows. It is hard to put a face on a shadow. Shadows are easier to stereotype. They are easier to forget after we drive by them. Shadows sleeping in a pup tent are easier to label as lazy, drunks, or criminals.

I wonder if, in the past five years, this is the reason there has been a proliferation in the number of tents on our streets. I wonder if this is why housed people are distributing tents on the streets.

Is it to camouflage the reality of homelessness?