The battle rages on between city officials and a group of homeless people demanding the right to sleep in tents. For the past few weeks members of SHARE, a coalition of homeless people and their supporters, have been camping in a South Seattle meadow. SHARE's goal is to create a safe space outdoors for some of the thousands of people shelters turn away nightly due to lack of beds. Sylvia Watson of the city's Human Services Department confirms that on any given night there are only around 1,000 shelter beds for an estimated 5,000 homeless Seattleites. Now the city is threatening to sue Van Thien Hong, the property owner and unwitting host of SHARE's campsite, for violating city building codes.
SHARE members say the relatively quiet setting of Hong's property, plus a few practical considerations, enticed them to their present spot, a clearing in a patch of woods on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South. Their Eden is on a small stretch of road that feels almost as isolated as the countryside. On either side of the road, little cottages are nestled among tangles of flowering trees. Roosters can be heard crowing. Of course it is still the city: The cottages are part of the Rainier Vista public housing complex, and the roosters, which SHARE members claim are being raised for cockfighting, make their racket day and night.
But SHARE says the clearing meets their needs almost perfectly. The ground is level enough that they've been able to pitch 15 large tents that each night shelter dozens of sleeping men, women, and so far at least one child. It's also a short walk to the bus line on Rainier Avenue. Drainage is good and the residents have planted pansies and marigolds on the site.
City government is strongly opposed to tent encampments, be they on private property or in city parks. "Tent cities are not the way to solve the problem" of homelessness, says mayoral spokesman Dick Lilly. But city officials aren't putting forward any immediate alternatives to the camps. Lilly says the city would like to create more shelters but doesn't have the money. The city is blaming the federal government for lack of funds. Lilly says that the mayor increased the city's budget for homeless services by $3 million; but that money isn't likely to stretch too far, says Lilly, since it will have to make up for a $2.8 million cutback in federal dollars. "The protesters who want some real action should be out in front of the Federal Building," he says.
SHARE put up its first tent city in 1990 on land now occupied by Safeco Field. Then-Mayor Norm Rice responded by opening a new shelter in the old Aloha Inn on Aurora Avenue. But two years ago, when SHARE erected a tent city on public land on Beacon Hill, the result was not so happy. No new shelters were opened and Mayor Paul Schell forced them to take down the tents. Bitter feelings from Beacon Hill apparently still linger.
For example, over the last 10 years, SHARE has several times received permission to set up temporary camps to protect the homeless when big events, such as the Goodwill Games, come to town. But Schell refused to sanction a SHARE tent community during the World Trade Organization meeting in November, even though homeless citizens argued they'd be a target for police if they had no safe spot during the protests.
Rebuffed by the city, SHARE is now pursuing a strategy of settling on private property, where police can't arrest them unless the owner requests it. (The city has issued conflicting statements about whether this property's owner, Van Thien Hong, has formally complained or not.)
The city can, however, go after Hong himself, because city building codes do not allow tent cities. The Department of Construction and Land Use is preparing a notice of violation that could cost Hong $75 a day. Hong could also face a lawsuit if he doesn't kick SHARE off the land.
At press time, SHARE said that in response to the city's threats Hong has asked the homeless to leave the land by April 25, the day city fines would probably commence. SHARE says they are grateful the property owner has been sympathetic and will move on by that date. They plan to set up on another private landowner's property to keep their tent city alive throughout the summer.