City Beat

Seattle tent cities: Solution for homelessness or unproven distraction?

In this city of striking geographic beauty and extreme wealth, tents and tarps battered by the tough winter months are becoming part of the view.

Homeless encampments line Interstate 5 as it enters downtown, clearly visible to commuters and tourists heading in from the airport. Homeless men and women push shopping carts on the sidewalks of Queen Anne Avenue, a main thoroughfare of a trendy neighborhood in the shadow of the Space Needle. Squatters slept in the doorway of a Macy’s downtown Thursday night as a camp of tents stood under a bridge near Safeco Field, home of baseball’s Seattle Mariners.

The homeless population in King County, where Seattle is the largest city, has exploded over the past two years and now stands at more than 4,500. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency last year, and City Hall is still scrambling to address an issue that consistently grabs front-page headlines.

As part of that campaign, the city of Seattle has granted permits for three “tent cities” – temporary encampments of up to 100 homeless men, women and children that are designed to connect the residents with affordable housing options and social services. The camps operate under strict codes, prohibiting alcohol, drug use and registered sex offenders. City officials and camp organizers said the facilities are designed to serve as a springboard for homeless people into permanent housing, although it’s too early to tell whether that’s happening.

It’s a model under consideration in Sacramento for years. On Friday, nearly 20 high-ranking city officials – including four members of the City Council, the city manager and the chief of police – toured three Seattle encampments, an indication of sudden momentum on a controversial topic.

“I think it’s something that we seriously need to look at,” Councilman Jay Schenirer said after the tours. “Given the right infrastructure and support, it might be something we want to do.”

Schenirer was joined by council members Jeff Harris, Eric Guerra and Steve Hansen on the trip. Both Harris and Guerra said permitted homeless camps in Sacramento could be a useful tool in the effort to tackle the city’s most pressing social issue.

Hansen, however, is a skeptic. While his district is heavily affected by the homeless population, he said there aren’t enough data to determine whether tent cities are effective at connecting homeless individuals with services and permanent housing, or whether they are merely “as some people say, a form of baby-sitting or corralling.”

“There’s just no evidence yet that these are solutions, that they produce any outcomes,” Hansen said. “It sounds good on the surface, but it may not be effective and could make things worse for the very people we’re trying to help. We have to make an informed decision and not just be swept away with what’s easiest or just because there’s a clamor for something.”

The morning the Sacramento contingent arrived in Seattle, The Seattle Times ran a front-page story in which a consultant hired by the city said in an interview that the tent cities are a distraction from the long-term effort to solve homelessness and called it “unconscionable” that Seattle has made the choice to sanction the facilities. Hansen posted an image of the news article on social media soon after his flight landed.

A network of legal homeless camps has operated in the Seattle region for more than a decade, mostly on the properties of houses of worship. For the first time, however, the city partners with service organizations and granting permits for camps on public or private land. The city also provides financial aid to the camps, helping with waste management costs and paying for the land. The overall budget for the camps – including utilities, food, supplies and staffing – is roughly $120,000 a year.

The camps are self-governed, with residents electing their own leaders and taking turns working security at the front gate. Campers take turns walking the surrounding neighborhoods in orange vests, cleaning up garbage and patrolling for homeless who need a place to stay. They said the police rarely visit the camps and neighbors, once skeptical of the facilities, are donating skids of bottled water and jugs of Starbucks coffee.

Most of the residents are men. But there are a few couples, and one of the camps has a 4-year-old boy staying there with his mother.

“For a lot of us, this is the first step for socialization and structure,” said Charlie Johnson, 48, a resident of Tent City 5 who regularly gives tours of the camp to media and homeless service providers from other cities. “It’s a place to stabilize.”

Tent City 5 was the first encampment set up under the arrangement with the city, opening in November in a largely industrial neighborhood called Interbay northwest of downtown. The camp is nestled against a hillside across the street from a row of warehouses, reminiscent of Sacramento’s River District north of downtown.

