Roving tent city can build on its legal foundation

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In the first days of the tents and tarps and portable toilets and people who could no longer bear to sleep in alleys or with their head inches from someone's else's feet on a shelter floor, the main goal was to keep one step ahead of police.

Being poor, the residents were told as they were shooed from site to site, was no excuse for trespassing, and living outdoors was against the law.

So there was no reason for anyone in this hard-luck community to imagine the scene earlier this month when, on a foldout table on the muddy grounds of the North Seattle Church of the Nazarene, Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr signed papers making the tent city, at least temporarily, legal.

"We were determined to keep this community going, with or without the city's approval,'' said Anitra Freeman, president of SHARE — Seattle Housing and Resource Effort — the homeless-advocacy group that has organized the roving tent city, which marks its second anniversary Sunday. "But to get their approval? It's pretty great."

How the residents of this homeless encampment came to know victory — and beat the system — is a story of persistence, pushiness, good legal advice and church alliances that have made hosting the tent city part of their ministry.

But it is also the story of backing city officials into a morally difficult corner: For the first time, Seattle's mayor, City Council and city attorney are officially allowing the most vulnerable citizens to sleep outdoors in what may be the nation's largest, longest-running and only city-approved tent city.

"They pulled off what no one else in America has done," said Tom Byers, who served as deputy mayor under Mayor Paul Schell, and agonized over the tent-city issue for the last half of the term. "... I give them credit for taking this issue of out the back alleys and greenbelts" and into City Hall.

But, he added, "my feelings are profoundly mixed."

Early successes

Tent city timeline

March 2000: A tent city with about 20 residents opens at Martin Luther King Jr. Way South and South Charlestown Street in Seattle.
January 2001: Now taking in about 100 people a night, tent city leaves El Centro de la Raza after a six-month stay during which the city ordered the grounds cleared. El Centro refuses, and the city threatens to fine it. The city rejects El Centro's application for a permit.
April 2001: Code-enforcement authorities decide not to fine a Ballard church for hosting the tent city, citing possible federal protections for churches.
September 2001: King County Superior Court Judge Thomas Majhan rules the city was wrong not to issue a tent-city permit to El Centro.
March 2002: Seattle and tent-city officials sign agreement that erases the threat of fines and allows the tent city to remain in one spot, in residential or commercial areas, for up to three months.
The tent-city movement won its earliest successes — acceptance by clergy and unexpected tolerance by neighborhoods — as an ugly symbol of society's shortcomings.

By last fall, the group had moved beyond playing heartstrings. Tent city was winning in court.

A Superior Court judge ruled in September that city officials erred in not issuing a tent-city permit to El Centro de la Raza, the Beacon Hill community center that had hosted the tent city for six months. The military, Scouts and disaster-relief groups all have histories of establishing safe tent cities, Judge Thomas Majhan said.

The city appealed, but rather than risk losing on appeal — which could throw basic housing standards into doubt — Carr recommended the deal allowing the tent city to locate almost anywhere in the city for up to three months.

He wasn't happy, he said, just doing what was needed given Majhan's ruling and the code book's failure to address encampments for the homeless.

The tent city's position also was bolstered by a new federal law seen by many as giving churches the right to ignore land-use codes while carrying out religious practices, such as hosting a tent city.

When tent-city advocates made that point last year, Seattle's code-enforcement officials stopped threatening to fine churches that welcomed the encampment.

Good news rare

That the 100 people of Seattle's tent city have won anything or are happy about anything is close to a miracle.

They are out of work or underemployed. They are construction workers, often injured, without training to do something else. They have some money, but not two months' rent. They are hiding from husbands who beat them. They are mentally ill. They are divorced. They never did get that job on the fishing boat.

"Good news doesn't happen much around here, no," said Ken Schuckert, who is 44, divorced twice — "depressed, I guess, after the last one" — and for five years has been without his own place to live.

