Seattle’s homeless community under canvas

Seattle may be one of the fastest growing cities in America, but as steel and glass skyscrapers rise, so does its homeless population. One temporary solution the city is embracing is to recognise homeless encampments, or tent cities. During the 2015 Global Street Paper Summit, INSP’s Laura Smith spoke to residents of Tent City 3, Seattle’s longest running homeless encampment, to discover how they have built a secure and close-knit community under canvas.


Despite the national flag hanging limply at the entrance to Seattle’s Tent City 3, residents here aren’t exactly living the American Dream. But for most, staying in one of the city’s authorised homeless encampments is their best option.

“What this is all about is survival,” says long-time resident Lantz Roland. “Get people out of the bushes, get people off the streets, get people safe and sheltered.”

Seattle is a city on the rise. In January 2015, Forbes Magazine ranked it as the fifth fastest growing city in America. Seattle remains a global hub of industry and finance. Cranes dot the landscape and tech-led gentrification is on the increase.

But 2015 has also seen a severe spike in homelessness across Seattle. The city’s rapid growth has come hand-in-hand with colossal rent hikes. Faced with a stagnant job market, a lack of affordable housing and limited funding for mental health and addiction treatments, more people than ever have been forced onto the streets.

“What this is all about is survival. Get people out of the bushes, get people off the streets, get people safe and sheltered.”

On 23 January, an overnight count by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness found more than 10,047 homeless people on the streets and in shelter across King County. The unsheltered count was 3,772 people – a 21% increase over 2014 and the highest since the coalition started their counts in 2006.

People camp out under bridges and on grassy inclines near busy freeways across Seattle. Others sleep in doorways, benches or bunk down for the night in parks and bushes. But pitching their tents illegally and sleeping outside leaves them vulnerable to arrest and violence.

So far in 2015, Seattle’s Homeless Remembrance Project – a nonprofit that raises awareness about deaths among homeless people – reports that at least 35 people have died on the city’s streets.

To deal with this crisis, the city has embraced homeless encampments, also known as tent cities.


Sprawled out under the shade of towering trees in the grounds of St Dunston’s Episcopal Church in Shoreline, just north of Downtown Seattle, sits Tent City 3 (TC3). In this worn but well-organised collection of donated tarps and tents, around 100 homeless residents have formed a community under canvas.

While it offers few home comforts, a big lure for residents is the safety and short term stability TC3 provides. Lantz (below) has been living in the camp for several years. A former IT worker, he became homeless after his job was outsourced to India and he fell behind on rent. He says a sense of community and trust is strong in the camp. “I have computers in my tent but I don’t worry about it. My stuff is safe. It’s protected by my neighbors.”

There are currently at least four authorised encampments in Seattle. A number of smaller, illegal homeless camps also exist but are routinely broken up by police. TC3 and Tent City 4, which is currently moving south of Echo Lake in Shoreline, both operate as part of SHARE (Seattle Housing and Resource Effort). The nonprofit network organisation also facilitates 16 small indoor shelters, which are mainly held overnight in church basements, and a Storage Locker Program.

Unlike most indoor shelters, TC3 takes people in 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There is no limit to how long someone can stay. Every new camper must be able to provide a valid, government-issued ID, sign a detailed code of conduct and live in shared “dorm tents” for 30 days before qualifying for an individual tent.


“In general the first day they’re gun-shy, uneasy as it’s all new,” Lantz says. “By the second day they realise they are safe and tend to sleep about 20-30 hours. In the bushes, on the streets, they haven’t been able to sleep – it’s not safe.”

TC3 started in 2000 on private land, with permission. According to Lantz, it is the longest running tent city in the US. City regulations limit the camp to one hundred residents and stipulate the camp must move location every three to six months. TC3 rotates between church properties and occasionally pitches on public land or college campuses. Most of the time, camp representatives will arrange a new host in advance. In times of crisis, the camp follows an “occupy first then ask for forgiveness later” policy.

Lantz explains that the camp is self-managed and democratically run. “We have our election meeting once a week. There are no staff here. The camp runs itself. We elect a set of five people we call an executive committee. They split up the week in six hour shifts so there’s always someone on the desk running the camp,” he says.

Residents receive free bus tickets and donated hot meals, usually delivered daily, in return for remaining sober, respectful of their fellow campers and pitching in with chores and other responsibilities, such as camp security. TC3 has a strict policy against violence and drug or alcohol use.

TC2 entrance and RonRon (above right) has been here for two months. He says this strong sense of community, mutual respect and responsibility is integral to camp life.

“You’re more free; you can do whatever you need to,” he says. “Responsibly changes the whole dynamic. When you’re doing it yourself you feel more empowered.”

