Art students reclined on the lawn by the University of Washington’s four Ionic columns that stand tall in Sylvan Grove. They sketched on pads of paper, creating the columns, nearby trees and the university’s lush flora in graphite.
A short walk away, students — some clothed in purple, gold and big capital Ws — tossed a Frisbee around a lawn.
Some students were out for a jog on a sunny October afternoon, while others clutched papers in hand, seemingly en route to a looming academic deadline.
A group of students, alumni and advocates for homeless services wandered the campus that same evening envisioning a much more diverse population inhabiting this space. The organizers call themselves The Tent City Collective, and they were leading a walking tour of about 50 people to several locations that could host a tent encampment, specifically Tent City 3, the longest-running organized tent encampment operating in Seattle.
Tent City 3, operated by the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE), moves every 90 days to locations mostly around North Seattle. Churches often host the tent encampment, but Seattle Pacific University (SPU) has hosted the camp twice and Seattle University (SU) has once.
The Tent City Collective wants UW to be next. The group first started its work in 2013, led by UW student — and now alumna — Hana Alicic. In the short term, the group wants to bring a tent city to the UW's 700 acres of land. They see it as an opportunity to support a shelter service with the campus’ resources and also to educate students in a similar way to what SPU has done twice.
“We really see bringing Tent City 3 to UW starting conversations that could lead to actually solving homelessness,” Alicicsaid.
Long-term, they hope that Seattle’s three university campuses can host a tent encampment on a rotating basis. The Tent City Collective plans to encourage UW, SU, SPU and other campuses to each host the encampment for a 90-day stay once every few years.
The campus provides the encampments a safe and often beautiful location to stay, and the encampments offer students an opportunity to interact with a much more diverse population of people experiencing homelessness.
Tent City 3 resident Tony Rinehart joined the tour and talked about the people who stay at the encampment, which is currently located at Bryn Mawr United Methodist Church in South Seattle. People come to the encampment with many different backgrounds, including people who are working and unemployed. Right now, Rinehart said, the camp is housing a UW student.
He also said that if the UW campus welcomes encampments and agrees to rotate hosting Tent City 3 on a multi-year cycle, the encampment would have to find one fewer host each year. In the fall of 2014, Tent City 3 moved onto land in the Ravenna neighborhood after they were unable to find a host, despite asking 30 churches.
“We don’t want this to be a sometimes thing,” Rinehart said.
University administration declined to comment on the possibility. The Tent City Collective has not offered a formal proposal to the university leadership. UW spokesperson Norm Arkans said UW President Ana Mari Cauce is not inclined to respond to “what ifs.”
He did note that another group, years ago, proposed bringing Tent City 3 to UW campus, but the administration at the time said no.
Alicic said the group is still building support for a tent encampment on UW and plans to present possible proposals to student leadership and UW administration soon.
During the tour of campus, Tent City 3 residents, university academics and advocates each spoke about the advantages of hosting a tent encampment, including educational opportunities for the students and residents, and contributing to a method of shelter that can provide people a place to stay as they find permanent housing.
The group included students, alumni, homelessness advocates and UW administrators, including former Seattle City Councilmember Sally Clark, who recently vacated her position for a job doing regional communications for UW. Clark declined to comment on the proposal and said it was out of her jurisdiction, but she was one of the city council members who approved legislation earlier this year that opened up city property to tent encampments.
Previously, religious organizations could host encampments through a streamlined process without limitation; other organizations would need temporary-use permits, which are difficult to acquire. But the city’s legislation that opened up city land for encampments also included university and college campuses as an option, albeit with the approval of university and college administrations.
The Tent City Collective selected several UW sites that could host the encampment: Red Square, the vast plaza of red bricks in front of Suzzallo Library; Rainier Vista, a sweeping lawn that rolls downward from Drumheller Fountain with a view of Mount Rainier; the lawn in front of the Husky Union Building; the lawn near the Law School; and the campus Archery Field, near 45th Avenue Northeast. Previously they considered the field by the columns.
Alicic and others say the feedback they’ve received on the idea has been mostly positive.
“We wind up more often than not getting asked why hasn’t UW hosted a tent city already,” Alicic said.
Seattle Pacific University’s experience with the tent encampments has encouraged the Tent City Collective to bring the encampment to the UW campus. Tent City 3 at Seattle University last winter.
spu sociology professor Karen Snedker said the students had a positive experience the two times Tent City 3 came to the campus on the north end of Queen Anne Hill. Snedker and her colleague Jennifer McKinney surveyed students before and after the most recent stay on the campus, and they found that students were more positive about the encampment being there after they had experienced it.
In a survey before the encampment arrived, 38 percent thought that it would impact the campus negatively. Afterward, another survey found that 15 percent felt that the encampment impacted the campus negatively. Asked before the stay, 69 percent said that spu should host the encampment; after the stay, 90 percent of students said they should host the encampment again.
“Students said, ‘I think it benefited us as much as it benefited them,’” Snedker said, in terms of education, expanding students’ worldviews, breaking down stereotypes about homelessness and even changing students’ sense of vocation and career paths.
The survey mirrors what residents of tent encampments have been saying for years: People who have direct experience with encampments in their neighborhoods, at their churches or, in this case, on their campuses leave with a very positive impression of how the encampments are run.
Snedker said SPU plans to host Tent City 3 again and formed a committee to explore the school’s work on homelessness.
Universities and tent encampments fit well together, said UW Senior Lecturer Emeritus Nancy Amidei at the close of the tour of UW campus. Standing in the shade of the trees near the law school, she clutched printed copies of mission statements from various UW programs.
Mission statements from the School of Social Work, the School of Medicine and the School of Nursing mention social justice, meeting and serving underserved populations, inclusiveness and equity. That all sounds like support for tent encampments, Amidei said.
“We should be using our brains and abilities and our energies to find a way to help shrink the problem,” Amidei said, “not add to it.”