A night of ‘houselessness’
February 2, 2010
By Chantelle Lusebrink
When campers return, Tent City 4 comes to life after dark
The gear on your back has gotten heavy on the walk up the hill to the Tent City 4 encampment. The American flag marks its entrance, as does a man working security at the front who directs you to the intake area where they check identifications and criminal backgrounds before allowing admittance. It’s reassuring, but also bothering, even though you have nothing to hide.
You’re taken on a tour of the facility — a sea of tents for men, women and couples radiating out in circles from the common areas, like the television tent, kitchen and eating area. You can sign up for a shower and computers. Take up to six clean blankets, but change those out every two weeks to avoid bed bugs. Don’t take food to your tent if you want to keep rodents away. It’s hard reality and far from a real home, but there’s comfort in knowing others are with you.
Checked in. “You’re part of the family.” Just don’t disobey any rules: Unless you’re part of a couple, men and women can’t be in the same tents; you live here, so you help out with security and community service; don’t disrespect others; and clean up your personal belongings.
Dinner arrives as you unfold a sleeping bag in a double tent. You can see in the near dark that it’s clean enough — a few pennies and toenail clippings on the floor. No roommate. You wonder if this will change and who that will be. It starts to rain as you make your way through a small winding alley with tents on either side. You smell the outdoors, rain-soaked cement and people. Lines form for food; slightly hesitant volunteers look around. Parents try to break the ice; residents say thanks for a warm meal of pasta. As parents start to talk, their children — middle and high school students — loosen up and begin offering dinner with welcome smiles.
After dinner, groups of people start to form around tables — one plays card games; another smokes cigarettes, reflecting on the day’s news and the search for jobs; others pass the time with makeshift crafts — an ant out of wire and origami out of printer paper. Others want to be alone, so they sit in silence together in a TV room created with tarps and P.V.C. pipe lashed together.
The crowds in the common areas begin to shrink as the cold sets in. The rain seems to ease into your pores and through your bones. You learn more about one another. Others aren’t at all unlike you — some have college educations, some were laid-off, some have had health issues, some have lost everything because of a bad decision — but there is still hope as they talk about their escape.
“I think you all are afraid to go to bed,” a resident says. Truthfully, the thought of getting in a cold, dark tent with the rain pouring down, as opposed to warm conversation around a table with leftover cookies from dinner doesn’t sound as appealing. The group offers advice: Wear less in your sleeping bag as your body heats it better, grab three Rice Sax from the donation bin (one for your toes, body and near your head), put on your hat and pull the sleeping bag around your face.
It’s time for bed. After heating the Rice Saxs, you press them to your body and look around for anything else that might be yours. You slowly make your way back to your tent, secretly hoping someone else will be there and second guessing that hope at the same time. No one else has come. You shove your Rice Saxs into the bottom of your bag and rub your feet to get them warm. Suddenly, you feel vulnerable. There aren’t doors to lock, no walls to keep out the cold and nothing between you and the outside world except for the zipper of a tent door. It feels lonely even though there are 80 people nearby. They’re strangers with their own troubles, people you didn’t know existed until tonight. You try to sleep.
The sound of rain usually helps you sleep, but the moisture and cold seems trapped in the tent, making your feet ache. The wood pallets below dig in through the backpacking pad and sleeping bag. You continue to toss and turn, but drift into some sleep as your eyes get heavy and the new hand warmers in your socks give heat to your feet.
You’re suddenly very awake. Sirens blare nearby, someone snores a few tents away, others cough continuously and you know something isn’t right — you’re not in your comfortable bed. The door of the tent isn’t covered by a tarp and your sleeping bag is wet. You remember where you are, curl into a tight ball and wait for morning. The rain continues.
The rain has stopped and there’s light outside. You hear others getting out of their tents. The night is over. It’s a tough first night, but you’re not alone and there’s another day to make something happen. Packing up your belongings, you head out of your tent.
Saturday morning at Tent City is much like anyone else’s; coffee is being made and the morning news is on TV. People take their time fixing breakfast. You say goodbye to friends made the night before and proceed to check out. You’re given an infraction, for leaving a water bottle and an origami penguin out in the common area. It would have cost an extra duty or two, if you were staying at Tent City instead of heading home. The infraction makes you think of the impact you had. You hope your stay wasn’t an inconvenience and that the infraction could be overlooked. But here, the smallest things can leave a lasting impression.
