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New Reality TV: Homeless People Trade Places With Home Owners!

In areas around Seattle, Wa., there are clusters of homeless people living in “tent cities.� Groups work with cities to find available land, and move tents onto sites. Every time a tent city is proposed in the suburbs around Seattle, there are protests and nasty articles in the local papers. Wild and untrue stereotypes of the homeless fly rampantly without restraint in the media. Before Tent City 4 recently moved to Woodinville, Wa., the local paper ran an article by owners of a Woodinville bed and breakfast. These people claimed a tent city in Woodinville would threaten “agriculture� and “tourism,� would endanger children and schools, and would cost the city money...
New Reality TV: Homeless People Trade Places With Home Owners!
By Kirsten Anderberg (www.kirstenanderberg.com)

In areas around Seattle, Wa., there are clusters of homeless people living in “tent cities.� Groups work with cities to find available land, and move tents onto sites. Every time a tent city is proposed in the suburbs around Seattle, there are protests and nasty articles in the local papers. Wild and untrue stereotypes of the homeless fly rampantly without restraint in the media. Before Tent City 4 recently moved to Woodinville, Wa., the local paper ran an article by owners of a Woodinville bed and breakfast. These people claimed a tent city in Woodinville would threaten “agriculture� and “tourism,� would endanger children and schools, and would cost the city money it did not have (the median income of Woodinville residents is over $68,000 a year). These people even said that the tent city’s proximately to the local bike trail would increase crime in neighboring communities along the bike trail route! But Tent City 4 did finally move into Woodinville, with no danger to children, agriculture, tourism or people living along the bike path! The protests and prejudiced stories that ran in Woodinville papers before Tent City 4 went there, were echoed in Bothell, Wa. papers when Tent City 4 was in Bothell, prior to Woodinville. And now that Tent City 4 is moving to Kirkland, Wa. in mid-November 2004, the protests and pickets have begun there as well. I decided to go to Tent City 4 to talk to the people living there about homelessness and the stereotypes the public hold about homeless people.

I talked with Shawn Svoboda, one of the members of the Executive Committee (EC), that helps run Tent City 4. He said residents of Tent City 4 in Woodinville had to undergo a criminal background check. People with warrants or who are registered sex offenders cannot stay there. When a person arrives at Tent City, s/he checks in at a central tent, where his identification is required for the background check. Once that is passed, the person can either set up his own tent, or use one of the camp’s tents if they have a spare one at that time, or sleep in a communal tent. No dogs, alcohol, drugs, etc. are allowed on site to minimize conflict with neighbors and police, as well as internal conflicts. On Oct 18, 2004, there were 77 people registered to sleep in Tent City 4.

I differentiate, using the name Tent City “4,� because there are different Tent Cities, with different characters. Tent City 3, for example, is much rougher than Tent City 4, I hear. Tent City 4 has a central tent for check-in, communications, help with supplies, questions, etc. Nearby some chairs are congregated around a long table under a bright blue tarp, held up by PVC tubing. Everything in Tent City 4 was wearing this bright blue tarp coloring. It was mud and blue tarp mounds in a circle in the rain, when I walked up. The chairs and table area functioned as a social area to play cards, discuss things, eat, and talk. There was a food and drink tent nearby full of donated food and drinks. There was a line of portable toilets, and a shower area. They said community groups brought them hot meals every night. They also said the Sheriff gave them two bus tickets a day to be able to get to work and back. A large amount of those living at tent cities work, they just do not get paid enough to cover rents, including last and deposit, plus utilities, etc. They are the working poor, and there will only be more working poor before less, is my prediction. It was cold enough to need a coat, and starting to rain, as I sat down to talk to residents of Tent City 4.

I talked with people living in Tent City 4 about the misconceptions middle class people have about homeless people. (Note: I am trying to change from the wording “the homeless� to using only “homeless people,� as I think it better humanizes the situation). The tent city residents said people stereotype the homeless as: drug addicts, alcoholics, people who do not want to do anything, dangerous, illiterate, dirty, criminals, and bad people. An 18 year old named Andrew said people acted like the homeless are “lower because of our circumstances…like we’re not on their level and don’t deserve to be around.�

When I asked what Tent City residents thought about all the protests about them coming to different towns, the overwhelming response was, “they do not know any homeless people personally, they need to come down and meet us.� They felt people were making judgments based on rumors and fears, even superstitions, not reality. Much as prejudices regarding race are often borne of fear and no personal contact with those discriminated against, most in Tent City 4 felt those protesting them coming to towns, do not know what they are protesting. They are basically protesting a fear of the unknown. One person said he was just like those people protesting, sans the home ownership. Another Tent City 4 resident, Nick Coonce said, “ If their situations changed, and they had to live in tents, they’d be for it.� A 49 year old woman, Terri, said she felt the protesters were “heartless and ugly� and needed to “stop labeling people.�

One 28 year old woman staying in Tent City 4 said she had grown up a “spoiled rotten brat,� with class privilege, and insulation, and that she was taught that homeless people were “icky.� She said now that she has experienced homelessness firsthand, her views are quite different. James Steele, another resident, said he hopes that none of the protesters’ children, or the protesters themselves, ever become homeless, but if they did end up homeless, it would be people like those at Tent City who would be there to help and care about them, when others did not.

