Tent Life

If you drive west out of Lake Worth on the eastern Florida coast, you suddenly notice an array of brightly colored tents that contrast with the well manicured green of a vast park. But the sight is not altogether welcome since the tents signify the homeless inhabitants within – a picture of despair in many cities where far more ragged tents along with filth and crime are a blight on urban living.

But this Tent City, as it’s called, might be an acceptable compromise in light of the problem. Nationally, more than half a million people are considered homeless who have not fared well in an otherwise booming economy. Many causes have driven them to live outside – medical, financial, psychological – but they boil down to a basic one: they cannot afford housing. A tangle of state and local restrictions helps prevent the building of housing they might afford. As the libertarian Cato Institute notes: “It’s a problem of too much demand and too little supply.”

“June” (Photo by author)

So what is life like at Tent City where some 150 people occupy seventy tents? Compared to conditions in other parts of the world, living is tolerable. Residents are cheerful and chatty, leaving some critics to ask why are they then here? A woman says she fled a nearby beach town when her boy friend was shot and killed. Here she feels safe. A marine veteran, who arrived a few days ago, says he wanted to escape the coronavirus surrounding him. No reported cases yet of the disease in Tent City perhaps because they live outside.

Occupants seem to talk in terms of a temporary stay. Tents are clean and well kept, but they are hardly adequate housing. My guide – let’s call her June since county authorities don’t encourage visiting journalists and she wants to stay out of trouble – aspires to live in a “sanctuary with four walls,” which other Americans take for granted. Wherever she goes, she is welcomed by companionable tent dwellers along with her pet cat that she carries in a handbag. Robbery and violence are infrequent, but she was sexually assaulted a few years ago. Park rangers are helpful, she and others say, yet the law outside is not always practiced within.

The homeless know they are not wanted and hear talk of removing them. They’re provided with food and other necessities, but complain about a barricade that has been erected along the road to prevent cars from dropping off supplies. They note the county spent two million dollars on a nearby dog park complete with gazebos, drinking fountains and wash basins. Yet it would seem, given the enormous inequality in America today, that one and a half acre of a 700 acre park devoted to those who are much less equal is a reasonable arrangement.