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Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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Another tent city

May 18 2009
St Petersburg is home to a ‘self-governing community‘ America is leading the way in homeless communities. A city of tents huddled together has become a viable alternative for the homeless in Florida's St Petersburg, USA. When several church groups handed out tents to the town's homeless at the end of 2006, a group of nearly 30 people gathered under a busy interstate overpass and pitched their new homes. In this cluster of fabric shelters, a 'self-governing community' was set up, a democratic system where all residents agreed to sign a contract, creating a 'model community' working on 'consensus and respect'. "It's like a big family out here," said Richard Bigginz Carlson, 23, sitting beside his canvas home in an old chair someone left on the Pavement. Another tent dweller, Nygee Shabazz, 45, could not have been happier with his free two-room tent. "When you've been locked up for 22 years, you like to sleep outside," he said. Indeed, Mr Shabazz has been so inspired by the community spirit he found at the tent city that he has finally decided to break the vicious cycle that kept him in and out of prison, and has signed up for anger management counselling. And for a few weeks, goodwill truly did prevail at the St Petersburg tent city. Strangers offered their old knick-knacks, furniture and clothes. One night an anonymous donor even left warm pizzas silently steaming outside a tent door. Many nights were spent singing and dancing to the bang of makeshift drums and the whistle of tin flutes. It was a vision of how things can be in the world. But the festival feeling did not last for long. The high visibility of the makeshift dwellings began to raise questions with the local authorities. The legal complexity of the existence of this temporary city, and all the embarrassment that came along with it, eventually led the authorities to demand its closure. So the community took down their tents, only to put them up again elsewhere. In the last two months, this group of people has been forced to relocate on numerous occasions. A relatively peaceful existence has become imbued with violence and fear. One tent dweller has reported an assault and two have allegedly been murdered, their killers are reportedly still roaming the streets. Reports even allege that authorities themselves have been violent at one site. Sources claim St Petersburg police and fire marshals attacked tents with razor blades, collapsing them in the name of 'safety'. In a press release issued on 26th January, members of the original tent city under the interstate overpass claimed they were not trying to make a political statement by relocating each time they were moved on - living in tents was simply safer than being on the streets. However, they say that the tent city has become a political issue because its existence has revealed the city's failure to provide social housing for its residents. The members of the original tent city ended their statement by appealing to social service agents, and any advocates of the tent city, to tell their story so that their version of the 'American Dream', their small-scale democracy, can survive. Yet this tale of a city-within-a-city is far from new. As the number of people in the US with no fixed abode has risen over the years, so has the number of tent cities popping up in the nooks and crannies of the US's concrete jungles. Michael Stoops, acting head of the US National Coalition for the Homeless, believes there is more to the increase of these temporary dwellings than their simple role as a shelter. Mr Stoops feels that tent cities are on the rise because for many residents, this is the first time they have encountered the warmth of safety in numbers. It is the experience of a community empowers them, he says. "There's also a sense of community. Homeless folks are tired of having social workers tell them what to do or religious people preaching at them. "Some just want to sleep and eat and do their day labour or panhandle, and we can't really force them to do what we want to do," said Mr Stoops. It remains to be seen how long the next makeshift metropolis in St Petersburg will stay pegged into the ground. The problem, as is the case the world over, is that despite the attempts of the US's homeless to take their futures into their own hands, their voices are often drowned out.