The UW is a large institution that can be difficult to manage. The university’s complex nature inevitably leads to instances of conscious and unconscious mismanagement. 

Just last month, BuzzFeed News published an expose about Michael Katze, a professor of microbiology at the UW, who is accused of a slew of astonishing allegations, including rampant sexual harassment, retaliating against employees, watching pornography at work, and using racist and sexist verbal slurs. 

But right before Katze’s scandal broke, the UW administration made a very progressive and historic decision concerning a long-standing social justice issue, without much publicity or fanfare.

At the end of spring quarter 2016, UW president Ana Mari Cauce announced the university would host Tent City 3, a mobile encampment of local homeless residents, for 90 days in winter quarter 2017. President Cauce’s decision to host Tent City 3 marks the first time the university has ever hosted a homeless encampment, despite years of UW student activism around this issue, as well as the precedent of other Seattle-area private colleges hosting tent city sites on their campuses. 

There are many causes of homelessness in the United States. Partial causes include the lack of affordable housing, increases in poverty, fewer job opportunities, and the neoliberal dismantling of government safety nets, the latter of which can been seen dramatically in so-called “welfare reform” legislation passed by former President Clinton in the 1990s. 

In Washington state, city governments like Seattle do not have the right to enact rent control laws that could help alleviate skyrocketing housing costs. Unlike Seattle’s historic minimum wage ordinance, state law specifically forbids our city government from enacting caps on rent hikes. Rising rents have catapulted Seattle into the ranks of the top five most expensive U.S. cities in recent years, with average rents for one-bedroom apartments exceeding $1,400 per month in 2015, and rental vacancy rates reaching an 11 year low of under 4 percent last March. 

Beyond the private sector rental market, there isn’t enough government support for public housing. Just like President Clinton’s neoliberal gutting of welfare cash assistance programs, the Clinton Administration also significantly rolled back U.S. public housing programs in 1992. Locally, developers like Paul Allen’s Vulcan real estate firm have transformed the landscape of Seattle’s low income housing projects. At Yesler Terrace for example, the Seattle Housing Authority sold public land to Vulcan in 2013, for the development of a multi-story building with market-rate housing. 

The Yesler Terrace project with Vulcan will not technically lead to a loss of public housing, and will also allow the Seattle Housing Authority to build more low income units. However, the deal nevertheless represents an increasing, neoliberal reliance on the private sector to finance public housing projects, which should be the primary responsibility of the government. 

All of these housing issues are directly related to the importance of the UW’s decision to host Tent City 3. 

Well-intentioned, liberal critics of tent city models decry a state of affairs where society considers it acceptable for our neighbors to sleep outdoors in camps. And they are right. Long-term housing should be a fundamental, guaranteed human right.

But such principles do not mitigate the immediate crisis of homelessness in Seattle, at least within our city’s current political constraints. Moreover, liberal critics of organized encampments may be unaware of the positive impacts that tent cities have in helping their residents find long-term housing.

According to Sean Smith, a member of Tent City 3’s five-person, elected Executive Committee, Tent City 3 serves approximately 700 residents per year. Although Tent City 3 annually serves 700 people, the camp only has room for about 100 residents at any given time. This means that many different people who are homeless in Seattle use Tent City 3 as a temporary housing option every year. 

Tent City 3 doesn’t collect hard statistics, but the average length of stay for residents is estimated to be roughly four months. Some people stay at Tent City 3 for two or more years, and it has taken residents at least four years to get off the Seattle Housing Authority’s waiting list. Additionally, many residents who leave Tent City 3 end up in transitional housing, which can lead to long-term housing. 

Smith decided to move to Tent City 3 for the greater collective security that an organized encampment offers.

“Safety brings folks to tent city,” Smith said. “It’s dangerous in The Jungle. It’s dangerous in Pioneer Square sleeping outside, and it’s dangerous hanging out in a park by yourself. There’s safety in numbers. There’s safety in community.”

Our city’s total homeless population stands at 10,047 individuals, according to a 2015 count by the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness. Of these 10,000 homeless residents, Seattle’s shelters only provide about 3,200 people with beds, and nearly 3,800 individuals are estimated to sleep outside every night.

Tent City 3 therefore provides an important, immediate option for homeless people in Seattle to sleep in a secure encampment. Based on Seattle’s homeless population in 2015, Tent City 3 serves approximately 18 percent of everyone in the city who lives on the street or outside of shelters. Moreover, these individuals are all served by a single mobile encampment that moves its location three to four times per year. 

