Tent City 4, ‘a crossroads of humanity,’ returns here
January 26, 2010
By Warren Kagarise
Tent City 4 returned last week, hauled piece-by-piece to Community Church of Issaquah, assembled by volunteers and readied for residents to settle into nylon tents by nightfall.
The homeless encampment returned to the Squak Mountain church where congregants last welcomed Tent City 4 in late 2007. The camp will remain at Community Church until late April.
Donald Brown, a Tent City 4 resident dressed in a plastic poncho and a hat with earflaps to protect against the chill, moved into the encampment last year. He described the camp as “a crossroads of humanity” where people with assorted backgrounds and experiences coexist.
“Some people come in and they stay a day,” he said. “Others stay for a year, two years, three years.”During the early morning Jan. 23, Brown and other residents decamped from First United Methodist Church in Bellevue and arrived — in pickups and moving trucks — in the Community Church parking lot. Then, teams assembled the encampment, just as they did when Tent City 4 reached churches in Kirkland, Mercer Island, Redmond and other Eastside cities.
Teams descended on the Community Church property by 8 a.m., and hustled through the morning in the chill and damp to unload wooden pallets and cut plywood sheets to form bases for tents. The group stopped work at about noon, when volunteers laid out taco fixings for lunch.
Brown said residents take about three to five days to adjust to a new site after the encampment relocates.
Organizers limit the camp population to 100 people; the camp usually includes about 80 residents. Organizers screen people before entry. Residents undergo warrant and convicted sex offender checks.
Administrators ban offenders from the camp, and the site includes 24-hour security. Rules also ban alcohol, drugs and guns inside Tent City 4. Rule-breakers also face banishment from the encampment.
“We don’t tolerate any type of intimidation or physical abuse” among Tent City 4 residents, Brown said.
Rules restrict Tent City 4 residents to adults. Encampment residents leave the site during the day for work. Residents also elect members to the camp’s executive committee, a group of residents tasked with day-to-day camp operations.
Coordinator Paul Winterstein said volunteers started prepping the campsite Jan. 22. By the next morning, workers unloaded pallets and plywood sheets by the dozen, and erected a perimeter fence around the encampment. Teams set up a shower trailer and portable toilets, and converted a shed on church property into a laundry.
More volunteers will return in the months ahead to serve meals to residents and drop off donations.
Winterstein said a church neighbor stopped to fetch the mail at a community box near the church the night before the move. The woman asked about the activity at the church, and when Winterstein told her, she replied, “Welcome!”
But the homeless encampment has left residents in other Eastside cities wary. In Mercer Island, a residents group attempted to prevent Tent City 4 from moving to the city, until a King County Superior Court judge intervened and allowed the camp to settle at a local church.
Organizers announced the Tent City 4 return last November, and reached out to Issaquah residents during the subsequent weeks.
The hosts sent more than 100 mailers to church neighbors, and held meetings to answer questions about the encampment. Only a handful of residents attended the December meetings.
The almost-empty meetings contrasted with the packed church parking lot on moving day, where more than 100 people turned out to transform the asphalt expanse into a temporary shelter.
Diane Froyen, a Tiger Mountain resident, decided to volunteer with the homeless after she read a news article about the upcoming Tent City 4 return.
“I’ve always felt like all of us are one step away from being in their shoes, especially in this day and age,” Froyen said.
For the Rev. Dick Birdsall, the Community Church pastor, the decision to invite Tent City 4 to return stemmed from a desire to help people in less-fortunate circumstances.
“For us, it’s a way of fulfilling our mission,” he said.
‘A fresh start’
But the small congregation with many elderly members needed support to stage the return. Worshippers turned to other organizations, like the Issaquah Sammamish Interfaith Coalition, a group with ties to several area churches.
Coalition Coordinator Elizabeth Maupin worked alongside other volunteers to bring Tent City 4 back to Issaquah. Maupin, wielding a hammer to assemble tent platforms, said the setup “warms my heart, and it feels like we’re welcoming the community home.”
SHARE/WHEEL, a Seattle affordable housing and homeless advocacy group, started the encampment in May 2004. Community Church also hosted the encampment from August to November 2007.
Tent City 4 residents volunteered at the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery and the Issaquah Food and Clothing Bank. Organizers said camp residents plan to contribute to the community again.
John Rittenhouse served as a city councilman when Tent City 4 last settled in Issaquah. Rittenhouse, a leader in the effort to establish a human-services campus in Issaquah, said the encampment offers residents a chance to reflect on the need for a place like Tent City 4.
The former councilman and longtime human-services advocate arrived at the encampment site Jan. 23, ready to help.
“The city, the churches, as you can see, the volunteers,” Rittenhouse said. “It seems to have brought out the best in the city.”
The cooperative spirit extends inside the encampment. Rules require residents to attend weekly community meetings and complete tasks in order to remain in the camp.
Peter Martin checked in at Tent City 4 on New Year’s Eve. Now, he serves on the camp’s executive committee.
“It’s a way for a fresh start for people who are looking,” he said.
Tent City 4 dwellers respect personal property and space, he said. Martin said other occupants helped familiarize him with bus routes and the government and social services available to homeless people.
“I didn’t expect myself to be in this position, but it’s nice to know somebody is out there to help me,” Martin said.
Visit Tent City 4
Reporters Warren Kagarise and Chantelle Lusebrink will spend a night at Tent City 4 on Jan. 29. From the encampment, they will report in-depth coverage about Tent City 4, due in upcoming editions of The Issaquah Press.
Follow the reporters on Twitter @wkagarise and @clusebrink for observations from the encampment on the Community Church of Issaquah grounds. The reporters will talk with Tent City 4 residents and volunteers, break bread with the community and learn how the camp operates.
Check www.issaquahpress.com Jan. 28 for updates about the Tent City 4 plan.
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.