Seattle 'Tent City' Brings Homeless Issue Home

For a decade, an advocacy group for Seattle's homeless has engaged in highly successful political theater. A tent city is set up on church property in a prosperous neighborhood. Then it moves every three months to a new location.

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You think of Seattle, you think of the Space Needle, you think of Microsoft; well, you can also think about tent cities. Part homeless shelter, part political statement, the roaming camps have been accepted by local authorities. Residents hardly even notice them anymore.

But more recently, the tent city movement jumped to Seattle's prosperous eastern suburbs. NPR's Martin Kaste reports the reception there has been stormier.

MARTIN KASTE reporting:

Norm Rice was mayor of Seattle in the 1990s, when the first tent cities appeared. At the time, the camps were widely considered a uniquely Seattle thing; just part of the city's lefty politics. But since Rice left office, the movement has jumped to the more conservative suburbs, and Rice can barely conceal his satisfaction.

Mr. NORM RICE (Former Mayor, Seattle, Washington): It used to be all Seattle. Now it's Woodinville, now it's Bothell, now it's other places in - and I'm not sure that's bad. I think that this has caused debates and splits in families, in churches, and everything else. And what are you going to do to help people in need is a critical debate.

KASTE: The camp causing all this upset is called Tent City IV, and it's been hopscotching through the Microsoft money-drenched eastern suburbs for two years now. The camp is currently set up in the backyard of a sympathetic church in the not so sympathetic town of Woodinville.

The only entrance to the camp is through its outdoor smoking lounge.

(Soundbite of people coughing)

Residents light up here because they're not allowed to smoke near their tents. It's just one of the rules imposed by the city, which never wanted the camps here to begin with.

City inspector Jason Burt comes by every day, clipboard in hand.

Mr. JASON BURT (City Inspector, Woodinville, Washington): How many are we?

Unidentified Man: Oh, who knows?

Ms. JOY CORGILL(ph) (Tent City IV Resident): We are at 58.

Mr. BURT: Fifty-eight?

Unidentified Man: Holy moly!

KASTE: Camp resident Joy Corgill gives him his daily tour. There's not much to see, just a couple dozen tents pitched on wooden pallets, some coolers full of food, a portable shower and toilets, a TV area, and finally, a big tent called the Hilton.

Ms. CORGILL: This is where fellas come when they first come in to camp. They -when they first sign in, they get a cot in here so they can figure out whether guys are going to follow the rules.

KASTE: The Tent City is self-governing. Residents form councils to do chores and keep order. Self-reliance is the mantra of SHARE, the group that organizes these camps. Their philosophy does not impress Steve Pyeatt, a local anti-tent city crusader.

Mr. STEVE PYEATT (Anti-Tent City Activist): When I went to high school and there were kids in high school that were falling behind, what we didn't do is put them all in a room and say, when you figure out how to graduate, let us know. And that's what this self-managed thing is doing. You're taking people that have so many problems that they are no longer able to live on their own, putting them together and then hoping that by accident somehow those problems will be solved.

KASTE: As far as Pyeatt is concerned, the camp is little more than a calculated provocation directed against the suburbs. Others here agree. Eastside city councils have scrambled to pass ordinances to keep the camp away, and there have been big, expensive court battles.

Tent City IV has moved eight times, and a ninth move is imminent, because a judge has just ordered the camp to leave Woodinville. Tent residents are adamant about staying in the suburbs.

Ms. PEGGY HOTES(ph) (Part-Time Tent City IV Resident): We'll be out here as long as it's necessary.

KASTE: Peggy Hotes is a prim woman dressed in a pastel business suit. And when she talks about camp life, she almost seems to relish her cold, drippy nights sleeping in a backpacking tent.

The thing is Hotes isn't homeless. She has a house in the swank suburb of Bellevue. When asked whether it wouldn't do more good to take a couple of the camp's residents home with her, she shakes her head.

Ms. HOTES: It would seem that way, but when you do that you might be helping two or three people. When you stay here, you're supporting not only this shelter, with its around 60-plus people, but you're also saying something about homelessness.

KASTE: The tent city's now familiar cycle of crises - the court battle, the eviction, and the last-minute relocation to a new host church - all makes for good political theater. And in Seattle, it gets at least some of the credit for prodding the county into a new 10-year plan to end homelessness.

The county could probably find enough shelter beds for the 60 or so people living in Tent City IV, but that's not what they want. If they went inside, they, and their mission, might very well disappear from public view.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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