Unique meaning to “mobile home” for Seattle’s homeless

detail of 5″ x 7″ watercolor
See all artwork available for sale.

This summer, while doing research in preparation for a working trip to Seattle, I was introduced to a highly unique approach to addressing homelessness: “Tent Cities.” I found a 2005 Seattle Times article profiling an elementary school teacher, Peggy Hotes, who immersed herself in the plight of Seattle residents unable to afford the city’s 32% higher cost of living than the national average. Peggy soon found her compassion would spark the beginning of an extended metropolitan camping trip alongside Tent City residents to learn more about the system that prevents the able-bodied tent residents from affording permanent housing.

I contacted Peggy to schedule a face-to-face explanation of Tent Cities while I was in her neighborhood, then drove to a Thai restaurant to meet her with a list questions such as, “Do you think we should combat homelessness with prison reentry programs and substance abuse rehabilitation?” With all the civility and kindness that a war-worn advocate of civil rights could muster, she educated me about the various (and little known) forms of homelessness. I hadn’t given much thought to homelessness resulting not because of an addiction, but because a full time job (and maybe more than one) did not provide enough income to cover their cost of living.

After a good sociology lesson over pad thai, Peggy took me to Tent City 4, the nomadic camp where she has spent most of her time. At this point I had no idea what to expect, my preconceived ideas having been dismembered over dinner. We drove to the church where the front lawn was partially occupied by Tent City 4 for its standard 90 day stay. The complexity of the self-governing mini-town and diversity of its residents really caught me off guard. I met a woman working a shift at the check-in tent (outfitted with a desk and computer). The tall fence bordering the huddled canvas-thin houses created this single point of entry where the woman on duty ensured resident-created policies were being honored. Residents of a Tent City are screened for outstanding arrest warrants and sex offenses. No minors are allowed to stay overnight, no alcohol on the premises, and quiet hours are from 9pm-8am.

I can’t honestly make a generalized statement about the residents I met that evening; there were no stereotypical parallels between them other than the fact that none could afford traditional housing and they shared an affinity for coffee. To provide some individual color: I met a young white girl leaving to catch a bus to her full time job at Nintendo and a middle-aged Hispanic film producer preparing for a meeting with his investors the next day. No beggars, starving children, trembling drug addicts, pick-pockets, tattered clothes, shopping carts full of aluminum cans or empty beer bottles were in sight. This was a place of dignity for capable people struggling to find balance between current wages and the cost of living.

Tent City advocates also work diligently to lobby for policy change that will fairly ameliorate difficult living conditions and allow them to move back into apartments and homes. The courage to take a stand and the wherewithal to establish an alternative to homeless shelters found in those tents was amazing.

I was disappointed, however, in what I sensed as a level of complacency for Tent City residents. Peggy made it very clear there was no director or person of authority checking that residents were applying for a job, attending money management classes, going to school, etc. Residents could stay as long as they liked and no one would ever ask if they were employed or aspired to greater things. I do have issue with that because I think it encourages lackadaisical behavior in people who are looking for a second option to avoid proactively finding ways (i.e. education and job training) to make their income meet expenses. Many other people have been on the cusp of a similar existence, but have chosen one of multiple ways to increase their chances of joining a higher paying work force. That challenge yields a more beneficial, educated society. And who better to advocate for a living wage than an erudite former Tent City resident who went on to graduate from law school and fight for the cause on a level playing field?


  • so does this set up allow hippie kids from the midwest to move to the west coast and live for free? it sounds like it would be condusive to such a crowd with the lack of “social workers” managing job search and whatnot.

  • VERY good point Colleen. There definitely are guidelines and rules established by Tent City residents, but someone could easily tell a good story of hardship and lean on the community and be lazy. But they do background checks to filter out the crazies. On the other hand, there is no pressure from any committee, staff member, or social worker to find a job or go to school. I have mixed feelings about it. Peggy Hotes did bring to my attention some very strong points about homelessness and the cost of living to minimum wage gap that I had not considered. It’s a complex issue no doubt.

  • Julie Clements on

    Tent City 3 stays at the church I attend in Seattle for a couple of months out of the year and I have helped coordinate their stay the last couple of times. I love your work. I have two questions for you: First, I would like to ask if I can “cut and paste” your TC4 painting to use almost as a small icon in an electronic announcement for upcoming meetings within our cathedral. Second, I would be curious to have a conversation with you about the possibility of bringing your art to the cathedral to show (and sell) for a period of time during or around the time TC3 will be staying with us in 2008. Looking forward to your reply!

  • Hello Julie,

    It’s great to hear another perspective on Tent Cities. Your questions involve lengthy answers, so check your email for my reply. Thank you for visiting the blog.


