In 2007, an estimated 1% in the US were homeless, and 39% of those people were children. While the 2010 census project is working hard to count the homeless, we can likely presume that the numbers are worse. There was a 32% jump in foreclosures between April 2008 and April 2009. And 40% of those facing eviction today are people who rent.
Homeless people draw derision, pity, and disgust. They are America’s untouchable caste. Perhaps there is an element of denial in that scorn. If I can point at them in blame, I can feel that their fate will never happen to me.
But in America, it can happen to anyone…
Who are the homeless? Why does it happen? There are as many stories as there are people who wind up on the street. Many are homeless because of sexual abuse or domestic violence. Some lost their jobs, and others had an accident. A lot are disabled. The common thread between them is that life dealt them instability. Something pushed them to the curb, and nobody was there to catch their fall. And the muck where they landed was so deep that they couldn’t climb out.
If you have no shoes, you can’t get a job, but if you don’t have a job, you can buy no shoes. Try to groom yourself when you do not have a bathroom. Survive from day to day when the only thing in life is keeping the basics of body and soul together. There is a threat of hunger and exposure to cold, but there is also crime. Homeless people hide in silence because they are commonly victims of violence: assault, rape, hate crimes — even murder for sport. Homeless women are forced into the sex trade, and some into human trafficking — particularly when they are young. And none of them seem to matter that much.
Except when they matter to each other. This is the story of Tent City 4, a community of homeless people on Seattle’s eastside. They are a small group — less than 100 of the estimated 9000 people who are homeless in greater Seattle. And the people who criticize them do so out of ignorance. Folks don’t want tent cities in their neighborhoods, so they make up reasons to oppose them. One very effective meme is that the tent cities encourage homelessness. The irony burns.
This is Bruce. He serves as Camp Counselor, and he is the one who listens to pie fights and helps folks get along from day to day. He is a community resident, and he works with a board of democratically elected tent city residents to make decisions about fairness, behavior code violations, rules, and regulations.
There is a high code of behavior at Tent City 4 — they do not tolerate hate speech, and no drugs or alcohol are allowed. Quiet time starts about 9:00p, and it is strictly imposed until 8:00a. Mostly, though, the residents organize to look after each other, and keep the place safe. There are member guards that take shifts protecting the community, and hostile behavior is simply not tolerated. People who act badly cannot live in Tent City 4.
This is a supportive environment. People who live at Tent City 4 are there to look for jobs and create a new life for themselves. The tent city is mobile, occupying property belonging to eastside churches who stand behind them — moving from place to place every 90 days or so. And they are surprisingly invisible. But the churches help to support and protect them, and they provide some of the things that the tent city needs. Tent City 4 has a telephone and a computer that’s hooked to the internet, so there is a place of contact for those who might get a callback from an potential employer. They have a makeshift shower that looks damned chilly, but effective. There have a small shed of donated clothing, blankets, sleeping bags, tarps, and there is a lot of hope that things will soon get better.
When I last visited Tent City 4, one of the residents just learned that he had gotten a job. Smiles went from ear to ear, and congratulations were everywhere. And yes, a substantial portion of people who live there are working new jobs. The tent city gives them a stable place and a shower until they can get on their feet and live on their own.
What they don’t have is food. And the community as a whole will not use the food banks in their neighborhood. The impact would be too high for any single food pantry — and they don’t want to empty the shelves when other people depend on it.
The food they do get as a community is what charitable people choose to give them. Sometimes people leave canned goods or rice on their doorstep, and often a local charity group or church might bring them a hot dinner. They aren’t guaranteed any meals, though, and if there is no food they do not eat.
A photo of their food preparation area and pantry tent is to the right, and it contains only the things that people think to drop on their doorstep. That’s it, though. It often isn’t enough for 100 people, and the residents ultimately have to find food on their own.
Many who have no other means use foodbanks and soup kitchens for individual meals. Organizations like Feeding America are truly a lifeline for these folks. The food is a matter of life and death for millions of homeless, whether they live in tents, in shelters, in cars, or on the street.