Seattle’s Homeless Community Under Canvas

By Laura Smith  |  Edited for length by Denver VOICE
Courtesy of INSP News Service

Seattle may be one of the fastest growing cities in America, but as steel and glass skyscrapers rise, so does its homeless population. One temporary solution the city is embracing is homeless encampments, or tent cities. An INSP reporter spoke to residents of Tent City 3, Seattle’s longest running homeless encampment, to discover how they have built a secure and close-knit community under canvas.


A resident of Tent City 3 in Seattle inside a shared community tent.Photo: Andreas DüllickDespite the national flag hanging limply at the entrance to Seattle’s Tent City 3, residents here aren’t exactly living the American Dream. But for most, staying in one of the city’s authorized homeless encampments is their best option.

“What this is all about is survival,” said long-time resident Lantz Roland. “Get people out of the bushes, get people off the streets, get people safe and sheltered.”

Seattle has seen a severe spike in homelessness in 2015, and the city’s rapid growth has come hand-in-hand with colossal rent hikes. Faced with a stagnant job market, a lack of affordable housing and limited funding for mental health and addiction treatments, more people than ever have been forced onto the streets.

People camp out under bridges and on grassy inclines near busy freeways across Seattle. Others sleep in doorways, on benches, or bunk down for the night in parks and bushes. But pitching their tents illegally and sleeping outside leaves them vulnerable to arrest and violence. So far in 2015, at least 35 people have died on the city’s streets. To deal with this crisis, the city has embraced homeless encampments, also known as tent cities.

Seattle’s TC3, laid out under the shade at St Dunston’s Episcopal Church in Shoreline, just north of the city limits.Credit: Cassin StacySprawled out under the shade of towering trees in the grounds of St. Dunston’s Episcopal Church sits Tent City 3 (TC3). In this worn but well-organized collection of donated tarps and tents, about 100 homeless residents have formed a community under canvas.

While it offers few home comforts, a big lure for residents is the safety and short-term stability TC3 provides. Roland has been living in the camp for several years. A former IT worker, he became homeless after his job was outsourced to India and he fell behind on rent. He said a sense of community and trust is strong in the camp. “I have computers in my tent but I don’t worry about it. My stuff is safe. It’s protected by my neighbors.”

There are currently at least four authorized encampments in Seattle. A number of smaller, illegal homeless camps also exist but are routinely broken up by police. TC3 and Tent City 4 both operate as part of SHARE (Seattle Housing and Resource Effort). SHARE also facilitates 16 small indoor shelters, which are mainly held overnight in church basements, and also a storage locker program.

Unlike most indoor shelters, TC3 takes people in 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There is currently no limit to how long someone can stay. Every new camper must be able to provide a valid, government-issued ID, sign a detailed code of conduct and live in shared “dorm tents” for 30 days before qualifying for an individual tent.

“In general the first day they’re gun-shy, uneasy as it’s all new,” said Roland. “By the second day they realize they are safe and tend to sleep about 20-30 hours. In the bushes, on the streets, they haven’t been able to sleep—it’s not safe.”

Food tent at TC3.Credit: Laura SmithTC3 started in 2000 on private land, with permission. According to Roland, it is the longest running tent city in the U.S. City regulations limit the camp to one hundred residents and stipulate the camp must move location every three to six months. TC3 rotates between church properties and occasionally pitches on public land or college campuses. Most of the time, camp representatives will arrange a new host in advance. In times of crisis, the camp follows an “occupy first then ask for forgiveness later” policy.

Roland explained that the camp is self-managed and democratically run. “We have our election meeting once a week. There is no staff here. The camp runs itself. We elect a set of five people we call an executive committee. They split up the week in six hour shifts so there’s always someone on the desk running the camp,” he said.

Residents receive free bus tickets and donated hot meals, usually delivered daily, in return for remaining sober and respectful of their fellow campers, and pitching in with chores and other responsibilities, such as camp security. TC3 has a strict policy against violence and drug or alcohol use.

Ron has been here for two months. He said this strong sense of community, mutual respect, and responsibility is integral to camp life.

“You’re more free; you can do whatever you need to,” he said. “Responsibility changes the whole dynamic. When you’re doing it yourself you feel more empowered.”

When Ron recently moved back to Seattle from Phoenix, he had no money for housing. He was sleeping in bushes on Seattle University campus until a friend told him about a homeless camp on the edge of town.

