Canamar says he's somewhere in his 50s, though he's a little fuzzy on the specifics. Slim and white, he looks like Felix Unger after missing a few showers. The two of us converse by lamplight, near a group of tents. We talk for hours, about his life, or, as he puts it, lives. He fought in Vietnam. He's been a millionaire several times. He went crazy in the '80s, moved from New Mexico to California, and lived alone in a shack in the woods for a few years while recovering from a crack addiction. Partway through our conversation, he grouses at some people who stand a little too close to the chair he's sitting in. "That's the problem with this place," he says, glaring at the group, who are blocking the light from his lantern. "Now you're starting to understand," he tells me.
Gumming a strangely out-of-place turkey roll-up sandwich (part of a donation to Tent City), Canamar continues. He's been homeless seven times, he says, "only once by choice." That was the first time. Job burnout. The other times, he was "screwed" out of a wealthy existence by four ex-wives, various employers, the government, and his own yearning to live life on his own terms. He's living here now. Temporarily. Just until the next opportunity comes along.
Tent City, as it's come to be called, is a place where homeless people live together. It was set up by the advocacy group Seattle Housing and Resource Effort/Women's Housing, Equality and Enhancement League (SHARE/WHEEL) to fill the gap left by the closure of beds in local shelters. It's built of cheap supplies and makeshift tents: massive tarps held up with wooden sticks, cardboard, blankets, and thin leaky tents that protect--for the most part--against rain, but not cold. An American flag has been hoisted on a long, wooden pole near the middle of the camp. Tent City has existed in a number of different locations, including a spot under I-90 a few years ago, which ended when the city bulldozers showed up. For the better part of last month--from March 31 to April 25--the camp existed on a vacant lot along a lonely stretch of Martin Luther King Way South. That's where I met Canamar and many other people who've decided to make Tent City, wherever it exists, their home.
The entrance to the camp is marked by a row of Honey Buckets. Dogs bark from the neighboring used-car lot as I make my way through the dark, up the sidewalk and onto the wooden pallet bridge that SHARE/WHEEL has built across the ditch separating the street from the camp. This is Tent City's sole entrance--a good strategy, one that makes the comers and goers easy to spot.
The mishmash of tents is laid out in an oval along the edge of the grounds, and takes up about a half block. The area is bordered by a used-car lot and some run-down houses, and is surrounded by overgrown brush. The camp provides for all the basic needs. There's a kitchen tent in the center of the setup, where donated food--coffee, candy, salad--is kept in Tupperware containers and coolers. The camp has elected its own leaders, who make most of the important decisions regarding how the place is run (like where they'll move to the next time the cops show up). They also set out pastries and coffee in the mornings, and sandwiches and salad in the evenings. People come over to the kitchen area for reasons other than hunger: This is where they sign in and out of the camp on the daily log, and it's where they socialize. Due to a sign that dictates no smoking in the kitchen area, people wishing to light up stand slightly off to the side.
It's not even 10 at night when most of the folks retire to their tents, looking for a little shuteye before work the next morning. The place quiets down, except for the sound of constantly passing cars. A few conversations continue near the kitchen. Tent City provides separate sleeping sections for men, women, and couples--mostly in the name of security. Other security measures are summed up in a flyer distributed to all residents: no drinking or drugs; no men in the women's tents; no women in the men's tents; no open flames; no loitering or disturbing neighbors; no trespassing. The soft glow of the lamps from the kitchen tent barely illuminates the only area where it seems okay to talk into the night.
A Hispanic man who gives what he admits is a fake name--"Juan"--is working "volunteer" security. He's just finished a 10-hour day washing dishes somewhere in Redmond. He takes a seat on a metal folding chair. Rubbing his calves, he tries to work out a nasty charley horse. "You've got to enjoy what you've got while you've got it," he says. "Right now, if I try to get a job, the first thing they look at is your criminal record." Juan spent three years in prison, but won't say why. "I'm working right now. I'm happy. I'd be happier if I had a place."
Sometime around midnight, a young black woman named Tracy Velazquez shows up at the camp with her boyfriend. They've been turned away from a downtown shelter because of overcrowding. They roll out a sleeping bag, crawl in, and prepare for sleep. Tent City wasn't Velazquez's first choice, she says a few days later, because "sleeping out here, it's dangerous. Sometimes I'm scared to sleep outside. I hate thinking I'm going home when I'm going back to my tent."
That's easy to understand. A home is supposed to represent stability, and this place is built like a MASH unit--made to move. For weeks, city officials have been making noise about forcing Tent City to close (claiming that such substandard housing can't be tolerated, or, gulp, encouraged), even threatening to fine the owner of the property on MLK Way where it is temporarily located. SHARE/WHEEL has been frantically looking for a new site as the deadline to move approaches, sending out letters to potential landlords and charity organizations.
On April 25, moving day comes. The new location is secret to all but those who will be staying there. About half the people who stayed at Tent City the night before stick around--some skipping work--to help with the move. "The only way we know where we're going is to help pack up," says one white woman with brown, curly hair, who doesn't want to give her name. It takes about three hours to pull up the stakes, roll the tarps, pack the tents, and gather everyone's belongings, which are stuffed into trash bags and carried over muddy ground to a large waiting U-Haul truck. It's only after everything's packed up that someone remembers to go back for the flag.
"It's easy to end up out here," says Gary Tomlin, a 43-year-old white man who was laid off in January from a job painting shutters. Taking a break from hauling bags, he explains that he hasn't been able to find another job because he doesn't have a phone number or an address. "There's a whole lot of people who are just one paycheck away from ending up out here," he says.
Some Tent City residents drive to the next site in cars provided by volunteers; others take the bus. SHARE/WHEEL, in an attempt to throw off any police that might be waiting at the next location--the grounds outside the former Colman School in the Central District--sets up a "diversion" caravan to a false site as well.
About 50 people follow the caravan to Colman--which is supposed to house an African American Heritage Museum one day, but which remains abandoned. After cutting the chain locking the fence around the school, the U-Haul drives onto the grounds. Just as all the trash bags and tents are unpacked, a school security guard shows up, demanding to see proof that the trespassers have permission to be there. Clearly outnumbered by the Tent City folks--who obviously have no permission to be there--the guard makes a hasty retreat to his car. It's not long before about a dozen cops appear on the scene and threaten to make arrests if everyone doesn't evacuate immediately. "If we get arrested, what will happen to our stuff?" one woman asks. Officers, apparently not taking questions at the time, remain mute.
Attempts to negotiate by cell phone with officials from the Seattle School District, the landlords of the property, fail. So, the few tents that have been set up around Colman are taken down, and once again, the blankets and bed pads are piled up. Everything is hauled to the curb to be reloaded into the truck, while public relations officers from the police department and school district, two neighbors, the flustered school security guard, and a cadre of cops look on. Not entirely surprised at being run off school property, SHARE/WHEEL leads the group back to the organization's bunkhouse to strategize.
Tent City would move five more times by late-May. And they'll probably move many more times. Though a core of folks travel with Tent City, some have found that this little bit of security isn't enough. "I'm going to go under the dock where I was before," says a young, pony-tailed white woman named Julie. "At least it's legal and the owners know I'm there."
Thirty-eight-year-old James Bidgood, a white man originally from Alaska, shares her frustration. Having had his tent destroyed when the I-90 camp was razed, he's getting a little tired of the routine. "Some of us are really trying to make something of ourselves," he says. "It's hard when you come home and your camp is gone."
Photographs by Amy Died