Self-Organization as a Response to Homelessness: Negotiating Autonomy and Transitional Living in a "Village" Community
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Tent cities date back to the 1930s; however, the past decade has seen a rise in formalized camps, many attempting to function as democratic communities. Here, democratic communities refer to temporary spaces in which people without homes (PWH) live together with the goal of governing their own affairs (horizontal rather than top-down). Findings of the first “village” for the homeless indicate mixed results with self-governance among PWH in terms of the autonomy of individuals or as a method to mitigate homelessness. Given decline of social welfare budgets, as well as criticisms that shelterization and criminalization try to control the poor, government-sanctioned camps have provided safe, legal, dignified spaces for PWH. Studies of tent cities are growing, yet few follow their attempt to implement self-governance within the first few years of existence. This ethnography of a transitional “village” in the Pacific Northwest fills a gap by uncovering socio-cultural and organizational processes that facilitate and impede self-organization. The village is collaborative; a nonprofit provides oversight to residents dwelling in tiny houses. The village is neither run exclusively by the homeless nor directly managed by housed “outsiders.” Using participant-observation, interviews, and documents, I study the development of the village’s vision, rooted in Occupy yet influenced by neoliberal principles. Some view this village as a safe, stable place in which to secure future housing while providing dignity and autonomy; residents themselves were divided in how they experienced autonomy. For some, living there can be difficult since they have the authority to enforce community rule violations on fellow residents but often do not out feeling threatened or uneasy about putting a fellow resident in check. Some residents perceive a lack of power in regulating others. The authority of the nonprofit board is inadvertently reproduced even as it seeks to relinquish that authority. My work also has implications for research on relations between “housed” and “homeless”, and for decoupling processes that focus on divergence between stated organizational policies and actual practices. Materials related to this work (Appendices A-E) are included as supplemental files with this dissertation.