detail of 5″ x 7″ watercolor
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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?