When Ron recently moved back to Seattle from Phoenix, he had no money for housing. He was sleeping in bushes on Seattle University campus until a friend told him about a homeless camp on the edge of town.

Ron says safety is his main concern, and a key reason he likes TC3. “On the first night I finally felt relaxed and safe. You start out in a dorm with ten beds. It has a high ceiling, it feels comfortable. Everyone is very quiet and respectful. What I’ve come to realise is that [sense of community] is an important process here.”

Lantz believes the tent encampments have other advantages over shelters. Campers can come and go as they please. This offers the flexibility to work graveyard shifts – most indoor shelters require people to be in by 10pm and out by 6am, with all their belongings in tow. The camp also allows homeless couples and families with young children to stay together.

Inside Seattle's TCS Andreas DüllickA resident of TC3 sleeps in shared tentTent City 3 runs on $70,000 a year, sourced from private donations. Water and electricity are normally provided by the host but there is a backup generator for emergency power. There is also access to a food tent stocked with donated bread and canned goods, as well as portable toilets and a shower.

Will more tent cities help the homeless population in Seattle?

2015 marks the 10th year of King County’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness – and the numbers are higher than ever before. Seattle, and its surrounding area, has the third largest homelessness population of any city in America.

INSP’s Seattle member, award-winning street paper Real Change, has been instrumental in rallying a government response to this shocking trend. Their vendors – some of whom are former residents of TC3 – have been vocal in the campaign to secure official approval for tent cities.

In an open letter from 95 Real Change vendors to Seattle City Council, they said: “We know that tent encampments, while not a long-term solution to homelessness, help provide immediate safety and stability to hundreds of people every night.”

Based on feedback from an Emergency Task Force on Unsheltered Homelessness, Seattle City Council announced plans in March for three permitted homeless encampments within city limits. They will each shelter a maximum of 100 people for up to one year. Mayor Ed Murray’s office also made a recommendation for 150 extra shelter beds.

Supply tent in TC3 Andreas Düllick TC3 Andreas DüllickTwo of the three proposed city owned sites for the new encampments are in the Ballard area of Seattle – “one of the city’s hippest hot spots” according to tourism agency Visit Seattle. The announcement has already been met with disapproval and anger by some residents.

When local news site wrote about the planned encampments, the comments revealed the fear felt by some in the community. “As a business owner on Market [Street] I deal with enough vagrants already. No thanks,” said commenter ‘Steve Treadway’.

“So you are saying that drunks, drug addicts… and general criminals that stay at this camp should be within 20 feet of town homes that actually have families with KIDS? If violent crime occurs because of this camp, who is to blame?” asked another resident under username ‘The One’.

For Lantz, the negative reactions are nothing new. “Whenever we move into a new neighbourhood we run into the same fears, phobias, hatred, bigotry,” he says. But a major advantage of moving the camp around the city is it allows TC3 residents to inform more people about the realities of homelessness and challenge common misconceptions.

DSCN0393“What changes people’s minds is reality,” he adds. “Every time we move into a new neighborhood we run into the people who have these assumptions of what the homeless are and how horrible it will be. Usually these are turned around.”

Despite their short term advantages, even those who advocate the use of tent cities admit that they must remain a short term solution. Those opposed to homeless encampments argue they do little to address the root of Seattle’s homeless problem.

Joe Orlando, Associate Vice President of Seattle University’s Mission and Ministry department, was part of the first effort to host TC3 on college property. During the month the camp was pitched on campus tennis courts in 2005, Orlando says it energised the entire campus to engage with, and learn from, TC3’s homeless residents.

He says while more tent cities will help get more people off the streets and into safety, they won’t solve the problem long-term.

“It’s better than being vulnerable on your own but the long term solution we should shoot for is affordable housing,” says Orlando.

“It’s similar to when the international community creates a refugee camp for a population that’s fleeing conflict – it should only see that as a temporary solution, not a permanent one. We need to hold ourselves accountable to creating affordable housing opportunities and not just settling for temporary tent cities.”

DSCN0401Like Lantz, some residents of TC3 have stayed there for years. But for others, the camp represents a necessary stepping stone to permanent housing.

Sitting outside his tent with a can of soda and blues floating from his stereo, Eric (pictured above) feels at peace. The former substance abuse councillor has lived in TC3 for over a year. Though he would rather be in housing, he says that staying in the camp is essential to that goal.

“I got laid off and heard that Seattle’s unemployment rate wasn’t as bad as it is in California. Figured I’d come here and give it a chance. I’ve tried the apartments but real estate is too expensive. So I’m staying here to save money,” Eric says.

“I love this place. Just like any community, you’re going to have bad people and good people, all mixed in. But this is just a small pinch of the rest of the world out there. People here, we’re just like everyone else, trying to make our own way.”