A Homeless Camp in Our Back Yard? Please, a University Says


Thanks to Golden Age of Gaia

SEATTLE — For months, 65 homeless people lived in tents they set up in a parking lot behind the Seattle Pacific University bookstore, with a row of portable toilets and layers of clothes to guard against the damp chill of winter. It was a homeless camp like so many that crop up along roads and ramshackle lots in some American cities, except that this one had been invited here by the university administration.

So Genny Deserley, 14, who became homeless with her mother, Krissy, last year when the rent on their apartment doubled, sometimes curled up in the university library or the student union with a book on rainy afternoons. And Emma Goehle, a Seattle Pacific sophomore studying global development and sociology, spent hours meeting with people in the tent city and conducting interviews for a university research project on homelessness.

Homeless encampments are bleakly familiar fixtures in cities. But here in the Puget Sound area of Washington State, which struggles with one of the nation’s worst homelessness problems, an unusual arrangement took root: homeless camps with rights and rules, and given government protection from the raids, sweeps and indignity of life in the shadows.

Some other cities grappling with homelessness, especially on the West Coast, have set aside places to allow camps or have opted not to enforce laws on outdoor camping for periods of time. But the Seattle area went further into the experiment: It has, over the course of more than a decade, gradually allowed 11 camps to become permanent features of the landscape.

This tent city in the university parking lot was orderly — it even had a front desk where visitors were expected to check in — and the arrangement generated intense conversations about homelessness across the campus. But the approved encampments also raise questions among people who say the problem needs a much larger, more permanent solution.

Genny Deserley, 14, has been homeless with her mother, Krissy, since last year, when the rent on their apartment doubled. Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

A resident of Tent City 3. Seattle has for years permitted 11 homeless camps, some anchored in place, others always roving from host to host. Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Are the Seattle area tent cities a crutch that takes pressure off demands that government provide permanent affordable housing? Or are they true steppingstones into the mainstream, with their internally enforced rules aimed at sobriety and participation in camp security and democracy?

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