Yesterday I finally got around to visiting Tent City 3 (TC3), one of the sanctioned homeless encampments in the Seattle area. The University of Washington (my employer) has hosted TC3 on a parking lot in the south end of the campus since early January.
I have visited a couple city-sponsored encampments in the last year, newer ones located in Ballard and Interbay. Tent City 3 has been running continuously for 17 years and is operated by SHARE/WHEEL, a nonprofit that has been helping the homeless in Seattle for more than two decades. They currently run 15 different shelters and three tent cities. (TC3 has a web page that lists their donation needs, including an Amazon Wishlist: http://www.sharewheel.org/tent-city-3.)
It was a cold and drizzly afternoon when I walked in the front gate of TC3. I had brought along a few boxes of granola bars, which were happily received at the “front desk” tent. After I introduced myself, an older woman welcomed me with a smile and signed me in. A man about my age asked me if I’d like a tour of the camp.
He said his name was Ivan, and that he had only lived at TC3 for a couple months. As we strolled down the narrow pathways between the orderly rows of tents, he told me that there were about 70 people living in TC3. (Their website says they can host up to 100 people at a time.) Tent City 3 only stays at any one site for three months at a time – they are scheduled to move out of this location in a couple weeks.
The camp was very quiet, with most people either out for the day or holed up in their tents. The camp has a large tent that functions as a dining area, with trays of donated food set out on tables – everything from noodles to soup to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They also have another large tent that functions as a kind of lounge, featuring a television that was showing an NBA game when we walked by.
Ivan explained that, like the other sanctioned homeless encampments I’ve visited, they have fairy strict rules: no fighting, quiet hours, no drugs and no alcohol. They screen the residents for sex offender status or other violent crimes. There are some families that live in the camp, and they want to keep everyone safe. (While we were talking, another man approached and asked Ivan where it was OK to smoke. “I don’t want to get in trouble,” he said.)
I asked Ivan a little about how he came to live in the camp. He said he was originally from southwest Florida, where he had housing, but he couldn’t deal with some of the family drama there. (“Sisters.”) He had a friend in Seattle, so he moved here. (At this point, I looked at him and then around at the miserable, grey, rainy weather and wondered a bit at this choice. I have a sister who lives in Florida myself. It’s 80 degrees in January there.)
Ivan said he ended up living in an awful house in Lake City, a place he called a “shooting gallery” where the cops showed up every day. He’d gotten assaulted there a number of times, so he finally decided he’d be safer in the tent city. Ivan also said he’d been sober for about a decade. I didn’t ask him if he was working.
Despite the rather bleak weather and the fact that he was living in a homeless camp, Ivan seemed to have an air of contentment about him – at least, as content as anybody else I run into on a daily basis. He struck me as just a regular human being, somebody trying to get through life, trying to find some meaning. Just like we all are.
At the same time, as I walked back to my car — ready to drive over to my mom’s warm and spacious Capitol Hill home for a nice visit and then out to dinner to celebrate my brother’s birthday — I thought to myself, “I have no problems.” And the next time I want to whine or complain about something (as I often do), I need to remember that. I need to remember Ivan.
Tent City 3, U-District