[Hpn] TENT CITY 3 reflects Seattle's future? fw

Tom Boland wgcp@earthlink.net
Tue, 31 Oct 2000 20:59:48 -0800 (PST)

Seattle Tent City CONTACT: "Anitra Freeman" <anitra@speakeasy.org>
                  SEE ALSO  http://www.speakeasy.org/~anitra/

FWD  Seattle Times : Editorials & Opinion : Wednesday, October 25, 2000
     Guest columnist


     By Charlie James

     Special to The Times

They were a lonely troop looking for a place to call home. They were the
homeless looking for a place they could pitch their tents and rest in
peace. Everywhere they moved, they were told that they had to move on,
every vacant lot was meant for something else and certainly was not
intended for them.

We were all embarrassed that this troop of homeless people could not find a
home. But finally, and naturally, they were invited to stay at El Centro de
la Raza on Seattle's Beacon Hill. For a moment, they have found a home.

"When they came to us," said Roberto Maestas, the founder and director of
the organization put together to assist Latinos and others on the margin,
"we asked to meet with the leaders of the group and we were impressed at
how organized they were. We also saw that they were a rainbow community
representing nearly every racial group in the city."

Maestas said he discovered they had a code of conduct that was superior to
most communities. "They do not allow drugs or guns in their community.
People treat each other with respect and they respect each other's
properties. They have demonstrated that women and our children don't have
to be vulnerable just because they are homeless."

They were also amazed at how many tent people actually got up in the
morning and went to work. "Many of the residents have jobs and they still
cannot afford a place to live," said Maestas. "They are not lazy people who
don't want to work."

So I went over and observed the community this past week and saw firsthand
what he described. Bicycles rest against doors, there are toys in the yard.
This is a community in every sense of the word.

But Maestas and the tent-city residents still cannot rest easy. There is a
handful of neighbors who believe the tent people should not be in the
neighborhood. Maestas also believes that there are people in the city
administration who would prefer that the homeless simply disappear, and
having them concentrated in one spot makes them uncomfortable.

No one in the power structure wants to confront the obvious. The ranks of
the homeless are growing rapidly and tent cities will no longer be an
uncommon site in the years to come. How we manage the first ones will have
an impact on how we handle the overall problem in the future. If we ignore
them and make no provisions for their existence, we will not have the
experience or the infrastructure to handle this later.

But the critics will say that if you provide a place for them to stay,
provide access to water, shelter and food, you make it too easy for people
to give up rather than step up. Maestas and others see it another way. The
fact that they have come together and organized a community for their
mutual protection clearly demonstrates the determination of these people to
make it.

"We gave one of the brothers a job and now he and his wife have an
apartment for the first time in years," said Maestas, who was invited to
dinner at their apartment. "That amazed me. They had a place and were now
inviting me to come and eat with them. This shows that these people are
serious and just need a hand up and not a hand out."

This trend will continue. The homeless are coming out from under bridges,
woods, lots with thick bushes, abandoned houses and every crack and crevice
of our society. What will we do? How will our cities and state governments

Will we consider them interlopers on our dreams of middle-class bliss or a
reflection of where every one of us could end up if not for the grace of

Maestas quietly watches over this community and realizes that this is part
of something that is bigger than 100 people in a tent city.

"This is about where our society is headed and how we will eventually get
there," he says, almost sadly. "We are the richest nation in the world and
we have so many homeless. Imagine how people in nations a lot poorer than
ours are doing in this age of globalization . . ."

But he also knows that this was one of the reasons he and a group of
people, including this writer, occupied the schoolhouse in the '70s.

"People need a safe haven to get their lives in order and we felt this was
a natural place for them to come," he said. "But we don't expect them to be
here forever and nor do they expect to be here forever. This is not a
permanent place for them to live, it's a launching pad to get them back on
their feet."

But they still can't help looking over their shoulders because so many
homeless in one place cannot be ignored and it makes people nervous.

"They want it to just go away," said Maestas. "They will not disappear.
They are our brothers, our sisters and they cannot be ignored."

The upcoming election is an opportunity to elect some people who can make a
difference. Before you dismiss the homeless, look carefully. You may find
in their ranks a missing relative or a neighbor who suddenly disappeared.
Next year, this tent city may be your new home and you may be awful glad it

[Charlie James' column appears alternate Wednesdays on editorial pages of
The Times. He is publisher of the African-American Business &Employment
Journal and can be contacted by e-mail at <aabej@seanet.com>.]


**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is
distributed without charge or profit to those who have expressed a prior
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