Inside a Tent City near Microsoft

As a national video shows, these encampments have much to commend them. But they are no substitute for more permanent living places.
Nickelsville in the U District

Nickelsville in the U District Wikipedia

An architect's vision for ending homelessness in Vancouver.

An architect's vision for ending homelessness in Vancouver. The Tyee

"Scraping By: Portraits of Life during the Great Recession," by filmmaker Stewart Thorndike, is a documentary op-ed posted at the online New York Times. It takes viewers on a quick tour through Tent City 4, located about a mile from Microsoft on the grounds of St Jude's Catholic Church in Redmond. Nearly 100 people live there, most having lost jobs and homes during the past year — Eastside unemployment is almost 10 percent. The encampment is full, and newcomers are turned away every night.

Thorndike shot the film in early August on a sunny day, so the encampment looks attractive in its bright, leafy surroundings. Nobody’s shivering in wet sneakers and bedraggled parka. The blue tents are airy and translucent, the washroom looks pristine, and a space adventure DVD fills a small screen above bookshelves in a tent large enough for community gatherings. Rain will turn the grassy paths between the tents to mud, as happened in the field south of Seattle that Nickelsville occupied after its move from a U-District church parking lot. But for now a TC4 resident can sit outside his home, wrinkling his brow at the sun as he ponders his jobless state.

King County has three organized tent cities: TC3, TC4, and Nickelsville. (TCs 1 and 2 opened late in the 1990s without legal status and were eventually shut down.) These encampments are resident-run. Before moving in, each person undergoes background checks, agrees to obey strict community rules, and commits to sharing in responsibilities that include security, general management, and cleanup.

Tent cities are no substitute for residential neighborhoods or apartment buildings, but the current economic downturn, combined with the region’s perennial scarcity of affordable apartments and homes, makes this free low-barrier housing seem a necessary stopgap. Many homeless people would choose living in a tent in a well-run encampment over spending a night at a time in a Seattle city shelter, where one lies down beside strangers in a big barracks-style room. When a shelter closes in the morning, people generally must leave without a guaranteed bed for the following night and carry their belongings with them.

But tent cities provide a place of one’s own 24/7, with the dignity afforded by some privacy and a chance to arrange a few possessions in a homelike way. Residents come and go as they wish, leaving their things safe in their tent. Single women feel protected by security staff and regulations. Some homeless individuals refuse to live in a tent city because they’re forbidden to use street drugs or alcohol within the encampment or to come home high. Their decision to pass up the opportunity is fine with most residents, who appreciate rules ensuring good neighborly behavior in fragile circumstances.

Temporary dwellings such as those featured in a December Crosscut article (“A better way to help the homeless”) could fill the growing need for stopgap housing in the Puget Sound region. The article explains how architect Gregory Henriquez’s design for temporary villages of modular units on city sites could house Vancouver, B.C.’s homeless population during the 2010 Olympic Games. Vancouver city officials don’t want to spend millions on plush arrangements for visiting athletes while leaving their own citizens out in the cold. The dwellings are simple, sturdy portable units like ones that mining companies deploy for workers in remote areas.

But even the most Spartan structure costs money to build. In harsh economic times, rising numbers of people in King County who have lost their homes lack affordable alternatives to sleeping under a bridge. The tent city alternative is on the increase partly because an encampment on church-owned land is cheap to operate. At TC4, just $5,000/month covers the costs of showers, portable toilets, rubbish disposal, etc., for 100 people. SHARE (Seattle Housing and Resources Effort), a nonprofit, provides the funding.

Despite its ambitious subtitle Thorndike’s film (the first in a series that he is producing on life during America’s economic crisis) is just a glance at TC4 — a series of impressions less than five minutes long that doesn’t pretend to capture the whole scene or the societal issues it raises. Of the dozen or so faces appearing in the film all but one are white, although according to the King County Committee to End Homelessness 57 percent of the more than 8,000 individuals in the county who are homeless on a given night are people of color.


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Sat, Aug 15, 11:01 a.m. Inappropriate


If we got rid of regulation like GMA, the high taxes and other restrictions on the market, these people could afford houses.

Half of all housing costs in Puget Sound are due to Government impositions.

jabailo

Posted Sun, Aug 16, 9:24 p.m. Inappropriate

Yes jabailo, the free market is the answer to everything. Reduce the cost of housing by half and we get what? An average house selling for $200,000?

Think jabailo think! Turn off your TV. Try to think in longer sentences than sound bites. Of course that doesn't mean you'll think clearly. Look at the editorial board at the Seattle Times for instance.

They argue that that since tent cities aren't a permanent solution they should be closed down. One night sleeping in a wet alley might bring them a different viewpoint. As a prolonged period of unemployment and some serious health problems while uninsured might alter your view.

Posted Mon, Aug 17, 8:55 p.m. Inappropriate

The Rev. Craig Rennebohm, longtime Seattle mental health chaplain and friend of those in need, visited several European countries several years ago. He says they asked him, "Why do you allow homelessness to exist in your country?" He didn't have a good answer because there is none.

We need more tent cities or Hoovervilles until we can provide adequate shelter (not just a mat on the floor between 6 PM and 5:30 AM) and we need them to be decriminalized. Tent City 3 rotates throughout Seattle because the City of Seattle was forced to accept it through a court decision a decade ago. Tent City 4 has had unbelievable troubles being accepted in communities east of the lake, even though it was located on private congregational land. Nickelsville is still completely illegal and its congregational hosts were threatened with legal action when they hosted it. It will probably soon be ousted from the Port land it's on now.

This is ridiculous, expensive, and inhumane.

sarah

Posted Mon, Aug 17, 9:35 p.m. Inappropriate

I've met the people who lived in Nickelsville during it's stay on our church parking lot. I've sat around the table after a shared meal and talked about good books, our favorite movies, our theories about how the world works.I've learned their names and heard about their varied lives and their many paths to homelessness. What you discover is that it isn't just the high cost of housing that makes the problem -though admittedly that is a significant issue. You learn that some are there because of catastrophic illness; others due to domestic abuse; others due to debilitating disabling mental illness or chemical dependency and, more and more just because of the plain old loss of jobs. It is easy to throw out one-liners and make simple claims about both the causes and solutions to homelessness. But life is a whole lot more complex than any quick quip can capture. Until we can work together to solve this complex community problem acknowledging all the messiness that is really there, we can't make do with a diet of "cognitive junkfood." This Crosscut piece is helping us to raise some important questions. What about the effects of homelessness on children? How might it make them readier to tolerate being homeless later on? How might it be disabling their ability to fight against a downward spiral? Let's bring our full minds to this task --and maybe our hearts too.

Homebody

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »