UP #301 Seattle’s Tent City

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October 27, 2010


By City Councilmember Nick Licata

With assistance from my L.A. Lisa Herbold


A group convened by the Mayor in August has made recommendations to help the immediate needs of the Population of Unsheltered Seattle Homeless, a title that lends itself nicely to the acronym PUSH; consequently I’ve been calling the Mayor’s Task Force, Project PUSH.  The fact the Mayor’s efforts are focused upon unsheltered homeless people is critical and historic.  Through the 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness our efforts have focused on moving people out of shelter and into permanent housing.  An important goal indeed, but given that the City funds 1,209 shelter beds, and still the 2010 One Night Count found 1,986 people sleeping outside in Seattle, it’s time to support the recommendations of Project PUSH, and help those with emergency shelter needs.

PUSH convened two groups, the first recommended the creation of a City of Seattle sanctioned, semi-permanent encampment to meet the immediate survival and safety needs of individuals who have no access to safe shelter, while acknowledging that encampments are never a long-term solution to homelessness.  The second group made recommendations for how City policies should accommodate people who do not have a place to be; whether during the day or night.  More details on the recommendations follow a short history on the issues tackled by both subgroups.



Seattle has had at least one Tent City since 1993.  While not a permanent solution, an encampment can provide safety, privacy, community, 24-hour access, the ability to accommodate couples and pets, and other benefits of self-governance.   Self-management encampments also shelter many more people using fewer funds than other shelter models, while unfortunately providing less in the way of client services like case-management.

Tent City 3 moves quarterly within Seattle, Tukwila, Shoreline, and unincorporated South King County. It currently is at St Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle until November 27, 2010; this is the 10th time St Mark’s has welcomed Tent City 3.  Currently a University District congregation is home to another encampment: Nickelsville, which faces a November 15 deadline to move. It is run by Veterans for Peace, a 501 (c) 3 organization.

The first Tent City in a local suburban area outside Seattle was established in May 2004 by overcoming opposition to establish new land use standards for temporary homeless encampments. Tent City 4 moves quarterly between locations in suburban cities in North and East King County, including Bothell, Kirkland, Woodinville, and Bellevue.  Tent City 4 is currently at Bear Creek United Methodist Church in Woodinville, but will move on October 24th to St John Vianney Catholic Parish in Kirkland where it will remain until mid-January 2011.

A court legal arrangement in Seattle and land use regulations in suburban cities requires both Tent Cities to move at least every 90 days. Finding a suitable site for a long-term encampment is challenging for people who have to move their shelter every three months; it makes focusing on finding permanent housing difficult.


The group focusing on the encampment question was asked: “Should an encampment be established on a piece of city property; should a third party be contracted to manage the encampment; and what specific criteria should be met around use of the space and services provided?”

Their recommendations were that only after the City of Seattle provides notice and an opportunity for surrounding residents to comment, a sanctioned encampment should be established that is self-managed and not larger than 100-150 people. It should also allow alternatives to tents such as semi-permanent built structures and must provide reasonable access to services such as transportation, hygiene facilities, removal of trash, and facilities for food preparation, access to electricity and running water, and ideally, a sewage hook up to reduce ongoing waste removal costs.

The Mayor’s office has recommended a new search for an organization to run an encampment through a “Request for Proposals.” The Mayor’s Task Force did recommend that to save time it could take advantage of the expertise available now by working with the current manager of Nickelsville (Veterans for Peace – Chapter 92) to establish a semi-permanent encampment.

Other Task Force recommendations addressed the costs, rules, evaluations, support services, green energy design goals and opportunities, data reporting requirements, and alternatives to encampments.

Although the group endorsed the establishment of an encampment, they “strongly urged the City of Seattle to continue to aggressively develop permanent, affordable housing options for individuals and families transitioning out of homelessness. Encampments, along with other forms of substandard housing, should not become a substitute for safe, affordable permanent housing.”



Seattle has a long history of responding to visible homelessness with tolerance tempered by concern for the health and safety of all people.  This balance has varied with different Mayors and City Councils over the years.

Seattle has, for some time, made public property at Seattle Center, in community centers, City Hall, and other unused property available for shelter needs.  In 2000, I and four other colleagues on the City Council led the way to open the old City Hall to serve as shelter year-round, when it previously had been open only during winter months.  The New City Hall is now only available as shelter during severe weather conditions.  I and others on the City Council are currently seeking to expand that use.

Some states have “right to shelter” laws that, most notably in places like Massachusetts and New York, are used to require government to open up vacant buildings or fund new housing vouchers when the homeless people living outside exceed the number of shelter beds available.


Group 2 recommended the city declaring that the health and public safety conditions of 1800 people living on the streets constitutes an emergency condition.  They recommended that as long as unsheltered people are not disturbing the peace or interfering with the rights of others, they should be allowed to remain where they have chosen to be and that education should address objections to the presence of homeless people because of public discomfort or concern about impaired business activity.

Specifically, the group recommended that City policy treat all outdoor sleepers similarly; not to remove people unless there is a shelter space for them to move to; that the City establish “Safe Zones” for car campers and outdoor sleepers; and that the City expand shelter in government owned buildings – possibly using the “Bunk House” model as an efficient way to house a large number of people for a very modest cost.

This group came to consensus that the 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness, “ending homelessness by obtaining or building permanent supportive housing units” remains the preferred strategy; and, new resources should be brought to this effort rather than diverting limited funds to other efforts.


The Mayor is reviewing the recommendations and I offer my support to help him move them forward.  As it relates to the recommendations related to a semi-permanent encampment, on Monday, Deputy Mayor Daryl Smith proposed an on-going role for members of Project Push to review a list of city-owned property and rate the locations according their acceptability.











Citizens are directed to the following website to complete a form to send an email to the Mayor’s Office. http://www.cityofseattle.net/mayor/citizen_response.htm