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Seattle eyes plan for permanent tent city

Andrea Sparre, who is studying to be a vet tech, with her dog Spike in her tent at the current site of the Nickelsville tent city in Seattle January 26, 2011.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The 65 or so tents that make up Tent City 3 are mounted on wooden pallets and set up in tidy rows. But there's no hiding the contrast between them and the homes next door - colonial-style houses with big yards, some of which were planted with "no tent city" signs in the months before the encampment moved here in November.

Tent cities don't typically enjoy a warm welcome anywhere. But in Seattle, where Tent City 3 and other similar camps have operated in an uneasy truce with officials for nearly a decade, there's a plan to institutionalize the concept.

Seattle officials are considering setting up encampment on city property. Unlike current tent cities that are required to move every three months, this one would stay in one place, operate with the city's approval and feature storage lockers and trailer-style facilities for showers and cooking. The proposal reflects the scope of Seattle's homelessness problem and heightened political tension over the issue, which came to a head with the establishment in 2008 of an encampment dubbed Nickelsville - after former mayor Greg Nickels, who was criticized for his homelessness policies. Current Mayor Mike McGinn, who was elected in 2009, acted on the recommendation of a citizens review panel to propose a permanent encampment.

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That concept resonates in Victoria or Vancouver, where tent cities have also been a headache for officials. In Victoria, homelessness advocates won the right to camp in public parks through a high-profile court ruling in 2008. (The city enacted a bylaw that prevents camping in daylight hours.) In Vancouver, a tent city popped up during last year's Olympic Games, and activists have threatened to set up one at the Olympic village in February.

But in B.C., tent cities are not being proposed as a stopgap measure.

"I would imagine security is the biggest issue," said Doug King of Vancouver-based Pivot Legal Society, which spearheads the Red Tent national housing campaign. "If you take it upon yourself to provide a space and initiate a tent city, then you're also responsible for providing safety and security for those people - and that can be hard to do."

Such concerns are familiar to Seattle deputy mayor Darryl Smith, who says the city's focus remains housing.

"We want to add another piece into the puzzle of a very difficult issue," Mr. Smith said. "We don't want to let … that overall goal of supportive and good housing for every individual or family that needs it get in the way of good. And we think there's some good we can do here."

Residents of the current self-managed tent cities say they provide some measure of security and stability. Residents are required to sign in and out and to take part in security patrols. At Tent City 3, there are portable toilets and hand-washing stations, tents for eating and storing food and one where residents can watch television.

Randy Johnston says he's lived in Tent City 3 for nine months, moving when the encampment pulls up stakes. His tent bears a U.S. flag, a miniature race car and an "Earnhardt #3" nametag, in honour of his hero, deceased stock-car racer Dale Earnhardt. Inside Mr. Johnston's tent are dozens of such toy cars, miniatures of the "Detroit-made iron" he's loved for years.

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"To feel good, you've got to have stuff you like around you," he said.

The desire to hold on to one's belongings has been recognized as a factor that prevents people from seeking shelter and influenced operation of shelters in Vancouver that accept people with pets and shopping carts.

The Seattle compound has its own infrastructure, including church groups that help keep it running. This is the encampment's first stop at Maple Leaf Lutheran, which met stiff opposition when it invited the tent city to set up on its parking lot.

One woman, who would not give her name, described Tent City 3 as on ongoing stunt designed to keep homeless people in the public eye. She seethed with frustration as she described living in her home with her windows closed against the noise and smells, including cooking and cigarette smoke, from the compound next door.

"I feel like I am living in a cave," she said. "All of my curtains are drawn."

If Seattle goes ahead with its plan for a quasi-permanent encampment, conflicts with neighbours may be less of an issue. The proposed site, formerly home to a peanut butter factory that burned down last year, is next to a highway in an industrial area.

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At Nickelsville, residents at a nightly meeting want to know when the permanent site might be ready. Currently, they're living in a former fire station, with some sleeping on mattresses on the floor and others in tents outside. This encampment allows pets. As the meeting got under way, two Chihuahuas tethered to a plastic chair let loose a volley of barks at a leashed black Labrador strolling by with its owner. The smaller dogs were quickly shushed and moved to a different part of the room, as a resident explained that aggressive behaviour is not tolerated from either pets or residents.

Some people at Nickelsville have been there for a week or two. Another man, unsteady on his feet and with a frame and face ravaged by drink, says he's moved with the encampment every three months since it was formed in 2008.

If he'd been luckier, he might have secured a place in 1811 Eastlake. That project opened in 2005 to house 75 men and women with chronic alcohol addiction. A 2009 Journal of American Medical Association found the "Housing First" project saved taxpayers more than $4-million in its first year, by preventing scores of police and emergency medical calls.

Seattle is proposing a semi-permanent tent encampment as a complement - not an alternative - to such innovative programs, Mr. Smith said.

In the meantime, the tent cities are a last resort for some, including Wade Graham, a onetime trucker who's spent the past few weeks in Tent City 3 with his partner, Susan Smith-Graham.

The story of how he got here is complicated and sad, as are those of most of the people here, and involves unforeseen medical bills, drug and alcohol abuse and a recession that chewed through jobs and savings. Thoughtful and well-spoken, Mr. Graham said he's been clean and sober for 14 months, as has Ms. Smith. The couple is now looking for an apartment.

For now, home is a tent where Ms. Smith has whimsically written "Hot Lips and Hawkeye" on a paper plate that marks their spot.

"Basically, we came crawling up here like wet rats on a Friday night looking for a blanket and a place to sleep," Mr. Graham said. "As far as this place goes, these people all have each other's back."

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

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