Seattle's Tent City #3 features a library.
Occupy Madison has set its sights on what at first seems like an impossibly naive goal: creating an eco-village of tiny homes that could be a cooperative community for the homeless.
But the group, which was formed more than two years ago in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement, is not the first in the country to dream big. Several cities in the Northwest have created both eco-villages of tiny homes and more transitory tent cities to address homelessness.
Some of these have existed for years, and three members of Occupy Madison toured them in late November to learn from their experiences. Bruce Wallbaum, an Occupy member, says the cities he toured -- Portland and Eugene, Ore., and Seattle and Olympia, Wash. -- are much more supportive of the idea than is Madison.
Mayor Paul Soglin refused to help the group continue its tent city on the 800 block of East Washington in April 2012 or find another location. City officials also took legal action against a resident, Koua Vang, who let the group camp on his property.
When asked whether tent cities or eco-villages might have a place in Madison, Soglin says, "I support permanent housing solutions." When pressed to elaborate, he adds, "Tents are not permanent housing."
Wallbaum says the idea has helped lots of people in the Northwest. "It was a completely different vibe out there," he says. "Instead of looking for a way to shut it down, they were looking for a way to make it work. The city still ran into its own rules, but they found a way to overcome them. They found a way to use the rules to make it work."
The Occupy Madison members visited three permanent villages: Dignity Village in Portland, Quixote Village in Olympia and Opportunity Village in Eugene. All three tiny-home villages were a little bit outside of town in industrial areas, says Wallbaum. He adds that each had secure entrances, requiring people to sign in.
Brenda Konkel, a former city council member who is part of Occupy, also toured the encampments and has photos and descriptions of each on her blog, Forward Lookout. (These tours feature the camps Right to Dream Too and Dignity Village in Portland, Opportunity Village and Whoville and Eugene SLEEPS in Eugene, Camp Quixote and Quixote Village in Olympia, and Tent City #3 in Seattle.)
Dignity and Opportunity villages were built by their occupants and allies, and can house 60 and 30 people, respectively. Quixote Village is still under construction, with no one living there yet. It is being built by a contractor, using federal funds, and will have 30 tiny homes with a large community building, Wallbaum says.
All three of the villages have application processes, and some of them limit how long people can stay there. Rules vary regarding alcohol. One area of tension, Wallbaum says, is that some residents gripe about others not doing their fair share of dishes. Dirty dishes, it seems, are the curse of communal living: "No matter where you go, dishes is the biggest topic," he says.
Although having a permanent eco-village is a longtime goal of Occupy Madison, Wallbaum says perhaps a more crucial way to address homelessness is the temporary tent cities that all of these cities allow.
"These tent cities are run really well," he says. "And we're still not addressing homelessness in this community."
Wallbaum adds that when the 800 East Washington tent city ended, most of the people who were living there continued living outside. "It just spread people out, and now they're in more dangerous situations."
The involvement of churches has been vital to the success of the tent cities in the Northwest.
"Tent City #3 in Seattle was impressive," Wallbaum says. "They had a tent where you could check out bicycles. And they were nice bicycles. It was super tidy with 85 people living there. They have to move every three months, so they move from church to church to church. They have a library. They have a shower unit."
These tent cities really offer an opportunity, Wallbaum says. "[Madison] completely discounted it and smeared it. But these encampments really do address a greater need."