Come and see these giant artworks being created and chat further with the team at our temporary city centre workshop, Bauer Millett arches, 8 Albion Street, M1 5LN, open every day up to and including 21st July, 12-8pm
I’ve been homeless on and off since I was 17, in a couple different states back in America as well as the UK. The vast majority of it tended to be pretty miserable, but there was one part that I sometimes actively miss, and that was tent city, back in Pittsburgh.
Calling it a city might be an exaggeration: it was made up of about 10 tents under a bridge, with somewhere around 15 people staying there on any given night. The tents themselves were all fairly large, with some of them able to comfortably fit up to four people. People passing through town who knew someone in the encampment were free to crash for a night or two as needed, if there was space. I once even hosted my best friend in my tent when her couch surfing had a brief gap. We also had a porto-potty, a fire pit, and two piles of firewood and water bottles that charities donated to the camp before I showed up.
Before ending up there, I’d been most “types” of homeless, having stayed on couches and in basements, shelters, hospitals, group homes, and alleyways. I didn’t mind hospitals or sofa surfing, but I didn’t like them much either, and the rest were all fairly horrible, for reasons I doubt I have to explain. I’m certain that the context of my stay in the camp affected my perception of it, but I know for a fact that the sense of community I felt there was real.
When I first showed up, it was after getting out of a brief stay in a psych hospital, and I showed up mostly unannounced. There was someone I knew in the camp who gave me directions to it, and I arrived late at night with nothing but my backpack. I got lost more than once trying to find it. The people there set me up with a tent that wasn’t being used as soon as I arrived and my friend had vouched for me. It was in disuse because the zipper on the door was broken so it wouldn’t close, but one women used a hole punch and zip ties to help get it shut, and then helped me fix it up by rigging a flashlight to the top as a makeshift ceiling lamp and putting layers of mylar and blankets on the roof to help insulate heat and keep out moisture. As time went on and people came and went, I “moved” from that tent into another, better one, and then another even bigger one, which I shared with another guy who lived there.
Being homeless could feel so isolating and hopeless, but I didn’t feel so alone there. Most of us panhandled downtown, and it was nice to see a friendly, familiar face after having to let the vast majority of society (metaphorically) spit in my face for hours so I could afford food, my meds, and my phone bill. Nonprofit organizations were able to reach out to everyone in the camp more effectively, because we were a known entity, and because, by living together, we were able to pool our knowledge of available resources.
In the end, some upper-middle class people who lived nearby made complaints and the camp was shut down. I’ll never understand that kind of mentality. We made a point not to litter and we weren’t rowdy late at night. It was the only time while I was homeless that I felt safe and I doubt I was the only one, and some people whose biggest concern was that they could see us at all decided to take that away.
Things weren’t perfect—especially when it was freezing out—and I didn’t get on with everyone there, but sometimes I miss it. I’m working on getting my shit together now with the support of my family and friends in Manchester, but when things feel too much like an uphill battle, I start wishing I could return there. I went back a year after I’d left and whoever had shut it down also put up big pieces of wood in X shapes all along the outside to try to stop people from getting back in. But behind them, even then, was another tent.