Tent City 3 has community rules that prohibit the on-site use of drugs and alcohol, and residents have access to a microwave and coffee pot, dining and computer tents, hot meals that are donated semi-regularly by community partners, portable toilets, and an outside shower.

Smith recalls the initial perception of a family that moved to Tent City 3 with young children.

“The father had this stereotype that everybody here was going to be drug addicts or drunks,” Smith said. “He has since embraced this community, and come to find out that we’re hardly that. We’re just folks down on our luck.” 

In addition to directly serving its residents without long-term housing, Tent City 3 also has an inherent political function. 

The very existence of a mobile encampment is an in-your-face reminder of the problems of homelessness for renters and homeowners in the neighborhoods where Tent City 3 is located. Residents of Tent City 3 also reach out to their neighbors in the communities where the camp locates itself, to educate more privileged Seattleites about the issues surrounding homelessness.

Such formal and informal educational outreach is why the UW’s decision to host Tent City 3 is so important for Tent City 3’s residents. Tent City 3 has a long history of partnering with Seattle’s faith community, including St. Joseph’s Church where the camp is currently located this summer on Capitol Hill. But it has been harder for Tent City 3 to find secular entities to host their mobile encampment.

“Our faith-based partners are very important to us, and have made us very successful over the last 17 years,” Smith said. “But it is also important that we reach out to these other sectors and communities like the UW, to embrace this other hand that is reaching out to help, and to educate the public.” 

The history of public housing assistance in the United States suggests that visible manifestations of social problems are important to spurring government intervention. New Deal-era laws that created national public housing programs in the 1930s for example, were initially passed as a response to deplorable housing conditions in urban slums and shanty encampments, which had increased in the wake of the Great Depression. 

The UW’s decision to host Tent City 3 has been a long time coming. 

In 2002, members of Tent City 3 came to campus to educate students about homelessness, and to petition the UW administration to host their encampment in the future. In the 2004-05 school year, the ASUW passed a resolution in support of the UW hosting a tent city encampment, and in the 2008-09 school year, the ASUW, Graduate and Professional Student Senate, and Faculty Senate all passed more resolutions in favor of hosting a tent city. 

When all three of the UW’s student and faculty shared governance bodies endorsed hosting Tent City 3 in 2009, former university president Mark Emmert rejected this proposal. In explaining his rejection to student activists at the time, Emmert cited concerns with Tent City 3’s management, as well as the complications that hosting an encampment would pose for the university’s daily business operations. 

President Cauce could have followed suit, and chosen to not host Tent City 3. 

To be sure, the UW campus climate in 2016 is not the same as it was in 2009. Seattle’s crisis of homelessness has reached new heights in recent years, and current members of the Tent City Collective student organization have been much more effective as campus activists. However, it still would have arguably been much easier for the university to continue its policy of not hosting a homeless encampment on campus. 

This is because there are still too many negative perceptions about homeless camps in Seattle, and such stereotypes pose significant political risks for the UW administration from important constituents, including UW employees, students, and parents. Although the university’s decision to host Tent City 3 would not have happened without the efforts of student activists, who strategically won the endorsements of local community organizations and politicians, it is also very difficult to imagine Cauce’s predecessor, Michael Young, ever agreeing to such a proposal, absent perhaps a sit-in at Gerberding Hall.

While Cauce made the difference in the university’s historic decision to host Tent City 3, there is still work to be done. 

A UW working group is tasked with logistics related to hosting Tent City 3. This working group should collaborate closely with Tent City 3’s representatives to mitigate any potential issues that could arise over the camp’s proposed location, which is currently a parking lot on South Campus. The working group should also ensure that Tent City 3 residents have access to free electricity and water, can set up their site and move freely about camp without being inhibited by chain-link fences, and ideally have access to indoor shower and kitchen cleaning facilities.

Additionally, the UW’s commitment that residents’ participation in potential academic or extracurricular activities will be voluntary is extremely important. The self-determination of Tent City 3 residents to exercise their rights to privacy should be respected, both by the UW community at large, as well as the university police, whose offices are located close to the camp’s proposed site. This said, Smith also emphasized how he is personally excited for UW students to learn more about homelessness, as well as interact with Tent City 3’s residents.

“Come and talk to us,” Smith said. “And if you see somebody who’s homeless, say ‘hello.’ We’re human beings too.”


Reach writer Rod Palmquist at Twitter: @rodpalmquist

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