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Structure Out of Chaos: Shantytowns of America's Homeless

MaryLou Uttermohlen | LA, United States

Steve’s place

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA/ CONVENTION CENTER CAMP. Steven has lived in a small hidden shack at this location for 10 years. He felt safe and believed that the Department of Transportation that owned the land would never evict him. One day while he was passed out from alcohol and without any prior notice, his shanty and all of his belongings were loaded into a dump truck and taken away. He lost his personal documents, identification, books, pillow, bed, clothes, cooking items, food and literally everything he owned. Now he will really know what it is like to have nothing.

This series began in 1993 in Miami, Florida while the city was being sued for violating the civil rights of homeless people. Miami had a habit of jailing the homeless prior to public events. The presiding judge forbid criminalizing the homeless while the topic was being litigated and shantytowns sprung up across the country.

The result of lawsuit was for cities to raise funds in order to offer services and resolve the issue. It is now twenty-three years latter and not only is the battle to end homelessness ongoing but so is concept to make it a crime. The homeless get criminalized for being in public, camping in public, panhandling and any reason to sweep them away. Statistics show that 90% of this population is mentally ill and do not have the ability to change.

The point of the work is to raise our consciousness about the chronically homeless in the United States and their battle for dignity. The goal is to make the invisible shantytown residents seen and heard and learn about their plight.

Structure Out of Chaos: Shantytowns of America’s Homeless, is about chronic homelessness in the new millennium.

The documentary began in 1993 when the city of the Miami, Florida was being sued for arresting homeless people prior to public events. Arrests were a violation of their civil rights since homelessness is not a crime. While the Federal case was being litigated the judge ruled that “safe zones” be established where people could eat, sleep, and bath in public without fear of arrest until social services were offered. As a result, over a thousand people were living in Miami shantytowns and camps sprung up across the country.


Shantytowns get organized only to experience sweeps throwing them back into chaos. Eventually they rebuild and experience more sweeps. The cycle is endless. Neither side ever wins for long. This document consists of people in their homes. It is meant to be respectful, positive and empowering to show their progress of organizing their worlds with their own hands.

There are two types of homeless people. The first type is a person who has experienced an economic or personal disaster and pride will pull them out either through the aid of social services or shear determination. They are upset about the experience and are not likely to repeat it. The second type is the chronically homeless. These people have an issue preventing them from healing their circumstance. The conditions are usually mental illness, various addictions, health and legal problems. This population tends to be unable to conform to the structure of social services. The other clear point to make is that the requests for services usually exceed the available resources.


Within the population of chronically homeless people there are those who organize their lives by building a home base and developing communities. Quickly people segregate along lines of common interests. Leaders always emerge and the strong take care of the weak. Like tends to attract like. If a group feels threatened by a violent unpredictable individuals they will make that person leave their community. One positive aspect of shantytowns is that being able to organize means stability in their lives. After a sweep the upheaval puts them back at risk for danger from the unknown.


This essay is a mirror of our society. Sometimes we don’t like our own reflection and want to look away and pretend we didn’t see. Yet our growth comes from acceptance and coping with our dysfunctions as opposed to living in denial. In truth, we do not have a support system for our mentally ill and substance dependent individuals. The concept is that if we make life too easy then more people would choose to be homeless. Normally this population gets criminalized as if jails and prisons have the skills to fix the issue.


The story includes a camp of paroled sex offenders where the residents were required to wear leg monitors and check in under a bridge each night. This camp known as “Bookville” was created by city government and resulted in another lawsuit with the city of Miami for another violation of civil rights. Oddly enough, Bookville was a resulted from the work of Ron Book a lawyer who served on the Homeless Trust, which was the main organization for distributing funds for homeless services. Yes you hear it right, the Homeless Trust contributed to creating a homeless camp.


The goal of this project is to open a dialogue on the issues of chronic homelessness in the United States. In conclusion, the portraits are a reflection of our social dysfunctions. Unlike during the great depression this situation being exploring has little to do with housing and economics and everything to do with our social ills. Ignoring or criminalizing these social issues does not resolve them. Forcing people to keep moving and appear invisible does not fix it either. Until we understand what is happening and why we are doomed to continue repeating this cycle as the epidemic continues to grow.

National Coalition for the Homeless




504 . 891 . 1500 office phone

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