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

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

"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.

TC4 residents in the film include an ex-transportation planner with a degree in archaeology and a Tucson ranch hand whose employer was bought out. Two women appear, a fresh-faced college graduate unable to find work and a mother who lost her job, house, and car four months ago. On camera the mom chatters to her small son about the way they’ve arranged their belongings in their tent, trying to normalize the experience for him and make it feel safe and comfortable.

It stands to reason that children who internalize homelessness as a viable way of life will be more likely to fall back on it when they’re adults facing serious economic stress. I know an impoverished Nickelsville family of four that has vainly sought housing for more than a year. The parents, married 17 years and still obviously in love, have a son in middle school and a teenage daughter who will soon feel old enough to leave the family and make her own way.

What expectations will she have of herself and her prospects? Kids are adaptable, and today’s homeless kids are adapting to their circumstances. They’re forming daily habits as well as ideas that will be hard to change — about their future roles in the world, about human dignity, and about their nation’s values and priorities.


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