These camps are meant to stay in place for one to two years, with the city paying for maintenance and nonprofit organizations providing case managers and other services. Within the camps, residents govern themselves in the manner of a democratic commune, holding weekly meetings to discuss internal policies and issues. To promote good relations between camp and neighborhood, advisory committees made up of local residents, churches, and business owners meet monthly with camp leaders to discuss camp needs and community concerns. Today, the city supports six homeless encampments—though not without some local pushback.
When the city first proposed placing one encampment at a city-owned lot in Ballard, furious neighbors swarmed two public hearing meetings to voice opposition. They said they didn’t want an “eyesore” moving in and affecting local businesses. But since the Nickelsville Ballard (now Northlake Village) camp opened in November 2015, camp residents told me the neighbors haven’t complained much: Each camp enforces a strict quiet time from 9:30 p.m. to 8 a.m., posts guards 24/7, picks up neighborhood litter, and kicks out anyone who causes trouble or abuses drugs. Residents must sign up for chores such as kitchen duty, community cleanup, or security duty.
Residents call their camps “a village within a village,” and they’re beginning to look like one: Tents slowly are being replaced by “tiny homes”—12-by-8-foot wooden cabins painted in cheery colors with little windows and sloped roofs. Each tiny home has electricity, insulation, heat, and a door that locks. As long as the structures stay under 120 square feet, they’re able to circumvent the city’s complex, time-consuming building codes. Each tiny home costs about $2,200 in materials and $0 in labor, thanks to volunteers from local churches and businesses. The volunteers add their own unique design to each home, resulting in rows of bright-colored, miniature homes instead of the previous cluster of tents on wooden platforms.
Joseph Procella, a 56-year-old resident at one of Seattle’s camps, Tent City 5 (TC5), said that while many people donate hot meals, clothes, and hygiene products to the camps, the homeless sometimes know better than others what they need. That’s why he likes the self-management model: “Who helps the homeless more than anybody you know? Was it other homeless people?” Another TC5 resident, a 25-year-old transgender person named Haley, immediately responded, “Every time.” Procella nodded: “When everybody else is just ignoring you and you’ve become an invisible person to society ... that’s a real hard feeling being homeless, having to deal with all that ostracism from people.”
Before he moved to TC5 last November, Procella was “living like a barn rat” in Oregon, sometimes sleeping in the streets, sometimes in a barn by the hemp farm where he found temporary work. He arrived at TC5 hobbling on a walker, but now he zips around town in an electric wheelchair welcoming newcomers, delivering fresh laundry to camps, and attending community meetings.
In the camp, Procella lives in his own tiny home, a warm little space packed with a bed, a small table with a lamp, and handmade dreamcatchers and medicine bags hanging on the wall. Stacked milk crates contain his toiletries, clothes, snacks, and a coffeemaker. A little brown box holds memories: pictures of his mother; pictures of Procella as a boy with a 1970s overgrown hairstyle; pictures with his ex-wife at the beach; and pictures of his son and daughter.
These pictures remind him that he had a past—sometimes hard, sometimes joyful. Though far from ideal, Procella says TC5 offers a safe community that helps people like him “recycle” their lives: “Just because we had a bad or hard past doesn’t mean we’re not worth recycling our lives to do something better.”
CAN HOMELESS VILLAGES and bridge shelters be considered successful? Residents like Procella and Silva would probably say so. But if “success” means not just making the homeless comfortable but moving them into permanent housing, the programs are no panacea: In 2017, among the 843 people Seattle’s program served, only about 40 percent of exiting residents moved into permanent or transitional housing or reunited with family. In San Diego, Alpha Project has in the last three months served more than 890 people and placed about 60 people into permanent housing—still far short of the city’s goal of housing 65 percent of bridge shelter residents.
Every service provider I spoke to said providing permanent housing will continue to be the greatest challenge: In San Diego, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,640 with a near-zero vacancy rate. In Seattle, it’s $1,970 for a one-bedroom apartment, and most new construction involves high-end apartments. Procella echoed many others when he told me, “Tent cities are just a small fix. The real fix is affordable housing.” And one of the biggest questions, given the limited resources, is whether tent shelters are worth the money that could have gone into building more affordable housing.
To that, Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy points to the statistics: Last year, San Diego recorded 126 homeless deaths, Seattle 169. Chronic homelessness costs taxpayers $30,000 to $50,000 per person per year in public services. Then he points to 60-year-old Terrie Woolever, a gray-haired woman with a limp who spends hours outside cleaning the streets because she wants to “give back” to the community for giving her “a second chance in life.” Woolever is scheduled to move into permanent housing through Alpha Project’s bridge shelter.
McElroy thinks that’s better than keeping the status quo: “Whether you care about people or not, leaving them on the streets costs taxpayers billions,” he said. “The cost of doing something costs far, far less than the cost of doing nothing.”