The camp has about 60 residents, all living in tents placed on elevated platforms. As in other facilities, they have a kitchen tent and rely heavily upon donations of food and clothing. It doesn’t have electricity or a connection to a sewer line, so residents use porta-potties and shower at a nearby urban rest stop.

Peter Soukup, 50, spent most of his life in a home in Magnolia, a hillside neighborhood nearby that provides sweeping views of Puget Sound. Then his drinking got out of hand, he lost his home and his fiancée, and ended up living in the bushes in a neighborhood park one year ago this week.

Soukup showed up at Tent City 5 on Dec. 3. He said he hasn’t had a drink since Christmas Day and lives in a tent cramped with three sleeping bags, a propane lantern and tobacco. He wants to transition back inside a house, but said he’s likely going to be in the camp for at least five months.

“My big goal in life is to have a place where I can stand up and change my clothes,” he said.

He said he volunteers at a local food bank 30 hours a week and has become an active player in the camp’s leadership. “I’m creating a foothold so I can grow up a little bit, become part of society again and stop running away from everything,” he said.

Having that stability helped Lorenzo Calhoun, 47, get his certification to be a traffic control “flagger.” Seattle is in a building boom, and Calhoun – homeless for three years – will benefit with a job, working one of the many construction zones around the city.

As soon as his name is called from the housing wait list, “I’m out of here,” he said.

In the Ballard neighborhood a few miles away, five tiny homes and 16 tents provide shelter for about 25 residents at a camp called Nickelsville. The camp is on Market Street, the main thoroughfare of a once working-class neighborhood that is seeing an influx of trendy coffee shops, British pubs, cafes and town houses selling for $800,000.

Jerald Weaver, 35, is a camper at the facility and leads the camp’s security. He recently landed a job at a concession station at CenturyLink Field, where the NFL’s Seahawks and Major League Soccer’s Sounders play. He used to live under a freeway bridge. Now he makes $13 an hour – the minimum wage – and is on a wait list for affordable housing.

“This is safer (than the street); I can leave my stuff to go to work and I’m not alone,” he said.

The transition into housing will likely be slow for some. Gary Dean Oaks, 58, said he’s lived indoors, but “likes the lifestyle out here.”

“I’m not homeless,” he said, sweeping the ground at Nickelsville. “I’m an urban camper.”

John Peters, 62, sat in his tiny house shed Thursday afternoon listening to Fleetwood Mac on a radio and eating tomatoes from Trader Joe’s out of the plastic carton. He said he used to repair boats on the canal that forms the border of the Ballard neighborhood before he hurt his hip and lost his job. After living in a van for two years, he arrived at Nickelsville three weeks ago.

He said he intends to speak with a social worker about getting on the wait list for affordable housing, but hasn’t yet. He said he wants to start receiving Social Security, but hasn’t filled out the necessary paperwork yet, either.

“Sure, I want a home; why wouldn’t I?” he said. “It’s up to the government.” 

The concept of tent cities – often called “safe ground” in Sacramento – has support from some in the Sacramento homeless community, including those who have participated in a protest for nearly three months outside City Hall demanding an end to the city’s anti-camping law.

A safe ground would serve “as a good start” for the homeless population that is seeking temporary shelter in Sacramento, said David Andre, 53, who has camped outside Sacramento City Hall since the protest began in December.

“It would give us something similar to what we have here (at City Hall), only the law would be on our side,” he said, adding he has been arrested multiple times since the protest began. “We’re vulnerable out here.”

Andre said it is vital that a sanctioned encampment be self-governed by the residents, operated by a nonprofit organization and include basic needs like showers and restrooms. But even with those designs, he said some homeless individuals might be reluctant to take advantage of the facility.

“Some people think it’s containment or voluntary segregation,” he said.

Tony Nakagaki, 21, said he has tried unsuccessfully to find temporary shelter in Sacramento and is hopeful that a safe ground would help fill that void. “If they have the temporary shelter and homeless people think they’re safe, people will go,” he said.

Some at Sacramento City Hall worry that devoting time and resources to a safe ground will distract from the long-term strategy of identifying more permanent housing solutions for the county’s nearly 2,700 homeless. Seattle Councilman Mike O’Brien said cities can handle both.