  • Hello Ashley,
    Thank you for your thoughtful and well written article. I became involved with the Tent City 4 issue when it first began on the “Eastside” back in May 2004. I was labled a “homeless hater” right off the bat because I took serious issue with their tactics and questioned whether what they were doing was a hand out or a hand up. Now, having roamed the Eastside of Seattle for nearly four years, I can tell you your concerns and mine have been proven true. There are many, many individuals living in Tent City 4 who have been there for YEARS. Bruce Thomas “self proclaimed” camp advisor came from Tent City 3 in Seattle and moved into Tent City 4 when it opened in May 2004. He had spent 2-3 yrs. living in Tent City 3 and has been living in Tent City 4 for nearly 4 years. He has been interviewed many, many times (google his name) and states that he is a “street musician” with NO intention of ever leaving Tent City. For he and many, many others this is a “lifestyle” choice as painful as that may be to believe.
    Leo Rhodes, another Tent City 4 resident since it began in May 2004 came over from Tent City 3 in Seattle where he testified before the King County Council under oath he had lived for 3-4 yrs, encompassing his entire time living in the state of Washington. Total combined stay between the two camps is now going on 7-8 yrs.
    Don Goodwin, another Tent City 4 resident moved in when the camp opened at St. Brendan in May 2004 and he’s still there.
    The problem is when you don’t provide supportive services to help the homeless break the cycle of homelessness, for too many, throwing them in a tent does nothing to change their situation. I firmly believe that Tent City 4 perpetuates the cycle of homelessness one tent at a time.
    When offered alternative solutions, the operators of Tent City 3 &4, SHARE/WHEEL flatly refuse.
    The controversy surrounding Tent City has nothing to do with not wanting to help the homeless and everything to do with putting an end to this in your face antics of SHARE/WHEEL run amuck. Rather than comply with city/county permitting requirements, all too often they are eager to move in illegally.
    I don’t know how ‘temporary” one can call Tent City when Tent City 3 has been in operation for 10 years and Tent City 4 going on 4 and when you have people that have set up permanent residence. The claim is that this camp is a “temporary survival mechanism” (I can’t tell you how many times those running it have said that) but I don’t believe it can be called temporary when you have people living there for upwards of 4, 5, 6, 7 & 8 years with no intention of ever leaving.
    I’m sorry, but if you worked a minimum wage job, even after that many years of living in a tent rent free, one would have money to rent an apartment.
    There are two sides to every story and while Ms. Hotes painted a pretty one, you are spot on in your concerns. Thank you for looking at this objectively!


  • Thanks Mimi, I appreciate the insight. To play devil’s advocate, I assume Peggy would argue that the problem is not that Tent City residents lack interest in attaining permanent housing, but that the governmental structure in place prevents individuals earning minimum wage to afford the cost of living. Therefore, in addition to offering “transitional” housing, Tent City advocates also lobby for policy change to combat the issue. But, I don’t know nearly enough about the stats on the cost of living in Seattle, employment rate, etc. So I can’t participate in an educated conversation about it beyond a sharing my personal philosophy, which is that if Seattle truly can’t offer it’s poorest working residents housing, then Tent City has a legitimate purpose. If they’re fostering complacency and a haven for people that don’t want to step it up a notch, then I certainly wouldn’t stand behind them.

  • Thank you, Ashley. I agree that Seattle owes better options for the working poor. I will also tell you for many in Tent City 4 I know for a fact there were better options and those were turned down because attached to them were rules and regulations.

    When questioned about length of stay for an average resident, Tent City 4 operators SHARE/WHEEL throw out random numbers but will tell you they keep no actual records or data on those that they serve. Without that information, how does one match up the needs of the homeless with supportive services that may be available to them?

    So yes, while afordable housing is an issue, fostering complacency and a haven for people that don’t step it up is an issue as well.

    Homelessness is a complex issue that requires a multi prong approach on many fronts, but I know there are better temporary options available and completely disagree with Tent City.

    Thank you again for your work and presenting the various sides of this issue.

  • Tent City Opponent on

    Well, so far on Mercer Island, TC4 has been a total screw up. We are all proponents of the homeless, but this particular entity (share/wheel) has not held up its side of the bargain! Citizens of Mercer Island-not United Methodist, not the city; and not share/wheel- brought to the citys attention, that there were three individuals living in TC4 with outstanding FELONY WARRANTS. Is this the responsibilty of the citizens. I guess it is on Mercer Island. We want the best for the homeless, but share/wheel does not even keep the homeless safe. It is a joke.

Leave a Reply