I asked Tent City 4 residents why they thought people felt so threatened by tent cities coming to their towns. Some said it was the fear of the unknown and how homeless people are depicted in movies and on TV as criminals. One resident said he felt that most people wanted to keep homeless people “out of the way, so they can live a happier life than we live…they look at us as different and no good.� Andrew said he felt there was an element of segregation, as well. Several cited the unreasonable fear that homeless people endanger children. There is no evidence to sustain this claim, yet protesters scream about the fact that there are children in the community, each and every time tent cities approach them.

Several also said there is a fear the crime rate will rise with a tent city in their town. Some pointed out crime goes down when the desperate are fed and allowed to sleep somewhere. Others pointed out the required criminal background checks proved that tent city residents are *not* criminals, preemptively even. Additionally, crime rates go down when you stop criminalizing the homeless and give them somewhere to legally *exist*. Another resident said due to the criminal checks at tent cities, people are less prone to commit crimes, as it could endanger their home and community access. James said he thinks people are afraid tent city residents will steal their jobs, which is quite plausible. Another resident said she felt “they are afraid of us because we remind them that it could happen to them,� which I also think is quite accurate.

I asked what these Tent City residents wanted people to know about homeless people. A 19 year old, Jessica, said that she wanted middle class people to understand that they “could not survive one day doing what we do.� She is responding to the common misconception that living in a tent city is easy, or that the poor are riding some type of gravy train. I have to agree that being allowed to have an encampment without constant police harassment and criminalization is a step up, but living in tents in the cold rain is still not fun, and still hard living. She said, “When you become homeless, you learn a lot about life, family, love, and understanding� and the difference between what you need and what you want. James wanted people to understand that homelessness hurts more than just the homeless person. He said it affects families and it affects children. And indeed, several people I talked to at Tent City 4 did lament missing their children. Several people said things like “we are just everyday people, who for one reason or another, ended up on the street,� and “we’re not all crazy or criminals…we are people, with problems, like everyone else.� Someone else said that people who are not homeless “often do not know how good they have it.� Someone else chimed in, “Where else are we supposed to be?�

I asked what could be done to educate the public, to stop these negative stereotypes of homeless people, and what people could do *right now* to help homeless people out. Shawn suggested a reality TV show where homeless people trade places with home owners for a week. Others suggested building and managing affordable housing that is based on people before profit. Several people suggested opening up closed buildings throughout towns, that are not being used, for homeless people, at least in the winter months. Others suggested donating warm boots, sleeping bags, tents, tarps, long underwear…Andrew said “donate anything.� And he meant that, explaining that part of the donation was in the giving, not just the material item, in the showing that “someone cared.� One person suggested people come to the tent cities and offer people good jobs with health benefits. Another said there needed to be more funds available to help with last month and security deposit fees to establish residency. Some suggested the funding of medic tents in tent cities, and the funding of more emergency shelters with beds.

Another interesting answer to wondering what direct action people can take now to help homeless people was, to “offer more jobs with less rules and regulations to get them.� This person was having valid ID troubles. She wanted to know why, since the police department had her fingerprints and picture, they could not help her get a new ID, since she did not have the required paperwork for a state ID card and needed proper ID to work. She also had the same complaints about housing, she did not have the proper ID for housing. She was also going to have to leave Tent City 4 shortly if she did not solve her ID problems. Someone else suggested people help by funding dental and health clinics for homeless people. Many residents reiterated, “tell them to *listen* to us.� Many others said it was important that people stopped teaching their kids to hate homeless people. Some said people needed to come live with homeless people and make documentaries of that experience. But the overwhelming response to this question was “they need to come down and hang out with us.� Almost all I talked to felt that people would change their attitudes if they actually met and talked to homeless people, face to face.

I would like to thank the following people at Tent City 4 for their time and energy given towards the making of this article: Shawn Svoboda, Bill, Talon Black, Elwin Angel, James Steele, Jessica, Nick Coonce, Terri, Andrew, and several anonymous folks, as well.

 
 


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