He has been a forklift operator and more recently, last September, a janitor at a casino. In 1988, he took some college classes. He would have liked to have gone into advertising. He's good at thinking up slogans, he said.

Last fall, he moved here from Minnesota, drawn by the milder weather. He has lived at the tent city four or five months and sat at the negotiating table as the agreement ensuring the tent city's existence was drawn up.

"It's a feeling of accomplishment," Schuckert said.

Gary Gibson, at tent city for 10 months, says the group has succeeded because of its record as a quiet, safe neighbor, where anyone who comes in drunk or disorderly is tossed out.

As for strategy, Gibson said, Scott Morrow, SHARE's paid staff member, lays out the options, as does attorney Ted Hunter, who works for free. But residents make the decisions. Sometimes, as with any lobbying group, those decisions involve a little hyperbole to make a point.

Last month, for example, even though Riverton Park United Methodist Church in Tukwila was content to have the tent city remain for a few more weeks, SHARE pleaded for a new site for the about-to-be "homeless" community.

Said Gibson, "We don't like to overstay our welcome, and we like neighborhoods to know we keep our word, that we won't stay forever."

Byers said SHARE knows how to play politics as well as anyone. But unlike other groups, there doesn't seem to be much appetite for compromise.

"They listened but didn't listen to the word 'no,' " Byers said.

All or nothing

"There was no issue while I was (in City Hall) that caused me as much pain and difficulty as tent city," Byers said.

Byers has admired the resolve of tent-city advocates, from the time SHARE set up a tent-city demonstration at a Schell housing conference at Seattle Center in 1998 to the last half of last year, when city officials held quiet negotiations aimed at exchanging more shelter and housing for a tent-city shutdown.

But he has been frustrated by the all-or-nothing attitude.

Based on those talks, Byers said, the city went ahead with a loan to convert the Pine City Inn on Fourth Avenue South to 42 units of transitional housing for homeless families. SHARE's reaction, as Byers recalled, was: OK, thanks, but tent city stays open.

Said Freeman, "The people in tent city ... do feel a responsibility to the couple thousand people who would be outside even if the Pine City Inn opened."

Which leads to whether SHARE could ever envision closing the tent city.

Only, said Freeman, when Seattle provides shelter for as many people who need it, thousands more beds if need be; overhauls the shelter system to let people come and go throughout the day and night; better segregates potentially dangerous shelter residents; and allows couples private space to sleep together.

"That's the deal," Freeman said.

Even with the court ruling that fell in the tent city's favor, advocates for the homeless might never have persuaded the Schell administration to make the same deal that Carr cut with an OK from Mayor Greg Nickels. A judge still must sign off on the agreement.

For the Schell administration, which doubled spending on the homeless and pushed construction of transitional and permanent housing even more than emergency-shelter space, endorsing a tent city was too morally troubling, even offensive. And Byers, who spent part of his life working for better housing for migrant workers, felt the need to be consistent.

"Is it a victory, in the final analysis, to win the right to sleep in a tent in the rain?" Byers said. "I'm not sure it is."

City Council President Peter Steinbrueck, who also has spent years advocating investments in shelter and housing, has begun to see things differently. "Why is a tent settlement worse than a mat on a floor in the basement of a church?" Steinbrueck said. "Talk to those folks who are there. They're happier. There's self-determination. There's strength in that. ... They've convinced me of that."

But in the months ahead, some of Steinbrueck's colleagues on the City Council are expected to try to outlaw the tent city — at least on nonchurch sites — by requiring plumbing and other standards the encampment could never meet.

"Ultimately, it is my intent not to allow a tent city," said City Councilman Richard McIver. "It's not safe, it's not a standard that the city should be approving."

How the votes would fall is not known. Nor is it clear how long the tent city's celebration will last.

"We're happy for right now," Gibson said. "We're better off here, together, than alone in the street."

Beth Kaiman: 206-464-2441 or