Chantelle Lusebrink: 392-6434, ext. 241, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.
Among 80 or so residents, everyone has a different story
By Chantelle Lusebrink and Warren Kagarise
The tents went up 10 days ago, draped in blue tarps and lined up in neat rows on vacant land adjacent to Community Church of Issaquah. Since, Tent City 4 residents have adjusted to the move, learned local bus routes and introduced themselves to a new community.
The camp includes residents old and new — some who recently lost homes or jobs, and others staying there as they plot life’s next step. Spend a night at Tent City 4, and listen to the residents talk about how their paths converged at the homeless encampment.
“My son tells me, ‘Dad, this is your year,’” Mark Elliott, a former mortgage manager, said.
Years of doing things for others willingly led the 54-year-old to Tent City 4.
Most recently, he helped a grandmother without money bury her grandson, who fell out of a window two years ago. His rent was late and he ended up homeless.
He came to the Seattle area searching for a new start in summer 2008, after years of tending to his daughter, now a sophomore in college, who had cancer as a teen.
During her illness, he quit his job to care for her. But $800,000 in medical bills not covered by insurance found him selling most of the family’s possessions; he also got a divorce.
When his son and daughter entered college, he moved here to find a job.
“We didn’t have any in Florida,” he said. “But when I got here, there weren’t any either.”
He came to Tent City 4 in November, left and returned a few days ago.
Now, the professional with years of experience in finance, computer programming and management waits for a job he hopes will come soon.
Dressed in a Tinkerbell hoodie, eyes rimmed by glasses with red frames, Jasmi Penn stands out in the crowd of sober raincoats and dark jackets. She cracks wise with fellow campers, smoothes out problems and juggles more clipboards than a charge nurse as member of the resident-elected executive committee.
The camp population includes only 10 or so women among the 80-plus residents, but Penn — 23, diminutive and a Georgia native — demands notice for her moxie.
“They treat you like one of the guys,” she said.
Penn arrived in the Pacific Northwest in October after a stint in the Army, attracted, she said, by movie depictions of Seattle and the cool, rainy climate. Faced with the unfamiliar, she searched for community. Penn arrived at Tent City 4 a few weeks later.
“If you can make it through a situation like this, you can make it through anything,” she said.
The prospect of jobs in faraway Washington led Shawn Nelson to pull up stakes in New Orleans and head for Seattle — a gamble, to be sure. Nelson, a former dealer in card rooms in Las Vegas and on the Gulf Coast, knows plenty about chance.
The local economy proved to be more anemic than he had hoped. Nelson — a Memphis native with the drawl to match — found occasional work through a temp agency and temporary shelter at Tent City 4.
He misses the showmanship needed to run a blackjack, craps or roulette table, the give and take with casino patrons. From the encampment, Nelson, 42, continues a search for steady work and dreams about landing a spot at a tribal casino.
“Indoor plumbing would be cool,” he joked. “I’m a big fan of heat. But for now, this’ll do.”
Still, “we’ve really got it good compared to what it could be,” he said.
Campers run Tent City 4 as a participatory democracy, and camp adviser — and longtime resident — Bruce Thomas ensures life unfolds with as few snags as possible.
Thomas, self-described as “old enough to know I don’t have to answer that question” about age, works with the executive committee to oversee camp operations.
“We are together and safe, and tonight I don’t have to worry about any of my friends dying,” he said.
Thomas lost his wife and children in a drunken driving accident years ago and, in the aftermath, went on a walkabout from Florida to Washington. In Seattle, he became involved with SHARE, the nonprofit organization behind Tent City 4.
Tent City 4 formed in May 2004. Thomas acts as the institutional memory and assuages worries brought forward by neighbors and officials whenever the camp announces its move to a new city.
Tent City 4 traverses a circuitous route across the Eastside, from church to church. Many communities welcome the roving encampment, but in others, residents worry aloud about the visitors. Thomas described Issaquah as the most welcoming city for camp residents.
