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.