Candi Pickens declared “I love it,” when I asked how she liked living in the SHARE/WHEEL sponsored Tent City 3 encampment. “We are a family.”
Pickens has only been in Seattle for 10 months. She came up from New Orleans, displaced initially by Hurricane Katrina, then by severe family misfortunes. She found Tent City 3 by calling 211, a community phone number that provides resources for clothing, shelter and food. (A crucial resource that is less publicized than 911)
The wonderful organization SHARE/WHEEL facilitates Tent City 3 as well as two other tent cities, a “bunkhouse,” which provides a dormitory type of sleeping for day and night workers, as well as, new for them, what is called a “low barrier”* small house village that they run in collaboration with the Low Income Housing Institute. Their great acronym stands for “Seattle Housing and Resource Effort/Women’s Housing and Enhancement League” They began in 1990 to provide safe housing alternatives and are still going strong, although their support from the city and county is constantly threatened.
Tent City 3 now sits right behind the gas station on 23rd and Cherry on land belonging to the Cherry Hill Baptist Church (their dilapidated church was being demolished as I approached to talk to Candi, although the parishioners have moved to a new location). According to City Legislation, Tent Cities have to move every 3 months! This apparently is meant to sooth hosts, that the occupants will only be temporary.
The hosts vary wildly, according to Candi. Some are welcoming, provide water and electricity, prepare meals, welcome the occupants into their spaces and enjoy being friends and learning from the campers (frequently those hosts are churches, or universities, like Seattle Pacific University). Others provide nothing at all; the encampment is challenged for the necessities of life. The current site has no electricity, and gets water from a kindly neighbor. They use porta-potties, one of their major expenses, in addition to their moves. As publicized recently in the Seattle Times, Tent Cities can now check out a wireless Internet hotspot, a valuable asset.
Candi explained to me why she feels such a strong sense of community. Sleeping in the Tent City, she feels safe. For starters, Tent Cities are drug free, alcohol free, and sobriety is a strictly enforced policy. Once in the community, everyone has responsibilities and obligations. They have shifts of 6 hours, 5–6 days a week. One person watches the entrance and monitors everyone that goes in and out, people are on security patrolling the block all night. They have camp meetings at 3pm every Sunday, since a fair percentage of the occupants work. They bring up any issues people want to discuss, and the whole camp works to solve the problem. They elect someone to start the discussion.
There is an organizer from SHARE/WHEEL who keeps track of how life is at the camp as well as facilitating if something is really a problem.
A few years ago, I volunteered on their grant committee, finding and writing grants to support them. I was deeply impressed with the people I worked with—they were super smart, enterprising and cheerful. When I came in with a limp, they were full of advice about where I could get help.
The main point about SHARE/WHEEL is that they support their participants to take responsibility for themselves, to learn to live their lives.
As I spoke to Candi, I learned how incredibly resilient her community is at Tent City 3; many of them are overcoming physical and mental challenges, but the members of Tent City 3 look out for each other and they know if someone is having a bad day. They reach out and offer friendship to one another.
Tent City 3 relies on donations to survive. If you would like to drop off used clothing, food or anything else you think might be useful to them, just go on by. I always stop at an encampment before going to Goodwill, to see what they want, and usually they want almost everything I have.
The Tent Cities are a manifestation of a special culture in themselves, but in addition, over the years WHEEL has published wonderful collections of poetry by homeless women. WHEEL’s Homeless Remembrance Project also braved city committees for nine years to be able to install, in Victor Steinbrueck Park, the “Tree of Life,” by art team of Clark Wiegman, Karen Kiest and Kim Lokan. They were banned from including names, so instead, you will find bronze leaves embedded in the sidewalk all over town (such as outside the library or city hall) honoring specific people. Every time the group hears about another homeless death outside, they stand a vigil outside City Hall.
Go to their website at sharewheel.org and learn more about this great organization! They deserve our support. At a time when the city is so focused on providing help to the homeless population, the tent city model is not necessarily understood as a community-building step toward living a better life. The cities’ ideas, such as handing someone three months rent for temporary housing, does not really solve the bigger problems of why people become homeless in the first place.
SHARE/WHEEL’s Tent Cities create communities in which people not only take responsibility for themselves, but also for their neighbors and friends. This is a radical idea!
~Susan Noyes Platt, www.artandpoliticsnow.com
*Low barrier refers to accepting people with alcohol and drug problems.