After just weeks, Seattle homeless camp prepares for another move

It’s a process all too familiar to people staying in Tent City 3

By Becca Savransky, SeattlePI

On Saturday, about 60 people, including several children and pets, will wake up at 5:30 a.m., pick up all of their belongings, and move — once again — to a new site. It’s an all-hands-on-deck effort. Everyone will be able to take four 33-gallon trash bags of their personal belongings. They’ll do the heavy lifting, load everything onto trucks, and set up in a new community.

It’s a process all too familiar to people staying in Tent City 3, part of the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort/Women’s Housing Equality and Enhancement League (SHARE/WHEEL).

Just weeks ago, the community was planning to move to a property owned by a church. That fell through, so they were stuck moving temporarily to a spot in Ravenna on land managed by the city. The tent city — which has been running for about 20 years and has regularly set up their camp at a church or other community site with a permit — was staying in an unsanctioned area for the first time in years.

“We didn’t have a choice, we had absolutely nowhere to go and we weren’t willing to disband, we weren’t willing to just walk away from a safe, stable secure shelter where we had a say in our daily lives,” said Michelle Atwood, who has stayed in Tent City 3 in the past and held positions within the community.

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The city allowed the tent city, which can shelter up to about 120 people, to stay at the site in Ravenna until its next host site, at a church in Tukwila, could accommodate it. But now, just about three weeks after their last move, the residents there are preparing to again pick up all of their belongings to head to a new site.

“It’s debilitating. It takes weeks to recover from this and to have to pick it up and do it again is absolutely frightening, just physically frightening, but we’ll do it,” Atwood said. “We’ll do it and we’ll make sure every piece of plastic, nail and cigarette butt is off the lawn when we leave.”

The Move

Traditionally, the tent city — which is self-managed — moves to a new host site every 90 days. These sites are often property of faith-based communities, like churches. The quarterly moves ensures the tent city doesn’t become too much of a burden on any one community, Atwood said. It also allows the encampment to pick up people in different areas and try to help those in need.

Picking up and moving so quickly after its previous move, though, is tiresome.

Moving day begins at 5:30 a.m. Coffee is ready — one cup per person — and then residents attend an emergency camp meeting at 5:45 a.m. to go over final instructions for the move. By 6 a.m., people are getting to work.

“You load the trucks and you don’t stop till it’s done,” Atwood said. “However long that takes.”

On the day of the move, the camp has people specifically in charge of coordinating everything.

“We have move masters. On that day, they’re the bosses of the camp,” said Michelle Nobles, who stays at the tent city and has been involved with the organization for a number of years.

Things are moved down to the new site in rented trucks. Everyone is required to help. “If you don’t help with the move, you don’t move,” Atwood said.

By 8 a.m. on move day, people are expected to have turned in their personal items and have their personal tents down.

The first things transported and set up are the common areas, such as the kitchen area and flooring pieces. Then, residents start moving personal belongings. This doesn’t include blankets, which the tent city provides. Atwood said because of the constant moves, you learn how to get comfortable and be a minimalist. She said she has just a single sandwich bag of her kid’s baby pictures and a FedEx envelope of important documents.

There are sometimes volunteers who come to help out during a move, Atwood said, calling it a “logistical monster.” “But the bulk of the work is done by people who sleep here,” she said.

The goal: to leave the site better than when they found it.

In most of the places the camp has stayed, the community surrounding it has been helpful and supportive. But residents of the encampment know how important it is to leave the site in good condition, Atwood said.

“I would say 95% of the neighbors in any given neighborhood that we go to are amazing, absolutely beautiful people,” she said, adding that when the tent city first moved to Ravenna, people were asking what they needed and handing food over the fence within hours.

How it’s run

During its time in different host sites, the tent city also has strict rules. There is no drugs or alcohol allowed, no violence and no weapons. When a person comes to the camp site, they need a valid government-issued ID. The intake process also includes checking sex offender registry lists. People on a sex offender registry are not permitted.

Atwood said she has done countless intakes over the years. When going through the process, she said she’ll often tell people it doesn’t matter why they’re there, but what matters is that people use the space as intended: To “reset” and “move with purpose.”

People often have the wrong idea of who makes up the tent city, she said.

“It’s not what people think it is,” she said. “We’re not the drug addicted group of homeless folk that everyone complains about.”

At the tent city, there is a board of elected officials who deal with any issues that may come up. Those people can and do often change. There is a weekly camp meeting and a credit system in place that requires everyone staying at the shelter to take a share of the responsibilities. Each person who stays at the tent city has to earn a certain number of credits a week, through doing tasks such as security shifts, or “litter buster” shifts, meaning people go out into the surrounding neighborhoods and pick up any trash.

There are also certain amenities, including several porta-potties, a kitchen area and a place to charge phones or other devices. The tent city primarily relies on donations from people in the community for things like water, toilet paper and gas for a generator.

About 60% of people who stay in the camp have full-time jobs, Atwood said. Traditional shelters, which require that people be in and out by a certain time, don’t always work for people who work full-time — especially those who work night shifts or non-traditional hours, she added.

The tent city allows people to come and go at any hour, and has all-day security, meaning there are people monitoring the camp site and making sure people’s belongings stay safe at all times. The community grants people freedom and autonomy, while also enforcing strict rules and participation to keep it running smoothly.

“Not everybody can handle this, this is a hard thing,” Nobles said. “It’s not easy and some people find that they just cannot do it.”

The length of time people stay in the camp varies. Atwood said she’s seen people stay for years, while others transition much more quickly. She noted people staying in the tent city form bonds, creating a community that will protect and fight for each other.

But for some people, it can take a while to get acquainted with the system — especially those who have been on their own for a while.

“Instead of being your own entity, now you got to think about others,” Nobles said. “It takes time for some people to adjust.”

As the tent city prepares for yet another move, Nobles emphasized that everyone who enters the community has their own story — that to fix the issue more broadly, the city needs to get to the root of homelessness and target the specific causes.

“The system is broken,” she said. “It needs to be fixed. You can’t just throw a whole bunch of money out there and say, ‘Oh it’s fixed.'”

“Everyone is a human being, everyone deserves an equal shot, we all have a right to basic needs of life.”

About the Author

Rebecca is a social services reporter at The Frederick News-Post. She graduated from Northwestern University, where she studied journalism and political science. She served as Managing Editor, Summer Editor-In-Chief and Campus Editor at The Daily Northwestern and previously interned at The Miami Herald.