Seattle's tent cities

Seattle has America's fourth-largest homeless population and virtually everything homeless people do is illegal in Washington State, which has added 288 new offenses related to homelessness to its statute-books since 2000 — amazingly, this did not convince those homeless people to stop being homeless.

Instead, they've started building semi-permanent tent cities, which have been institutionalized by Seattle, which now grants one-year permits for cities of up to 100 people. One such tent-city is Nickelsville, named for former mayor Greg Nickels, who devoted extraordinary municipal resources to razing homeless encampments (amazingly, this also didn't convince those homeless people to stop being homeless — they really are intransigent!).

There is one strategy that has proved amazingly effective at ending homelessness, and it's one that Seattle does not appear to want to try: giving homeless people homes. The Housing First strategy starts from the assumption that whatever other problems homeless people have — mental and physical illness, difficulties with employment, substance abuse, etc — these are much harder to solve when you don't have a roof over your head. So they give people homes, no strings attached. It works.

As the article in the Grist notes, Housing First has been a roaring success in Salt Lake City, and has also performed brilliantly across Manitoba.

Today, at the corner of 10th and Dearborn, a few hundred yards from the I-5 overpass, a cluster of tents and tiny houses painted flamingo pink huddle together against the Seattle chill, bright splotches of color under a dove-gray sky. The houses were built by Home Depot Foundation volunteers. The pink paint pays homage to the encampment's original tents, which were donated by the Girl Scouts.

Amid the March drizzle, I trail Yoe as he trudges comfortably around the property in muddy boots, calling out friendly hellos to his neighbors as they peer from tent flaps or slowly pick up another log to throw on the communal campfire.

It's a Sunday, so some workaday residents are off taking care of important life tasks, such as bathing. There's a small bank of Porta-Potties here, but no showers, no electricity (except when there's enough gas to power up a generator), and no water. A neighboring electric car dealership usually lets Nickelsville residents stop by and fill up water-cooler jugs for drinking and cooking, and nonprofits and churches donate bottled water, but it's inconsistent. Yoe tells me that at one point, they were out of water for five days.

But because there are tents and wooden structures, Nickelodeons, as the 40-odd residents call themselves, have roofs over their heads. And because residents take turns working security and maintaining the property and running weekly consensus meetings, they've got somewhere to feel safe, to feel welcome, and to call home — at least for a little while.

Seattle allows them to stay in their current location because they are sponsored by a faith organization — this time, it's the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd — as well as permission from a private landowner. The permit should last until September, when, most likely, they'll have to find another scrap of underutilized land and move on.

Tent cities: Seattle's unique approach to homelessness [Sara Bernard/Grist]

(Image: Sara Bernard)