The Tent City Next Door

It’s impossible not to notice Seattle’s vibrant homeless communities, sometimes called “tent cities.” I visited one recently and it was a powerfully positive experience.

The reason for my visit was primarily to gain a better understanding of the needs, challenges, and living conditions of tent city residents; but, perhaps more importantly, to learn how I can help.

Because tent cities are mandated to move every four months, they are constantly seeking new sites. Churches often become temporary residences since they have large parking areas where structures can easily be configured into an ordered community. They also have electricity, water, and kitchen facilities. The frequent moves prohibit residents from acquiring many possessions. Each resident is encouraged to keep personal belongings to a 6-bag minimum. Anything more than this is not covered by the moving crew, and additional fees must be paid by the resident.

Codes of conduct vary by camp, but most require background checks before entry. Alcohol and other drugs are prohibited, and residents must play an active role in the community. In fact, they aren’t just encouraged, but are required to participate in camp maintenance, whether it be sanitation, security, food preparation, or donation management. Some residents have jobs and some receive an income from disability or other benefits. One resident that I met shared that she receives about $1,000 in disability benefits each month, but she hasn’t been able to find affordable housing. These cities are not simply campsites where people “hang out.” They are real communities of people who are trying to find a place in a much larger society. And it’s not easy by a long stretch. This became evident as I passed by one tent, noticing a paper plate hanging near the entrance with the words “Life is Pain” scrawled across it. The ultimate aim of these encampments is to support people who are in transition, helping them to secure employment and permanent housing.

I’m not sure what I expected find, other than a large group of people camping, but I left with a mix of feelings ranging from gratitude, to sadness, to humility.

The first thing I noticed was that I was cold. Really, really cold, actually. Even with my coat and gloves, all I could think about was my warm car, and that I was standing, shivering, several feet away from it. (Ironically, the camp residents later commented on how warm it was compared to the past week, when temperatures dipped into the 20’s.)

My friend and I were soon greeted by two smiling women who were bundled up in multiple layers of warmth too. They welcomed us, and offered to carry the box I was struggling to balance over to the donations tent, where we found mounds and mounds and mounds of donated items. There were bins of toiletries; clothes, some piled to eye-level and some hanging; as well as shoes and purses. We learned that many unneeded items are donated to other groups or organizations, as they cannot manage large inventories. When asked if there were items that were still needed, the donation coordinator said that large sizes–3x and 4x–are hard to come by, and at least one resident was still trying to find a coat. Propane was another resource that was difficult to maintain, especially with the recent cold snaps.

Then I noticed the odor. The sour smell of garbage wafted through the air as we approached the food tent. Many areas of the camp were impressive, but the kitchen area concerned me. Having conducted countless sanitation audits of restaurants and other foods service operations over the course of my career, I am able to recognize questionable food handling and storage conditions quickly. Several garbage cans were overflowing and some of the contents had spilled onto the ground; perishable foods, such as milk and sliced fruit, were stored on the floor of the tent unrefrigerated; and some of the cooking equipment and surfaces were covered with food particles. The problem didn’t appear to be related to a lack of resources or facilities, though. A nearby mobile unit was equipped with several sinks for handwashing and cleaning.

After talking with some of the residents, it became apparent that their biggest issue wasn’t related to a food shortage. In fact, Church members, neighbors, and non-profit organizations provide hot meals most nights of the week, which means few meals are prepared on-site. Instead, the main problem is that they receive an excessive amount of donated food, and they simply cannot keep up with the turnover. Even with two refrigerators and a large pantry, there isn’t enough space to store it all. And the biggest problem? Pastries. Apparently several well-intentioned local bakeries and coffee shops donate unsold items to them daily, but residents admit that it has created some serious challenges, including the odor that I smelled earlier.

This brings up another issue. While many of us feel compelled to anonymously donate food and supplies to communities like these (myself included), random donations don’t always solve problems. Sometimes they create more. The act of giving, when it’s done without also connecting with its recipients, isn’t as beneficial as it could be. What do most homeless people need the most? A friend.

As I returned to my car, thoroughly frozen to the core after being outside for almost two hours, I felt a twinge of guilt as I cranked up the heat to 85 degrees and started my drive home with a grateful heart.

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