[Hpn] Update from Tent Village in Seattle

Anitra Freeman anitra@speakeasy.org
Thu, 02 Nov 2000 15:21:23 -0800 (PST)

Tom Boland has just needled me about having to get all the news about
Seattle's Tent City from the mainstream media. :)  I apologize, but
it's been pretty hectic on the ground here and I haven't had as much
time for online activity.

I grant blanket permission to any subscriber of these lists to use any
of the following, in whole or in part.  

You may have noticed that the mainstream articles that have been
forwarded are quite warm and positive -- extremely so compared to the
press coverage of Tent City 2 in the summer of '98!  We have had an
outpouring of community support this time 'round.  I truly feel that we
owe a great debt of gratitude to the officials of the City of Seattle;
if they had totally ignored us and left us alone when we set up our
tents out on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, we would still be out there,
invisible and alone.  By hounding us to 13 different locations in four
months, they got us much more media coverage and many more new friends
than we ever would have made on our own.  Please hold them warmly in
your hearts.  You might even write them a note of thanks for their
contributions to our success.

The City has not yet enforced the fines that they treatened El Centro de
la Raza with in August, when our stay there first exceeded two weeks.  
Seattle community members continue to send checks to the "fine fund" in
case the fines are ever levied.  DCLU did accept our check for $2533
when we applied for a Temporary Use Permit to stay at El Centro legally
for six months, July 16 to January 16 2001; they haven't offerred to
forgo the fee, as we were hoping they'd do.  They extended the public
comment period through November 1.  It is just completed.  For the next
week or so, they will be reporting their findings to SHARE/WHEEL and
giving us a chance to respond to them.  It will probably take them at
least three weeks to deliberate.  Then they will make a recommendation
to the City whether or not to grant the permit.

DCLU can only make a recommendation; they don't actually grant the
permit.  Personally, I am expecting at this point that we will get a
positive recommendation from DCLU.  What none of us is at all certain
about is whether the higher levels of city government -- specifically,
the Mayor's office -- will choose to follow DCLU's recommendation, or
override it.  It's going to be a political decision at that point.  If
the Mayor decides to allow Tent City, he is publically acknowledging
that homelessness is a public emergency.  One factor in his decision
will probably be whether, if it is a public emergency, the public will
expect City government to solve it -- or whether the whole community
will be willing, at this point, to pitch in to help solve it, and the
declaration of emergency will help mobilize that community effort.

The courageous churches that stepped forward to host Tent City were a
major factor in swinging community support to our side.  The backing of
El Centro de la Raza, willing to host Tent City for six months in spite
of fines or other City reprisals, gave us stability at a critical point.

Local service agencies have been respectful in working with Tent City,
asking to meet with residents to discuss what services were wanted and
needed, who would be welcome to come into the camp.  Several groups have
helped prepare the camp for winter, including wooden plats to lift the
tents off the asphalt, extra tarpaulins and heavy insulating rubber
sheets, and extra blankets. 

But the major factor in the success of Tent City has been the people of
Tent City, who have stuck together through move after move and stuck to
their code of conduct through all of the stresses.  It has never been
totally without internal problems or conflicts, but those have always
been resolved.

I believe that one of the elements in this success is something I see in
the success of many grassroots organizing efforts: a balance between
using the experience of long-term members, including the formerly
homeless, and enlisting the energy of newcomers; making a constant,
conscious effort to transfer skills and responsibility to new people,
while maintaining an element of continuity and making the most of the
resources that formerly homeless people who are still committed to the
effort can bring to it.  

This is my personal perspective.  It has been over three years now since
I was homeless myself: I still have a monthly income of less than $600,
$150 of which I spend on food and writing supplies for friends who are
still homeless; I am constantly involved in homeless community
activities; I still occasionally sleep out at a shelter or Tent City --
or here at Real Change, so that someone else can crash here that night.
(Tim Harris, if you read this I'm going to deny that last bit.)  You
still have to filter for pssible bias on my part.  But it is my
personal experience that in *any* organization the more long-term
members have to make a constant, conscious effort to transfer skills and
responsibility to newcomers to avoid building up an Old Guard clique,
and that in homeless organizations a controlling Old Guard of completely
homeless members can be just as disempowering as a controlling body of
non-homeless staff people, and in some cases more so.

