INSP delegates meet residents of Seattle’s Tent City 3

By Jim Douglas

As part of the INSPired Together: Global Street Paper Summit 2015, a group of INSP delegates from around the world were given a tour of Tent City 3; one of Seattle’s authorized homeless encampments. Local street paper Real Change has been instrumental in the campaign to allow tent cities to be pitched in Seattle and its surrounding area.

Real Change board member and contributor Jim Douglas reflects on the eye-opening experience for INSP.

On Tuesday, 23 June, 12 street paper delegates paid a study visit to Tent City 3 (TC3) to meet the people creating a community under canvas. Laid out under the shade at St Dunston’s Episcopal Church in Shoreline, just north of the Seattle city limits, TC3 is a worn but well-organized collection of tarps and group and individual tents. Although a far cry from the comfort of a home with a roof, residents say it is a place that’s safe.

Long-time resident Lantz Roland told the group that TC3 is the longest running tent encampment in the U.S..  Tent cities in Seattle began the night before Thanksgiving in 1990, when a group of people started living in a used tent near a since-imploded sports stadium.

Tent City 3 resident Lantz Roland.

In the holiday spirit, authorities let them stay. Years of relocations, threatened evictions, negotiations with the city, and regulations followed. At a critical point, a local judge responded to the city’s attempt to evict the camp from the grounds of a welcoming church by ordering that the city set up a system that permitted encampments and allowed them to manage themselves. He noted that people have lived successfully in tents for thousands of years.

Lantz went on to explain that the fundamental operating principles behind TC3 is self-management and self-organization. City regulations limit the camp to one hundred residents. Prospective campers sign a detailed code of conduct and live in shared “community tents” for at least thirty days to adjust to camp life before qualifying for an individual tent.

A weekly meeting of the residents decides on the camp’s rules, and an executive committee of five people manages the camp and metes out discipline to make it a place that works for everyone. Residents also share chores and other responsibilities, such as camp security.

Tent City 3 in Seattle.
Tent City 3 in Seattle.

Most meals are provided by supporting organizations. There are porta-potties, a portable shower and a TV room. The annual cost to run TC3 is about $70,000, and there is no expense to residents. Because of city and county regulations, we’re told the camp has to move every three to six months. It’s common for neighbors to be very suspicious at first, says Lantz, but within a day or two they realize that the “stereotypes and bigotries” about the homeless are not true.

TC3 is part of Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE), which also runs 16 small indoor overnight shelters and a tent city in a suburb east of Seattle. Lantz told us that SHARE is “all about survival.  The mindset is shelter, to get people out of the bushes.” All its projects are self-managed. Although SHARE has a core number of paid staff, they are “not bosses or generals, but organizers and facilitators.”

Rosi Rico, volunteer editor at Ocas”, monthly magazine in Sao Paolo, Brazil, noted that homelessness is common there, but there is no system for recognized encampments. Unlike in the U.S., a progressive political change in Brazil has resulted in a program of national support that will affect 40 million indigent people.

Eric sits outside his home in Tent City 3.

Andreas Düllick, editor of biweekly magazine Strassenfeger (meaning “Street Cleaner”) in Berlin, observed that Tent City 3 was “amazing.”  He was particularly impressed by the system of “self-organizing and self-responsibility.” As in Seattle, the supply of low-income housing in Berlin has been substantially affected by the forces of gentrification.

Earlier this year the Seattle City Council authorized three new encampments for up to a hundred people on city or private land.  To date, two organizations have applied and been approved as encampment operators.


Follow #INSP2015 to find out more about what’s been going on during the Global Street Paper Summit 2015.