A Tent City Primer

Tent City 3 at night - Haller Lake United Methodist Church, by Ilona Berzups

Reprint from Tent City – A Primer, by Ilona Berzups  (December 2011)

While homeless encampments are not a new phenomenon and exist in cities across the US this primer focuses on the infrastructure of tent cities in Seattle, Washington.

Currently there are two encampments in Seattle (Tent City 3 and Nickelsville) and one on the east side in King County (Tent City 4). Two of the tent cities (3 and 4) plus 15 indoor shelters are run by SHARE/WHEEL, a nonprofit partnership of two “self-organized, democratic, grassroots organizations of homeless and formally homeless” individuals. This is the largest the largest shelter-providing organization in the Pacific Northwest. Nickelsville is not under the SHARE umbrella and is the only encampment in Seattle that hosts families with children.

The National Center on Family Homelessness fact sheet indicates that families are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population, now accounting for almost 40% of the nation’s homeless. Every year, hundreds of thousands of American families become homeless, including more than 1.5 million children.

Tent City 3 and 4 are both portable, self-managed communities of up to 100 homeless men and women (singles and couples). They exist to fill the gap between the lack of affordable low-income housing and the insufficient number of shelters for those who need it. Tent cities work as temporary shelter until residents can get back on their feet and find permanent housing. As for public housing the Seattle Housing Authority’s waiting list of 4/27/11 showed wait times from 2 – 15 years dependent on a variety of factors. Many forms of public housing, such as Section 8, rely on lotteries to move people off waiting lists.

The transitional encampments are primarily hosted by religious organizations on church property. Secular groups and private landowners have hosted tent cities in the past though these options tend to be fewer. Under a 2002 Seattle City Ordinance temporary-use permits were required for an encampment to be hosted by any organization for a maximum allowable stay of up to 90 days. Under a new City Ordinance passed on October 3, 2011, religious organizations may now host tent cities as “accessory uses to religious facilities in all zones” without requiring permits, limits on the length of stay or the number of encampments within the city. However, secular entities and private landowners must still obtain temporary-use permits in accordance with the original ordinance which can cost up to $3,488 and take several months to approve.

The estimated cost to run an encampment is approximately $4,500-$5,500 per month (about $45-55 per resident) covering operations and site needs such as portable restrooms, a dumpster and waste removal, two daily bus tickets per person for transportation to work and appointments, just to name a few. Volunteers bring hot meals most evenings and there’s an ongoing short list of needs ranging from batteries to canned goods, to clothing and blankets, to hygiene products. SHARE receives about 80% of its funding from the City of Seattle for management of their indoor shelter facilities, no portion of these funds are eligible for use on the encampments. Dollars for tent city operations come in part from FEMA’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program, from private donations, grants and other SHARE fundraising efforts. Community outreach and support from religious organizations bring in daily donations to cover needs such as food, clothing and supplies.

Added support for Tent City 3 comes from Greater Seattle Cares (GSC) by connecting local communities with the camp for the provision of residents’ daily needs.

Typically an encampment is made up of various style tents raised up on pallets and plywood — individual tents, tents for couples, and a dorm-style tent for single men and another for women used in part as a transition space for newcomers. There are larger tents for food storage, food preparation, donations and supplies, an office area, a community tent with a TV and videos, plus a covered area with a few used computers shared among residents.

On “moving day” every resident is required to pitch in, breaking down the encampment at one end and setting up at the other. Volunteers do come to assist but more are always needed. The site being vacated must be completely moved in a single day. A vacated site is then thoroughly cleaned leaving no trace of up to 100 people who had lived there. The cost of a move comes in at around $2,500 (GSC Annual Report 2010) and covers truck rentals, supplies, relocation of portable toilets, trash service and repairs (torn tents, bases, tarps, rigging).

There is a continuing need for more sites on which to host the encampments. On many occasions the struggle to secure the next location can run dangerously close to the move-out date.

Tent City – Code of Conduct

It’s worthy to note that Seattle’s Tent City 3 has been studied by other cities in the US and Canada as a “model for a homeless encampment that works”.

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Learn more about Tent City 3 by taking a tour of the camp or requesting a presentation.