Seattle Press
Tent City Comes To Ballard

Tent City kitchen

man in blue shirt making a sandwich on a milk crate
Supper was sandwiches by flashlight on the first night in Ballard.
The middle-aged man looks out his dining room window at the dark parking lot next door. "I don't like it because I have to live right next to it," he says. "If I look out my window, there they are."

In the rainy gloaming, dark figures move about in the shadows amid piles of tarps, tents and boxes. A glimmer from an occasional flashlight can be seen as the tent dwellers unpack their belongings, set up housekeeping and put together a cold evening meal.

The tent dwellers are a group of otherwise homeless Seattleites who belong to homeless advocacy group SHARE/WHEEL. The group organized their first tent city on Beacon Hill in 1998, following the city's purge of a wooded homeless encampment known as "The Jungle." The tent city has moved around the city for nearly a year, existing in defiance of city law. They have found allies in churches and community groups, who may offer a lawn or a parking lot or a playground where the nomads can pitch their tents and settle in for a few weeks.

In 1999, during the WTO, Crown Hill United Methodist Church on 14th Avenue NW sponsored an encampment. Last Wednesday the tent city landed in the 2300 block of NW 65th Street, in the parking lot of Trinity United Methodist Church. I went over to see the camp and talk to some of the neighbors.

A Tent, A Cot, No Heat

Tents are staked to the asphalt, jammed together in meandering rows with cluttered paths in between. There is no electricity or running water. For a moment in the dark and the rain you think you could be in a refugee camp in Kosovo. The inhabitants are homeless, and they depend on the assistance of more prosperous fellow humans for the basic rudiments of community.

"This is the men's tent," my guide says as we walk into a damp, drafty, gloomy Army-style tent with about 20 cots and no floor. "Couples can have a tent of their own, and a separate tent is set up for single women." The temperature outside is in the low 40s, and inside it seems colder. "Do you have heaters?" I ask. "No," my guide says, "but you can have as many blankets as you want."

tent city brothers

two long-haired men in front of a blue tarp.
Leo (left) and Bert Britton are living in the tent city at Trinity United Methodist Church. The brothers came to Seattle two months ago looking for work on fishing boats, and found the slowest fishing season in 20 years.
Meet the Neighbors

The night before, about 100 neighbors and camp members met in the church sanctuary. The tenters introduced themselves and explained their purpose, and some neighbors expressed anger.

A tall, pregnant camp-dweller named Melissa explained, "Together we have some security and companionship, and more resources than if we were all sleeping in alleys and under bridges all over the city." Another SHARE/WHEEL member said, "No shelter will allow me to lay my head next to my wife. That's why we'd rather live in a tent."

"We just want a place to sleep and go about our lives. There are not enough beds in the shelters for all of the 5,000 homeless in the city," said Kevin Terry. "That's why we're living in tents, and why we want to move into your neighborhood for a few weeks." Later Terry said he'd never experienced such hatred and prejudice as he felt that evening in Trinity Church.

Several neighbors said they were angry with Trinity Church and Pastor Rich Lang for permitting the camp without a vote or discussion in the neighborhood. Others feared there would be sex offenders or fugitives in the group: "Do you do background checks?" "What kind of security do you have?"

"The church betrayed us by bringing these people into our community without asking," one man said.

"I won't apologize for not being comfortable," said a single mother of a six-year-old. "Even if you were a group of Boy Scouts, you couldn't promise 'no trouble.'"

[Note: Many of those interviewed asked that their last names not be used, and The Seattle Press honors all such requests.]

Bob Laird, Code Compliance Manager for the DCLU, offered the city's take on the matter. He informed the audience, "Encampments like this are illegal everywhere in Seattle, and in most other places too. The church will be subject to $75 a day fines for permitting the group to camp here."

"It's No Picnic"

The fourth or fifth speaker from the neighborhood, a woman in a black dress, was the first welcoming voice. "We've never gotten guarantees about the behavior or character of anybody who moves into our neighborhood. Why should we treat these people any differently?"

"It's no picnic to live in a tent," added a woman who had immigrated from Europe. "Nature was good to us on February 28 [during the earthquake], or we might all be living in tents right now.

"I get $560 a month in Social Security. My rent is $430. I could be living on the street next week. Would I be a different person if I lost my house? Would you let me pitch a tent on the church parking lot?"

Church parishioners defended the use of their parking lot as a temporary campground, saying, "We weren't asking your permission. We're fulfilling the reasons we exist. We took a unanimous vote that this place should be a sanctuary."

"Why should we have to put up with it?" a sometime block captain responded. "We're making the sacrifice, while they go to heaven."

Another angry neighbor, a single 30-ish man who works for the city, was furious that the church invited the homeless camp into the neighborhood. "They should have asked. They should have been more open about it."

I asked him how he would have voted, if he'd had a chance to decide whether to allow the camp. He thought long and hard about the question. "Homelessness is a terrible problem," he said. "I don't have an answer. I feel sorry for them and wish them the best. I'm afraid the place might be a magnet for other homeless people, but I don't want to just say 'go away' to someone seeking shelter. I'd have to vote yes."