Homeless in Seattle
The summer before my senior year at Swarthmore, a homeless man named Maurice gave me his pants. It was one of the high points of my life. Maurice had been fairly salty towards me in the two weeks since I had met him, always complaining about the food or the noise or his job. Mostly I had just been trying to stay out of his way. But one evening he hit me up for a cigarette and as he lit it, he elbowed me and asked:
"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.
I spent the summer of 2005 living in a homeless camp in Seattle, called Tent City 3. Thanks to a generous Summer of Social Action Award from the Lang Center at Swarthmore, I was there conducting research for my thesis in anthropology and working as an intern for SHARE, the homeless advocacy organization that helps manage Tent City 3. That was my official excuse for being there.
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.
Tent City 3 was the first legal homeless encampment in Seattle, and the second in the nation. After over ten years of civil disobedience, the camp's residents won a lawsuit against the city of Seattle in 2002, giving them the right to stay on private land if invited by the owner. Since then, the camp has moved from location to location, mostly in church parking lots, but they have also been hosted by community centers, private landowners, and even stayed on a Seattle University tennis court. Most people I met there said it was, hands down, the best place to stay if you're homeless in Seattle.
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.
I never lied to anybody about who I was, but I didn't necessarily tell people that I was there as a researcher as soon as I met them. Instead, I tried to blend into camp life, doing my part to keep the camp running, eating what the residents ate, going to work with them, learning about camp politics, and hearing the stories they had to tell. That's why I was so thrilled when Maurice didn't realize that I was "that college kid." My theory was that if I could get residents to respect and trust me as a reliable member of the camp first, they would be more forthcoming and willing to help me with my research. I can't say this strategy worked with everyone, but I think it panned out pretty well.
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...
The summer of 2005 was undoubtedly one of the best experiences of my life. I hope never to have to live like that again, but at the same time I now know that it's possible to live on the streets and not only survive, but survive without losing your dignity or humanity. It just might take a little sniping.