And quite often "transferring skills and responsibility" means sitting
on your hands, if necessary sitting on your lips, in order to let
someone else do something you "know" you can do better.  Fortunately, it
also means getting surprised a lot. (Or wait -- is the fear of finding
out that someone else *can* do our job as well or better the reason why
we sometimes try to keep control?)

Another element of the success is, frankly, brutal.

Tent City has zero tolerance for drugs, alcohol, or violence; the margin
of survival is too thin for anything else.  While one of my own
campaigns is for open shelter for *everyone*, including people who are
alcoholic, addicted, or hard to get along with, self-managed shelters
are not that place. While I was homeless, I ached when I had to deny
admittance to the shelter to someone who was drunk.  But each of the
(blessedly) few times I had trouble that threatened the continuance of
the shelter for thirty people, it was because we had given in and let
one person in who was drunk.  Tent City has had to be even stricter than
most shelters because it is in a far more visible and vulnerable

Tent City also demands participation.  Keeping the Tent City going is a
community effort.  Everyone staying in the tents has to participate in
at least one organizational meeting a week (and there are many, with all
the efforts needed on many fronts: fundraising, campaigning for
community support, winterizing, besides the day-to-day operation), and
do a security shift, and do other camp maintenance chores.  If you don't
participate in the effort, you don't get to stay in the tents.  Several
of my friends have been barred for up to a week at a time because they
missed a security watch or a blanket washing detail; they've each
accepted it as fair.  Some people don't.  But the group hasn't been able
to work out any other way to ensure the level of participation necessary
to keep the dream alive.  SHARE and WHEEL are philosophically opposed --
and always have been -- to "positive incentives," rewards for
participation in the form of extra supplies or privileges.  So "negative
incentives" seem to be the only alternative.

Tent City had a miraculous level of morale during its hardest days,
while it moved thirteen times between March 31st to July 16th.  Two
months after the tents settled down at El Centro de la Raza and life
became a whole lot easier for the tent residents, I began to fear that
we were going to prove right the official city prediction that
"SHARE/WHEEL can run a good Tent City in the short run, but Tent Cities
always decay in the long run."  I was hearing reports of lax enforcement
of rules, a small number of oldtimers "doing all the work," formation of
cliques that gave each other special privileges, harassment of female
participants.  I spent a couple of nights out there myself without
observing any of this, but I was hearing too much from too many people
to discount it as the usual constant low grumble of life in any group.  
I could only sit back (on my hands and my lips) and trust prayerfully in
the members of Tent City to weather the crisis themselves.

They did, partly through the return of some of the long-term members,
who have been with SHARE/WHEEL since Tent City 2 (or, in one case, since
Tent City 1.)

It's still hard that we only have a capacity of 100.  The participants
have formed and kept a policy that no women or families will be turned
away, which often leads to occupancy going well over 100 during the
night -- especially since city referral services, if unable to find any
other room for someone, will give them a bus ticket and send them up to
Tent City.  But during the day the pruning is relentless, using the
carrot of posted information about other shelters and services and the
stick of barring for non-participation.

Every year since 1995, WHEEL has held a Homeless Women's Forum where we
invite the rest of the community to come listen to us celebrate our
successes of the previous year and present our plans for the next
year.  The Homeless Women's Forum 2000 will be held at El Centro de la
Raza on November 15th, 11:30AM to 1:30PM -- in a Big Top tent on the
basketball court beside Tent Village, with a lunch served by El Centro
de la Raza.  One of the things we will be honoring is our grief for
those we have lost to death this year.  One of the things we will be
celebrating is Tent Village, a move forward to the day when noone will
die outside and alone.

Write On! / Anitra L. Freeman / http://www.speakeasy.org/~anitra/
"We can't help everyone.  We can't fix everything.  It hurts. 
 But it is better to live with pain than to live without caring."