"Hey, wasn't there some college kid coming to stay here in the camp?"
I looked at him, trying to decide if he was joking. Eventually, I decided he wasn't.
"Yeah - that's me."
His eyes got wide for a second, then they crinkled at the corners as he grinned.
"Nawwww..." he rasped. "You? No kiddin! I figured you was a resident like the rest of us. Damn, I had no idea! Ya know, you're all right. Wait, hold on..." Five minutes later, he was back with a pair of black denim pants he said were too small for him, but might fit me. I tried to decline, but eventually I gave in. They were a token of his thinking I was "all right," and I couldn't have been more flattered.
But what I was really doing was seeing first-hand how homeless people in Seattle live when they decide to reject traditional shelters for the lonely, dangerous game of urban camping, and make their own community. Tent City 3 is a self-managed homeless community of about 100 people, which meant that unlike shelters where salaried social workers make the rules and run the place, the people who live in the camp run it. They elect leaders at weekly camp meetings, write their own laws, decide who to admit or kick out, write letters to city officials, and work with churches and community organizations.
When I contacted the camp in March to ask permission to do anthropological fieldwork, I was told to call back in a week so the residents could meet and vote on whether they wanted me to come. I expected, at best, that they would let me come in and interview them, maybe take a few pictures if I were lucky. The next time I called, I was told they had agreed to let me come, on the condition that I wouldn't be simply a visitor, but would actually live there, following the rules, doing camp chores, and voting in meetings like any other resident. It was about the best response I could have gotten.
Almost a year later, I finished my thesis. My working title is pretty concise: When You're Out of Smokes, It's Time to Start Sniping: the practical logic of survival in Seattle's Tent City 3. To "snipe," as I learned, is to excavate ashtrays to find partially smoked butts, which one can roll up into a full cigarette. I see sniping as a metaphor for what the people I met and lived with this summer had to do to survive under less than ideal conditions: creatively and selectively using what their environment had to offer to carve out a safe, humane, and tolerable way of life. A lot of what homeless people must do to get by on the streets would probably strike middle-class people as degrading or disgusting, like smoking used cigarettes, but in a community run by homeless people, there is much less stigma attached to it. Nobody I met wanted to be homeless, but they also recognized that, as my title says...