KENT COVINGTON, HOST: It’s The World and Everything in It from member-supported WORLD Radio. Today is Wednesday, March 21st. Good morning, I’m Kent Covington.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. A half a million people are homeless on any given night in the United States. Homeless populations are growing, particularly in West Coast cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.
COVINGTON: In Seattle, officials there are trying a new approach: Tent cities. Sort of sanctioned homeless encampments. It’s all part of an experiment to help people get back on their feet.
REICHARD: WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg visited one of those tent cities and brings us this report.
SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Tent City 5 is one of five encampments that the city of Seattle permits in its city limits. It’s one of three the city directly funds.
AUDIO: Street traffic
The so-called “city” sits on a small, 12,000-square-feet lot hemmed in on all sides. A busy street running by in front, a long concrete overpass looming overhead, and trains zipping by behind. Chain link fences surround the entire lot.
One resident calls himself Panda. He’s a 50-something man with a wizardly white beard and a cane in his hand. He can walk, but it’s difficult—so he rides an electric wheelchair.
Panda was homeless when he came to Seattle in search of the camp.
PANDA: I just rode a bus and got up here. It was better than living in a barn in Oregon….working on a hemp farm, believe it or not.
Panda rolls over the woodchip-covered ground through the camp along with his friend Ken. Panda points to four tent dormitories: three men’s, one women’s. Each tarp-covered tent holds seven cots.
AUDIO: Sound of unzipping tent
Inside, it’s dark and smells musty. Behind the row of tent dorms sits a large kitchen tent. Local churches and restaurants donate meals throughout the week.
PANDA and KEN: You can look in the kitchen and see what it looks like. Microwave, toaster oven, chuck wagon, big huge cookout thing. Couple of tables and then all our kitchen supplies.
PANDA: We’ll walk this way. You can see the difference in the styles of the houses.
The back half of the camp has rows of what looks like 20 wooden yard sheds—each painted bright colors.
City leaders call these tiny homes. They sit on platforms, aren’t insulated, and don’t have running water. Space heaters warm the interiors.
PANDA: These are tiny houses. They’re all 8 by 12, basically. I’ll let you look inside of mine.
Inside, milk crates stacked against the wall are filled with possessions—including a 20-inch TV, cds and books. Panda doesn’t work, but he gets a social security check every month. Most others in the camp have jobs.
The idea behind the community is that living in the tiny homes will provide enough stability to enable a transition into permanent housing. Haley DeVries, a homeless youth living in the camp, says it can take months to get into one of these tiny houses.
HAILEY: When people first get here, we usually have them in dorms instead of cabins and, like, the longer they stay here, the easier it is for them to get into a cabin once people transition into actual housing.
Some Seattle leaders argue the resources the city and local corporations spend on funding tent cities could be better spent on permanent housing.
But the residents of Tent City 5 say it provides a vital alternative amid Seattle’s housing shortage. And an opportunity for peer-to-peer help.
PANDA: Who helps the homeless more than anybody that you ever knew? Was it other homeless people? Every time.
Besides a monthly inspection, the camp is largely self-governing. Residents elect officials each week to handle needs, coordinate food donations, and enforce camp rules like no drugs, drunkenness, or hate speech. Those who break rules face eviction.
King County—which includes Seattle—has the third-largest concentration of homeless people in the nation: nearly 12,000 people without homes. In 2017, the city sponsored camps sheltered 850 people. And there’s growing demand. Tent City 5 turns away 10 to 15 people every day.
PANDA: And this is even better than shelters because I don’t know if you’ve seen the shelter situation, but we’re sleeping this close to each other at night, and I have to share your bugs. I have to share a lot of things that I don’t want to share.
AUDIO: Sound of tent chatter
In the late afternoon, a dozen residents gather in the kitchen tent. Someone has dropped off several boxes of doughnuts. Marlin Thomas sits at the table mixing music on his laptop. He’s saving up and living in a dorm until he has enough money to get an apartment.
THOMAS: I do janitorial work to get a place.
Thomas says that many residents have found a community here, which means they aren’t in a hurry to leave.
THOMAS: There’s some good people here, but at the same time you know, you want to try to help them get out of here because other people need to come, so I don’t want to really be taking up too much space.
Residents can’t get too comfortable. There’s no running water, so they have to use porta potties and take a bus to a public shower facility.
And the camp often feels unwanted. Half of what should be Tent City 5’s lot is tied up in a lawsuit by a resident who doesn’t want the homeless here.
The city moves camps every two years since homeowners never want a permanent group of homeless people in their neighborhood. Tent city residents say they often get accused of local crime. Like when a lady pulls up in a car and marches up to the entrance of the camp.
AUDIO: Sound of woman talking
She says there was just a physical assault on a Whole Foods worker down the street and the perpetrator looks like a tent city resident. The tent city security guard defends the man.
GUARD: A gal from Whole Foods was just here saying that Justin assaulted somebody there and they came here looking for Justin. And he was here, I’ve seen him here the whole time.
The lady leaves. But the incident shows why many residents like Panda feel better behind the camp’s chain link fence than outside it.
PANDA: For as many homeless people there is, each one of them has a different reason of why they’re there or how they got there. We should quit labeling it and say, hey, listen, these humans are having a hard time. Let’s deal with this and let’s help them build community.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg reporting from Seattle, Washington.