“We are going to have to come to terms with the question of whether we want to be an exclusive city that takes care of people making $150,000 or an inclusive city,” said O’Brien, one of the leading voices on the issue at Seattle City Hall. “To me, this is all a vital dialogue to have. It’s an appropriate discussion.”

Seattle is becoming a city of haves and have-nots, O’Brien and others said. While cranes fill the sky downtown and the population is booming, the city has a massive shortfall of affordable housing. O’Brien said Seattle must keep working on “a parallel track” to find more affordable homes as it expands its temporary solutions, including tent cities and a series of parking lots where homeless residents are allowed to live in RVs.

Councilwoman Sally Bagshaw said attitudes in the city have steadily shifted toward accepting tent cities. She said as illegal camps like “The Jungle” – a notorious camp near downtown where two people were shot and killed last month – continue to exist, many see sanctioned safe grounds as part of the solution.

“We don’t have enough places to put people,” she said. “We need an array of options and this is one option. Is it going to solve the problem? No. But it’s safer than these people being alone. They need a place to get back on their feet.”

O’Brien said the early results are good: he said large numbers of the residents of the Interbay and Ballard facilities have accepted “some level of services” and “are now in a place where they’re ready to improve their lives.” Tent City 5 organizers said four former residents have found homes; at Nickelsville, three residents were placed in affordable housing last week.

The tent cities have on-site services such as substance abuse counseling and social workers who connect campers with low-income housing options. Organizers stress that the facilities are temporary stopgaps and will seek to transition residents out in less than six months.

“There could be some efficacy here for a fairly small segment of our homeless population in Sacramento,” Sacramento Councilman Harris said while touring Nickelsville on Friday. “This might be a tool we could use to socialize, stabilize and integrate some people.”

Ben Sosenko, a spokesman for Mayor Kevin Johnson, said the mayor has “been supportive in the past and he’s open to exploring it again.”

Sacramento attorney Mark Merin and Sister Libby Fernandez of homeless services provider Loaves & Fishes said they have raised enough money to operate “several” homeless safe grounds. They said they want to find sites in four City Council districts and rotate the camp through those parcels every three months.

Hansen said persuading a neighborhood – or neighborhoods – to accept tent cities is going to be “a heavy lift.” He said the protest at City Hall, which has involved frequent outbursts by activists at City Council meetings and several arrests, has polarized the debate.

“Who would raise their hand and say, ‘I want that near our families and kids?’ ” he said. “Every site (that’s been floated in Sacramento in the past) runs into deep and sustained opposition because the public conversation has eroded the trust that these are solutions.”

The Ballard facility is in O’Brien’s district. He said opposition to the location was loud at first, with business owners fearing the camp would drive customers away. But, he said, “the fears they had don’t seem to be materializing.”

O’Brien’s advice for Sacramento officials: Notify neighborhoods and get residents involved in the process early before settling on a site. He said Seattle did a poor job of that last year and, as a result, was met with a series of heated meetings with angry neighbors.

“We know that locating these things is a rallying point for folks who don’t want to see them in their neighborhood,” he said. “You have to realize that people in these communities have legitimate input. If you don’t bring neighborhood voices along, you’re on your heels right away. They point to backroom deals, and suddenly it becomes about government running poorly.”

That was one of the complaints of the people who run the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3063, next to the Nickelsville facility in O’Brien’s district. Organizers of the hall said they were unaware the city was seriously considering the empty lot next to their building for a tent city until the final decision was made.

“If they’re going to set up a homeless camp, they need to be open with you,” said Harold Rodenberger, the VFW’s quartermaster.

Rodenberger said the camp and its residents have generally been good neighbors, but that their presence in the neighborhood has had a negative impact.

“When you open up one of these camps, it pulls in people that have aspirations of getting in but can’t because of the code of conduct,” said Aaron Stoltz, the VFW’s commander. As a result, he and Rodenberger said, the neighborhood has seen a noticeable increase in homeless people wandering the streets.  

Ryan Lillis: 916-321-1085, @Ryan_Lillis

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