For the past three months, a homeless shelter called Tent City has occupied the parking lot at the church my children attend in Seattle. This week, the residents must move on, so the Sunday service revolved around the plight of the homeless and the impact that tent cities have on communities.
Several Tent City residents stood up to express their appreciation for this group's hospitality. I will not soon forget this service. Most of us were in tears.
I asked if I might tour Tent City and possibly take a photo. Bill, whom I had met earlier helping in the church kitchen, agreed to show me around, and allowed a photograph. It was cold and rainy. You wonder if the residents in the makeshift community ever get warm. I asked if there was any sort of heat in the tents. He said there wasn't, then reminded me that before the residents had the tents, they lived and slept out in the open.
The tents are arranged like a little village. New people arrive anytime and check in at the front desk. They stay in the men's or women's dorm/tent until a background check is completed. The game room has no walls, but a light hangs from the canvas ceiling. Bill told me they found the light fixture at a garage sale and pooled their money. Now they can play cards and games when it is dark, even though it might be raining and the temperature is in the mid-40s. The television tent has sides, hard folding chairs and boxes of donated movies. A man sits alone watching a football game.
The food tent has a microwave, a large assortment of donated baked goods and a big pot of coffee.
Bill points to the new outside shower, for which they all are grateful.
We walked between two rows of tents. Single people get four pallets upon which to set up their little, canvas home. The pallets at least get them off the cold ground. Couples get six pallets, and families get more.
Most of the tents have tarps draped over the top, and I wondered if the tents leaked or if this was just adding a little warmth. If new arrivals do not have a tent, one is provided. Extra sleeping bags and blankets are available in the small bedding tent.
As we approached Bill's tent, a furry animal scurried away. It was George, his squirrel, which spends most of its time under Bill's pallets waiting for tasty tidbits.
His door flap was hanging open and I asked if it would not be warmer if he closed it. He implied that it would not make much difference. It was home. Most have their names crayoned on an old piece of cardboard and taped to their tents.
Bill has saved some money and hopes soon to find a studio apartment. He is delighted that his 22-year-old son has never been homeless. Tent City residents do not complain about their plight or blame anyone. They are most grateful for the outpouring of this wonderful, warm, church community.
There are 78 people living in Tent City. The new place is smaller and will not have room for their various luxury buildings. Only 70 people will be allowed. I asked what would happen to the extras, and Bill assured me that no one would be left behind. The majority of them work, doing odd jobs for local businesses. The residents are able to earn a few dollars and gain some self-respect.
Not all communities welcome tent cities. Some go to court to keep them away. People worry about crime and child predators.
The rules at Tent City are very strict. They promise to leave an area cleaner than they found it, and if any problems arise, they will move out within 24 hours. No alcohol or drugs are allowed. Rule violators must leave. After three months at the church, the whole community has embraced them.
The tent city concept is Seattle's way of attempting to have communities share the responsibility for the homeless. Is it working? At least it is allowing families and communities to meet homeless people and see that they are normal people who are going through some difficult times.
Each one has his own history, his own story to tell. And each one has his own dream for his future. But in the meantime, they follow the rules and respect the privacy, and enjoy the companionship of their tent neighbors. They all are very grateful to have Tent City, and they are thankful to the church communities that make it possible.
Christy Powers is a columnist for the Payson Roundup. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by snail mail at HC1Box 210, Strawberry, AZ 85544.