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Crying out for community

A visit to Seattle’s “tent cities” for the homeless shows how everyone yearns for a place to belong

Crying out for community

A resident walks past a row of tiny houses at a homeless encampment in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

Last week, my colleague Sarah Schweinsberg and I spent four days in Seattle visiting city-sanctioned “tent cities,” which are part of a big urban experiment to temporarily house homeless individuals who might otherwise freeze to death outside. It was a particularly cold week when we visited, the kind of chill that nips through your mittens and freezes grass into stiff stalks.

Sarah and I rented an Airbnb house in a neighborhood called Eastlake, a houseboat community that’s home to a glittering lake, hip bistros, and several homeless encampments under the Interstate 5 bridge. At the bridge, under a slab of concrete, we saw tarp-covered tents, strewn trash, and graffiti. We also saw rows of barbed fences that the city erected around such areas to prevent the homeless from settling, but people cut through the fences and set up camp anyway until the city rustles them out and builds another fence.

“That makes me so mad,” said one woman who had been evicted from the homeless encampment in Eastlake. Her teeth chattered in the cold as she told me, “If the city can spend money erecting new fences, why don’t they use that money to actually help the homeless?”

According to the most recent federal count, King County (which includes Seattle) has the third-largest concentration of homeless people in the nation at 11,643 people without homes. There, I saw the same problem I’ve seen during my reporting in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Francisco, and San Diego: People say they want to help the homeless, but they also don’t want to see them in their own backyard. That’s one reason why tent cities have been so controversial.

According to the most recent federal count, King County (which includes Seattle) has the third-largest concentration of homeless people in the nation at 11,643 people without homes.

The first tent city we visited was Tent City 5, one of five encampments that the city of Seattle has sanctioned, and one of three that the city directly funds. That means residents of the tent city form a self-governed community and have the legal right to exist in an allotted space without fear of citations or evictions. There in Tent City 5, at a 12,000-square-feet lot between a busy bridge and a parking lot, I met Ken.

Sophia Lee

Ken standing at the entrance to his home, Tiny House #24. (Sophia Lee)

Ken is a 60-year-old man with thick, bushy eyebrows and wispy, dark hair. He loves dogs and frequently cuddles his neighbor’s puppy to his chest, not caring that the creature has been accessorizing his fleece sweater with blond hairs. He also doesn’t sound well—every time he laughs, phlegm roils up in his throat.

Ken lives in Tiny House #24—one of several dozen super-small wooden structures built by local volunteers for Tent City 5 dwellers. Ken’s tiny house is painted bright turquoise, with sky-blue frames and a cream-white door. It looks cute, like it belongs in the Shire or Whoville, but in reality it’s more like a glorified shed. Although it stands on a low wooden platform to keep the moisture away, there’s barely any insulation, and the interior is only about 12 feet by 8 feet—just enough space for a cot, a little TV, and a basin for washing face and hands. Ken pours leftover coffee grounds and food scraps into a little pail in front of his cot, and dumps it out when it gets full.

“Do you like living here?” I asked, taking in the sights of his living condition and trying not to make any comments.

“Heck, it’s better than before,” he said. “It’s better than being out on the streets or the shelter.”

Oh, of course. I had heard stories about the Seattle streets and shelters. Not a single homeless person I spoke to said they felt safe on the streets or even at the shelters. At shelters, they feel like crackers packed into a tin—crushed into an overcrowded room with clinically unstable people who might erupt into violence, and wary of crackheads and tweakers who steal.

Before he moved to Tent City 5, Ken crashed at his aunt’s house for 17 years until other family members kicked him out. He had never felt like he belonged even as a kid, Ken said, and that sense of rejection stalked him throughout his adult life: “My whole life has gone into failure. I had poor self-esteem, lots of self-loathing.”

I looked at Ken’s house and saw an inhabitable shed. Ken looks at it and sees a home—not because he has a roof over his head, but because for once in his life, he has neighbors who understand what he’s been through, because they too have been rejected by society, they too have felt worthless in their own eyes. “I finally have a community now,” Ken said, beaming. “There are people I like here, who like me. It’s like a village within a city!”

The thing is, Ken had always lived among community. He had a family. He has an aunt who until last year housed him for 17 years. He has walked around this city for decades and bumped into many, many people. For him to say he hasn’t had a community—that he never felt liked or accepted or seen—until now revealed something profound and sad to me.

That week I had read Mark 1:40-45, in which a leper stands before Jesus and implores him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Lepers in the ancient Middle East were considered unclean by Old Testament law—a visible metaphor for the infectious destruction of sin—and by law they had to wear torn clothes, let their hair hang loose, and shout “Unclean, unclean!” when in public. They were physically, socially, and emotionally cut off from their community.

We don’t often see lepers in our society today, but we do see the homeless. Like the lepers of ancient times, the homeless today are social outcasts, ignored or looked at with disgust. They look and smell dirty, and they themselves withdraw into the cracks of human habitation, huddling under freeway bridges, alleyways, and tunnels. People focus on their lack of personal responsibility, pointing at whatever vices they may have—substance addiction, bad choices, unemployment, poor character—and say they’ve brought about their own fate.

But Jesus didn’t reproach the leper’s sins, or his revolting scabs, or his audacity to draw close to him. Instead He was “moved with pity.” He “stretched out his hand and touched” the leper—and He made the leper clean. Then He sent the leper back into society, back into his community.