Ron said safety is his main concern, and a key reason he likes TC3. “On the first night I finally felt relaxed and safe. You start out in a dorm with ten beds. It has a high ceiling, it feels comfortable. Everyone is very quiet and respectful. What I’ve come to realize is that [sense of community] is an important process here.”

Roland believes the tent encampments have other advantages over shelters. Campers can come and go as they please. This offers the flexibility to work graveyard shifts—most indoor shelters require people to be in by 10 p.m. and out by 6 a.m., with all their belongings in tow. The camp also allows homeless couples and families with young children to stay together.

Tent City 3 runs on $70,000 a year, sourced from private donations. Water and electricity are normally provided by each new site’s host, but there is a backup generator for emergency power. In the location at Shoreline, the camp runs lights, a microwave, a coffee pot, several private computers, a TV, and outlets to charge cell phones. There is also access to a food tent stocked with donated bread and canned goods, as well as portable toilets and a shower.

INSP’s Seattle member, award-winning street paper Real Change, has been instrumental in rallying a government response to Seattle’s rapidly growing homeless population. Real Change vendors—some of whom are former residents of TC3—have been vocal in the campaign to secure official approval for tent cities.

Community and supply tents in Seattle’s Tent City 3.Credit: Laura SmithIn an open letter from 95 Real Change vendors to the Seattle City Council, they said: “We know that tent encampments, while not a long-term solution to homelessness, help provide immediate safety and stability to hundreds of people every night.”

To address the recent spike in homelessness, Seattle City Council announced plans in March for three permitted homeless encampments within city limits. They will each shelter up to 100 people for up to one year. Based on feedback from an Emergency Task Force on Unsheltered Homelessness, Mayor Ed Murray’s office also made a recommendation for 150 extra shelter beds.

Two of the three proposed city-owned sites for the new encampments are in the Ballard area of Seattle—“one of the city’s hippest hot spots” according to tourism agency Visit Seattle. The announcement has already been met with disapproval and anger by some locals.

When local news site wrote about the planned encampments, the comments revealed the fear felt by some in the community. “As a business owner on Market [Street] I deal with enough vagrants already. No thanks,” said one commenter.

For Roland, the negative reactions are nothing new. “Whenever we move into a new neighborhood, we run into the same fears, phobias, hatred, bigotry,” he said. But a major advantage of moving the camp around the city is it allows TC3 residents to inform more people about the realities of homelessness and challenge common misconceptions.

“What changes people’s minds is reality,” he adds. “Every time we move into a new neighborhood we run into the people who have these assumptions of what the homeless are and how horrible it will be. Usually these are turned around.”

Despite their short-term advantages, even those who  advocate the use of tent cities admit that they must remain a short-term solution. Those opposed to homeless encampments argue they do little to address the root of Seattle’s homeless problem.

Joe Orlando, Associate Vice President of Seattle University’s Mission and Ministry department, was part of the first effort to host TC3 on college property. During the month the camp was pitched on campus tennis courts in 2005, Joe said it energized the entire campus to engage with, and learn from TC3’s homeless residents.

He said while more tent cities will help get more people off the streets and into safety, they won’t solve the problem long-term.

“It’s better than being vulnerable on your own, but the long-term solution we should shoot for is affordable housing,” said Orlando.

“It’s similar to when the international community creates a refugee camp for a population that’s fleeing conflict—it should only see that as a temporary solution, not a permanent one. We need to hold ourselves accountable to creating affordable housing opportunities and not just settling for temporary tent cities.”

Like Roland, some residents of TC3 have stayed there for years. But for others, the camp represents a necessary stepping-stone to permanent housing.

Sitting outside his tent with a can of soda and blues floating from his stereo, Eric felt at peace. The former substance abuse councilor has lived in TC3 for over a year. Though he would rather be in housing, he said that staying in the camp is essential to that goal.

“I got laid off and heard that Seattle’s unemployment rate wasn’t as bad as it is in California. Figured I’d come here and give it a chance. I’ve tried the apartments but real estate is too expensive. So I’m staying here to save money,” Eric said.

“I love this place. Just like any community, you’re going to have bad people and good people, all mixed in. But this is just a small pinch of the rest of the world out there. People here, we’re just like everyone else, trying to make our own way.” ■