WHAT MAY TURN OUT to be the biggest act of civil disobedience during the World Trade Organization Conference has actually been in the works for nearly a decade. SHARE/WHEEL, a homeless advocacy group run by the homeless, has been negotiating with the city since 1991 to set up a tent city. Now, the group -- which manages several shelters in Seattle -- wants to set up a temporary tent city during the conference. SHARE/WHEEL is worried that the conference, which is expected to bring thousands of visitors to Seattle, will create special problems for the homeless. On Monday October 25, however, city officials shot down SHARE/WHEEL's request. The homeless group vows to put up the tent city anyway, although they're not saying where.

After the meeting, Deputy Mayor Tom Byer expressed frustration with the homeless group: "What I was trying to say to SHARE is, 'you guys have a choice; you can continue working with us in ways we believe will be the most beneficial and the most politically constructive, or you can provoke a confrontation. And if you do, it will be harder for us to keep working together.'"

Some people think the city's rejection of the WTO tent city is a mistake. City Council Member Nick Licata, for example, fired off a letter last week to Mayor Shell asking him to reconsider.

By using the upcoming WTO conference to force the issue, SHARE/WHEEL has put the idea of a tent city in the public policy spotlight. If a temporary WTO tent city was successful, for example, it could come to be viewed as a viable emergency measure for homelessness. It's an idea that rubs city officials the wrong way.

Homelessness is a growing problem in boomtown Seattle. Last year's one-night count recorded 700 people sleeping out on the streets. This year, the number rose to 1,019. Homeless advocates estimate there are about 5,500 homeless persons each night in King County, while there are fewer than 3,000 shelter beds.

SHARE/WHEEL has been trying to set up a tent city since the early '90s. In 1991, 1994, and again in 1998, SHARE/WHEEL put up tent cities at Myrtle Edwards Park, Yesler and Second, and Beacon Hill. In each instance the city tore down the encampments after a few weeks. "Although the tent city is not a solution," says Freeman, "it adds a new bottom floor."

Tent cities also shelter people who could or would not show up at a public shelter: people who are wanted by the INS or families who want to stay together. Freeman says, "There isn't one shelter now in the city that will take a single father and his children."

A tent city also provides community and safety. The homeless live in a violent world. In the past year, five homeless persons have been found murdered. Countless others have been beaten up, robbed, and raped. Michelle Marchand, a writer for the homeless newspaper Real Change, says, "I'm sick and tired of writing obituaries."

Meanwhile, the WTO poses a special threat to the homeless. SHARE/WHEEL is worried about the arrival of 50,000 protesters. "Any time you get a lot of people together under pressure, things happen," says WHEEL advocate Freeman, "and homeless people are caught in the middle."

Homeless advocates are also worried about police harassment during WTO.

The city isn't persuaded. Byer sees no future in institutionalizing homelessness with sub-standard housing, and he's frustrated that SHARE/WHEEL will not let the issue of tent cities drop. Byer has two main objections to tent cities: First of all, he is worried about negative public reaction to a visible and not very picturesque homeless encampment. Second, he says encampments will eventually become a magnet for drugs and crime.

All over the world, from Mexico to Denmark, squatters have rights to appropriate vacant land, because it's recognized that people who have no lawful space to occupy can't just evaporate into thin air each night. You'd think in America, with all our talk of bootstraps, pioneering individualism, and freedom of assembly, a self-managed tent city would get the thumbs up. But then, there is another, stronger set of American myths: those about prosperity and equality. If tent cities went up, the problem would become visible -- "too visible," as one official put it. And then it would start looking a little too Third World around here.