I’m still trying to hash out what that looks like practically when engaging with people like Ken. But what I know is this: The leper cried for help. Jesus heard him, reached toward him, and touched him. Every homeless individual I talked to during my reporting mentioned a common desire to me: They want community. They want to be seen. They want to be touched, to be understood, to belong. And despite certain stereotypes about the homeless not wanting help, many have been asking for it. But at some point, they give up asking and begin to walk around expecting to be shunned, like the lepers who shout, “Unclean, unclean!”

This story has been updated to correct the square footage of the Tent City 5 encampment.


  • TxAgEngr
    Posted: Mon, 02/26/2018 03:46 pm

    Sophia, have you looked into the Mobile Loaves and Fishes efforts of Community First! for the homeless in Austin, TX?

  • Koni in WA
    Posted: Tue, 02/27/2018 12:09 pm

    I honestly hope this doesn't sounds heartless - but most of the people on the streets in Seattle choose to be there. There are christian outreach missions - but they don't want to go there- it requires something of them.  I live here, the "homeless crisis" here is brought about by: very liberal welfare laws that allow people to live any way they choose while still getting assistance, marajuana laws that allow people to live their lives stoned (witness being; the influx of new homeless "citizens" after the pot law was passed) and bleeding hearts who enable those who hold cardboard signs on the street corners (alot of corners have multiple beggars). These people harrass and assault people just trying to make their way around the city. People don't even visit Seattle any more, it's too depressing.  It smells, people chose the sidewalks to do whatever business they deem necessary at the moment, and heaven help you if you park downtown - door locks mean nothing to these people, they just smash your windows looking for something they can pawn. The barbed wire seems harsh to those who don't have to witness people camping anywhere they choose, making a once beautiful, historic city an untenable place to work or visit.  I like the ideas of tent cities - but they still enable people to have no responsibility or self-worth. The problem started decades ago when the state thought they could do so much better than the church at helping the homeless so they moved  in and took over - and the church, for the most part, stepped back. The church is still reaching out - but it's hard to offer real hope in helping people rehabilitate and get back on their feet when the state offers so much more with no responsibility to change on the part of the reciever. Besides the liberal requirement of the welfare state have so swollen the numbers that it seems overwhelming at this point, even if every church here stepped up - it might not be enough to do a really good job of making true change in these peoples lives. I constantly pray about my attitude and how I can best use God's resources - but it's hard.

  • SNelson
    Posted: Tue, 02/27/2018 02:23 pm

    Overall, I enjoy Sophia's pieces, but I have two comments about this one. First, I think the question of why certain cities have such high levels of homelessness should be primary. Does the city create the homelessness, or is there something about the place that draws them? I suspect it is the later, but admit I could be wrong. Anchorage has a homeless problem, and I don't see why ANYONE would want to be homeless in Anchorage during the winter, but they are.

    Second, the comparison to lepers is severly flawed. Leprosy is a highly contagious and destructive disease. Lepers were not cut off for petty or personal reasons. They were cut off to stop the spread of the disease. It was not a lack of compassion that set them apart. You cannot realistically compare leprosy to homelessness.

  • HJM
    Posted: Tue, 02/27/2018 02:46 pm

    I am in agreement with Koni in that many people on the streets of Seattle are not there because of lack of outreach, but more because our laws here prevent meaningful help from being attractive to those in need.  We worked with teens that were in danger of becoming homeless, but at every level the state sabotaged any help that would provide change.  For the mentally ill, the state requires that they have to want to be psychologically evaluated and they have to want to see a doctor for ongoing medical treatment of any mental illness.  For the drug addicted, the teen has to want to check into a drug rehab program and want to stay there.  In our situation, we provided a clean, safe, caring environment, but our friend wanted things on her terms, to come and go as she pleased day and night, to invite drug dealers over at will, to run, do drugs, and come back when she got cold, hungry, or scared.  There were several people within the church willing to help, encourage, listen, clothe, and love on this beautiful but hurting person.  However, the state repeatedly told her that she had the power to choose what she thought best for the point of creating a worse situation than what we started with.  I don't believe that the church isn't willing to help and that there isn't community willing to embrace, at least I don't believe that is the majority of the problem.  I believe that many people on our streets in Seattle want life their way, want to live their life and let someone else deal with the consequences.  Our homeless camps are rampant with rape, murder, and vandalism.  If these people want to be in community, they have had ample opportunity here in WA to create beautiful community out of the generous gifts that our government, our churches, and our local people have given them.  They don't though.  I don't know the answer, or the one I believe that's biblical seems harsh to our society today.  I honestly think that people who work for what they have, in whatever capacity they are able to are much better off psychologically, relationally, and physically than those who are given so much at no cost. Working may look like being willing to enter into drug rehab and then being willing to be part of an accountability group, it may look like being willing to live with a healthy family and stay in school, it may look like being willing to be on litter patrol in your community...I'm not talking forced labor, just being as responsible a part of your community as is possible for you. The problem of homelesness is multi-faceted and honestly requires a multi-faceted response, especially when mental illness, drug addiction, and abuse are involved.  However, I can say that I have seen many churches and individual christians reaching out and trying to help the homeless here.  I do not believe someone can honestly say they can't feel loved or a part of community here unless they don't want the love or community being offered to them.