From the Director: Tents

The problem in Portland is tents.

The problem in Portland is housing—too little, too expensive.

The problem in Portland is disparity—racial, economic, educational, generational, geographical, pharmaceutical—and tents are only a symptom.

The problems in Portland are not only in Portland—they’re also in Bend, Salem, Klamath Falls, and all over the state. The problems in Oregon are also problems in Washington, California, Nevada, Idaho, and plenty of other places too.

The problems in Portland and elsewhere are interconnected—so woven into each other, so mutually reinforcing, so atmospheric, that it’s ridiculous to focus on only one.

The problem in Portland is tents.


When I was younger, I delighted in tents. First there were forts. In the room I shared with my brother, we’d drape sheets over chairs and climb underneath. As a teenager I graduated to two-person Sundome tents—canoe trips, hiking, the sleeping bag, the campfire. In my twenties, maintaining and building backcountry trails as a seasonal Forest Service employee, almost every night of every summer began with rolling out the solo bivvy, every day with rolling it back up. 

Tents were a reprieve from the everyday, the city, the grind, the real. They were a reconnection to an imagined past and a step toward independence and freedom. They were quiet and calm, a break. Even when I slept in them for work, they were play.

Tents were some kind of escape.


What does it mean for tents to be a problem, or to stand for a set of problems? It’s more palatable, though less revealing, to say that tents are the problem than to point at the people living inside them. And it’s easier, more vivid and comprehensible, to say that tents are the problem than to rail, again, against the large and complicated systems, forces, and policies that have led to their ubiquity. 

Tents have become the easy and insufficient shorthand for so much that is wrong. They pop up and wear down in places they shouldn’t be—on sidewalks and easements, in patches of grass along the highway, under bridges and over grates. They make public what should be kept private. They fail to protect the people inside them from what is outside, or the people outside them from noticing and at some level feeling implicated in this failure. 

They’re a failed facade, a temporary fix with no end in sight. They’re the cheapest, flimsiest form of cover, or cover-up, that one could imagine.


What is the question that tents are the answer to? What problem have tents been deputized to solve? What magic powers do we think tents could possibly hold?


When my children were young, they were given a gift by a grandparent: a small castle made of cloth. We set it up in their bedroom in our second-floor apartment on Chicago’s far North Side. It took minutes to snap the poles into place and pop up the pink walls. The kids spent hours inside of it, and sometimes whole days. 

It was a tent inside a home, a pretend roof and pretend walls protected by a real roof and real walls. It was an enchanting idea inside actual shelter. That pink tent, its walls no sturdier than a paper fan, was a dream my kids shared, and a good one. 

Portland’s tents, no matter who we are or where or how we live, have become a bad dream we all share.

At some point before we moved to Oregon, my kids stopped crawling into that pink tent. We folded it up and put it away and then, somehow, that magical castle, that tent in a room in a house, was gone. The time for that kind of tent was over.

I wonder what it will take for us to move beyond Portland’s kind of tent. I wonder when we will grow up out of that kind of tent, and what it will take to get there.  


Public Policy, Housing


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Also in this Issue

From the Director: Tents

Editor's Note: Shelter


A Temple Between Us



For the People

At the End of the Tunnel

A Haven, A Refuge

Central Heating


People, Places, Things

Discussion Questions and Further Reading: Shelter