In the wake of the disheartening news that at least 3,772 people were unsheltered in King County in January 2015 ( as counted during the annual One Night Count on January 23rd), Mayor Ed Murray proposed that the City of Seattle allow and regulate three new tent cities in the city’s nonresidential areas. Since then, a flood of discussion about the plan’s merits and failings has ensued, as well as a more general discussion about the role of tent cities in solving the problem of homelessness in our region. Among these voices, Richard Lemieux offers a balanced and compassionate perspective on the positive but ultimately limited and transitional role he believes tent cities play in ending homelessness. Richard is a homeless survivor, advocate, motivational speaker, and author of Breakfast at Sally’s. Read his 2/7/15 Seattle Times editorial below.
Small tent camps offer the homeless respite from the streets, a safe place where services and neighbors can help save lives, writes guest columnist Richard LeMieux.
I would like to express my thanks to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and his homeless task force for proposing the opening of more approved and organized small tent camps, as well as endeavoring to help open more overnight shelters around Seattle.
Homelessness is, indeed, a crisis in our state, and in our nation. There are an estimated 2.5 million homeless teenagers annually in our country, looking for a place to eat, keep warm and lay their heads down at night in safety. Every indication is that number has been sharply increasing since 2006. That is nothing short of a national disgrace.
Throughout Washington, some 32,000 K-12 students are homeless, according to the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Imagine yourself being 12 or 13 years old, living in fear of not having food, a warm place to stay, with little to no hope for the future.
That makes their education doubly difficult, and perpetuates the social problems associated with the next generation rising out of homelessness.
The teenagers on our streets are not faceless, nameless kids. They are our children, with names like Katie, Mark, David and Sally. Sometimes young girls, and even some boys, trade their bodies for a warm, dry place to sleep.
The recent annual One Night Count taken in King County found a sharp increase of 21 percent, up from last year, of people sleeping on the streets and in their cars. This is a crisis.
I know, personally, how it feels to be homeless. I lived on the streets of Bremerton for three years, much of it while reeling from the effects of depression — having lost everything that had “defined” me after a major business failure — my waterfront home, possessions, friends, spousal and family relations. I was lucky I still had an old, used van to sleep in at night, and the company of my 10-pound dog, Willow.
Tent cities offer at least some of that same kind of potential mutual compassion and companionship. Opening additional tent cities is not a final answer toward solving the problems of homelessness, but they are a good first step in getting there.
Getting families, teenagers, chronically homeless men and women into their “own” homes or apartments, stimulating the business environment to create more living-wage jobs, offering accessible counseling and assistance to help the homeless restore their financial footing: These are all important next steps. And so is fostering a change in public attitude toward homelessness by promoting the American ideal that everyone deserves human dignity, honor and respect.
Small tent cities of 30 to 40 people are much better than larger ones. A small tent city can leave enough space between tents to allow for some privacy, has less trash to be handled, doesn’t overwhelm local bathroom facilities, and makes it much easier for social service agencies to provide food, health care and support for the many things people need to survive.
A small tent city can be a place where miracles can happen, through mutual kindness and compassion. It can be a place where local neighbors can visit and learn that the homeless are no different from themselves — other than not having a warm, permanent place to call “home.”
A small tent city can be a place where caring people come to bring clean clothes, new socks, toys for the homeless children, diapers, towels and soaps, and so many things the homeless need.
It can be a place where enterprising people, or employers, can come to search for people they can put to work. It can be a place where someone who has a spare room, or even an old, empty rental home, can go to find a family that needs a roof over their heads and a way to get back on their feet.
There are homeless babies, huddled with their families against the cold, living in cars, for whom a tent city can be a welcome relief. There are homeless veterans who, having given deeply for their country, are due a deep honor from the nation they served. They would gladly keep the peace in their tent city neighborhood.
Please understand, however, what a tent city is not. It is not a place to send people so they are permanently out of sight and out of mind. At best, it is a temporary stopgap solution to a homeless person’s most pressing problems. Homelessness is like a cancer that slowly eats away at the dreams and hopes of many of our dearest fellow citizens and street-bound neighbors.
Lastly, a tent city is a place where you, yourself, can reach out with compassion and help someone. You can be part of a miracle for a homeless teenager, individual or family, if you wish. I know “street angels” are among us — I’ve met many of them. I guarantee that, if you try, you would feel as though you’ve done something significant, which you would remember and cherish for all the days of the rest of your life.
There is also the “fear factor” of being around the homeless. But once neighbors take time to visit a tent city and meet the people, the fear goes away.
If you want to do something special, go to a tent city and find someone who is having a birthday. Get the person a present, or a card. It may have been many years since they have been honored in this fashion.
While no one holds a “magic wand” to end homelessness altogether, we can, working together, alleviate it significantly. It is up to each of us to find a way to make our cities and nation a better place to live, for everyone — and to make of our lives a gift for others, and to enjoy the gifts they offer to us.