Rules allow up to 100 residents at the encampment; about 80 live there usually. The busted economy sent some to Tent City 4, but the residents defy easy categorization.
“There are 85 different reasons they’re here,” he said.
Alan Erickson, originally from Arizona, spent part of the night Jan. 29 refamiliarizing himself with the art of origami.
“I use do watch my grandmother, who is Japanese, do it and I was fascinated with the art of it,” the 30-year-old said, soft brown eyes peering from beneath a hat that doesn’t really cover his shaggy brown locks. “I taught myself, about five or six years ago, to work with my niece who is autistic.”
Today, Erickson finds it is a way to pass the nights he spends waiting at Tent City 4, where he has been a few months .
Traveling from Arizona, after selling his tools and truck when the state’s construction market dried up, he found himself on a ship in Alaska, then refurbishing a woman’s hardwood floors for a cell phone, $700 and a plane ticket to Seattle.
Like many, he knows the situation at the encampment isn’t perfect, but it works, he said.
“It is an amazing situation here,” he said. “I haven’t been homeless that long, but it gives you a base to branch out from.”
He’s waiting for funding to restart his career as an emergency medical technician and nurse, so he can leave construction.
“I got bored at 17 living in Virginia, so I hitchhiked to the Grand Canyon, because I wanted to see what it looked like,” Steve Bell, 28, said.
It kind of sums up his life to this point, a permanent case of wandering foot, he said.
Steve has traveled in his life to five of the seven continents — missing only continental Asia and Antarctica. He traveled to North Africa because he wanted to see what it looked like; roamed among the Hopi Indians near the Grand Canyon; and lived in Paris and Rome, two of his favorite cities in the world.
His life now finds him in the Seattle area, because someone told him if he liked the outdoors, the city was his kind of place. So far, he said he’s not regretting his decision, though he finds himself living in Tent City 4.
He found the encampment about three weeks ago as a place to reduce his costs before getting back to school at Bellevue College, and then transferring to the University of Washington for a degree in anthropology or archeology, whichever strikes his fancy.
After that? “Where I’d love to go,” he said, “I’d love to take the old Silk Road from China to Rome.”
Teresa and Faith Mach
“I wanted to expose her to different types of things and to have her learn about not taking things for granted,” said Teresa Mach, a parent who volunteered with her daughter to serve dinner to Tent City 4 residents for a night.
“I, myself, am from the Third World. We came as refugees, my family and I, in 1979, when the U.S. took us in from Cambodia,” she said, adding that her parents, originally from China, escaped to Cambodia and then to the U.S. “I want her to learn some people’s lives, they aren’t so fortunate, and not to look down at people because she was born into this life.”
While sharing her story, her daughter, Faith Mach, a junior at Newport High School in Bellevue, helped serve generous amounts of pasta to residents.
“It sounded fun,” Faith Mach said of volunteering. “I’ve never done this type of thing before.”
She said she wasn’t nervous about going to a homeless encampment.
“I was maybe a little nervous, because I didn’t know how to serve food,” she said.
As she got more comfortable, her smile grew into one of confidence as she greeted each person passing by her serving tongs.
“I never really realized how it was or how they live,” she said. “But it feels good to help.”
Tent City 4 tweets
Reporters Warren Kagarise (@wkagarise) and Chantelle Lusebrink (@clusebrink) stayed overnight Jan. 29 at Tent City 4 and documented the experience via Twitter. The timeline uses excerpts from the micro-blogging site to chronicle their visit.
Eastside tennis youth group serves dinner to Tent City 4 residents: spaghetti, chicken wings, salad, rolls, cookies — a bounty.
Around a table, strangers from throughout the country become a family, no matter the circumstances.
Tent City 4 residents refer to themselves as “houseless” — not homeless.
Stuffed burrito-style inside a borrowed sleeping bag. (Thanks, Lusebrink family!) Microwaved rice pillow wedged against belly.
The walk to the tent was the loneliest with no one up but 80 people around.
Despite measures for warmth, sleep is hard to come by here because of the cold.
Tent City 4 ritual: Reposition the sleeping bag, roll over, repeat every 30 minutes. Unlucky body part left exposed no matter what.