Tent City

March 1, 2009

Mercer Island is an en­clave of the ultrarich, a lush Seattle suburb where waterfront homes can list for more than $35 million and come with moorage for 140-foot yachts. Microsoft multibillionaire Paul Allen—No. 41 on the Forbes list of the world’s wealthiest men—lives here. But tucked in the gravel back lot of the tiny clapboard Mercer Island United Methodist Church live 100 men and women of considerably fewer resources: the residents of Tent City 4. Blue polyethylene tarps drape over the nylon domes where people bed down. The tents line up tightly in neat rows, resting atop wooden shipping palettes for insulation. More tarps stretch over a common area of tables and chairs. A fence and a few small trees separate these two worlds, and you would be hard-pressed to find a starker, more immediate contrast between luxury and destitution.

If a billionaire is the most famous face of the former, the other side of the divide is represented here by a talkative sumo-shaped Native American named Leo Rhodes. Rhodes is one of the tent city’s original inhabitants and has been organizing and fighting for it since its inception in 2004. This community, its urban Seattle counterpart called Tent City 3, and an unrelated Portland facility are the only homeless camps on the continent to receive government blessing. (Tent Cities 1 and 2 were torn down years ago.) Tent City 4 is a roving community, packing up and moving to the yard of a different sponsoring church every 90 days. Each time it does, Rhodes and his fellow tent dwellers face another salvo of opposition from neigh­bours and more legal attacks from municipal governments. As the most visible face of the community, Rhodes, who has been homeless half of his 40-odd years, personally absorbs much of the venom. Tent City 4 is, after all, more than just a way to shelter some of the 2,000 people officially living on Seattle/King County’s streets. It’s a social experiment that’s challenging the most deeply held assumptions about who homeless people are and how best to help them. The community forces the homelessness issue into the backyards of every neighbourhood it touches.

Critics argue that tent cities entrench the problems of homelessness rather than solve them. Indeed, filth and squalor almost invariably plague the unofficial ones that spring up and dissolve across the continent. Thieves and dealers gravitate to tent cities. Mercer Island residents filed a lawsuit against Tent City 4’s move to their community last summer, fearing a spike in crime and other problems. “Neighbors will be forced to look at Honey Buckets, temporary shower facilities, tents and an array of equipment necessary to serve the camp,” the unsuccessful lawsuit argued. Previous suits argued it poses a threat to nearby schools. At one public meeting, Rhodes says with an incredulous chuckle, a woman demanded to know “What happens if my daughter sticks her finger through the fence?”

For anyone who has witnessed the degradation that characterizes other tent cities, Tent City 4 is a revelation. The churchyard is quiet, without a shard of litter in sight. There are sinks, porta-potties, and a shower that people reserve using a sign-up sheet. There’s a kitchen tent with a microwave (no open fires allowed) and coffeemakers brewing donated coffee. Another tent has a TV with DVDs and video games. But the biggest surprise comes not from the amenities but from the tent citizens themselves. Tent City 4’s residents run the place themselves, rather than taking direction from a church or a group of high-minded do-gooders. Residents get elected to an executive committee that makes decisions for and advocates on behalf of all. Inhabitants are expected to pitch in with security, sanitation, and other day-to-day services. This sense of ownership is crucial to the community’s success.

The residents are keen to ensure they’re welcome in the communities they move to, so they live by strict rules, which are rigidly enforced. The executive committee negotiates with neighbourhoods before they move in. Some neighbourhoods demand special rules, such as limiting the time tent-city residents can wait at bus stops to 10 minutes. Core rules are non-negotiable: residents must not use drugs or alcohol, nor can they commit even minor offences like jaywalking; all must undergo a warrant check. Members rotate shifts on security, which includes patrolling a two-block radius to ensure no one is loitering or breaking other rules immediately off-site. Violators threaten the only safe shelter these otherwise homeless people have, so residents evict minor perpetrators swiftly and with little mercy. Just to make sure, police monitor the community and keep daily records. A common entry in the logs reads: “3 officers conducted walk thru’s throughout the day. No problems were discovered or encountered.” Criminal activity has proven rare.

The real measure of the community’s success is how it changes lives. Tent City gives residents the security to sleep without fear of beatings or theft. They can find jobs and go to work without worrying about finding a place to sleep, shower, get food, or store their belongings—chores that consume the bulk of homeless people’s lives. Freed from constantly lining up to meet the rigid schedules of shelters and soup kitchens, many tent citizens work and some even have cars. Best of all, taking part in Tent City gives people the dignity and confidence to contribute to society. “You understand that you matter,” Rhodes says, because participation is demanded of those who live here. “What’s to participate with sleeping under a bridge?” Residents quickly learn to work with governments, neighbours, church groups, lawyers, and each other.

Tent cities like this one amount to only one part of any homelessness solution. This is no place for the addicts and mentally ill who wouldn’t be able to live by its strict rules. But Rhodes says there are countless homeless people who don’t fit that stereotype—working homeless who might have caught a few bad breaks—and this is the one place that serves them.

Looking over the site on a sunny afternoon, he still can’t believe what his beloved tent city has achieved. Families with children and other Mercer Islanders have dropped by to chat over coffee and snacks. It’s hard to tell who lives here and who doesn’t. Everyone is in good spirits—it feels like a church barbecue. People are usually smiling and welcoming here, something that, after two decades of homelessness, Rhodes can still scarcely fathom. “Homeless people talking to non-homeless,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m not used to homeless people being happy.”

Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.