Come winter, the ever-rotating homeless community known as Tent City 3 (TC3), a unique shelter concept and a rare roof in the city’s desolate landscape of affordable housing, will pack up shop and head to the University of Washington. The move will usher in an unlikely convergence of cultures: an august public institution committed to higher learning meets TC3, a democratically governed homeless encampment meant to ensure the safety and relative comfort of 90 to 100 people to whom society has dealt a difficult blow.
It will be TC3’s fourth visit to a college campus and its first to a public university. The Jesuit Seattle University (SU), located in Capitol Hill, welcomed the camp in February of 2005, becoming the first school in the nation, according to some, to make space for a tent city. In 2012 and again in 2015, TC3 lived at Queen Anne’s Seattle Pacific University (SPU), which is also faith based, for 90 days.
Representatives from both universities said that on all three occasions, TC3 and the academic community engaged each other to promote education and amplify discussions around homelessness. At UW, professors are already hoping to turn the encampment’s stay into a learning opportunity, folding the TC3’s presence into existing curriculum and, in some cases, creating new courses entirely.
One current resident of TC3, now situated at St. Joseph’s Parish in Northeast Capitol Hill, remembered fondly his time at SPU.
“It was a very positive experience,” said Tom Hastings, a junior staffer at the camp. “We gave tours almost every day and explained how we operate as one of the only self-managed shelters in America.”
That was a “real eye opener,” he added with a chuckle.
UW President Ana Mari Cauce announced plans to host the tent city last month, so movement to incorporate TC3 into course curriculum is just beginning. Likewise, TC3 residents and staff met on July 13 to make initial arrangements for an “education committee,” which will serve as an intermediary between UW and the tent city on questions related to academic planning. The three-person committee began fielding requests from faculty recently.
Lois Thetford, a physician’s assistant at the university’s medex Northwest program, has wasted no time putting a course together for students in the health sciences. At the request of Tent City Collective, the group that helped facilitate TC3 coming to campus, she has designed a two-credit class that will teach students about providing health care to distinct homeless populations, be it single adults, youth or families with children. She plans to invite residents to the classroom from TC3 to speak about their experiences.
“[The class is] oriented toward giving them different ways to look at homelessness and different ways to treat homelessness,” Thetford said.
She hopes to broaden their theoretical understanding of homelessness by having her students consider various frameworks — economic, racial and public health, for example — for thinking about the problem. In some ways, though, she wants to push students even further.
“It’s really good for them to understand that people who are homeless are not ‘other,’” Thetford said. “They have had a different life path than the average student, but they aren’t people that couldn’t be in your family — that’s the way I want them to think about it.”
This, in general, is an important lesson about homelessness: it can be closer to home than you think. But it also matters from a clinical perspective. Thetford said ill-founded assumptions about people experiencing homelessness can affect and even hinder communication between the health-care provider and patient.
“With the right tools, you can interact with anyone in a positive way. That’s the bottom line,” she said. “[The question is] how do you learn to work with people from many different populations and have that experience be positive for them and for you?”
As the university continues developing curriculum around TC3, Tent City Collective spokesperson Ashley Myrriah Johnson said that the encampent’s involvement will be a crucial part of the process. But residents’ primary focus will be securing stable housing and enrolling in safety-net programs, she said.
“The fact of the matter is that Tent City 3 is a transitional community for Seattleites experiencing homelessness,” Johnson wrote in an email.
Johnson and others are hopeful that the merging of TC3 and the academic community will prompt wider discussions about how to address homelessness.
“Creating both classroom and out-of-the-classroom learning opportunities allows everyone involved to approach homelessness from an array of perspectives, and will hopefully be the first step in creating a collaborative long-term solution to the homeless crisis facing Seattle,” she said.
Similar aspirations were echoed at SU and SPU preceding TC3’s arrival on those campuses. Conversations with administrators and professors at both schools suggested, with few qualifications, that TC3’s visit to each campus provided a rich and collaborative educational experience.
SU’s Joe Orlando, who took the lead on the 2005 tent city logistics, recalled joyfully the winter month when TC3 visited. The relationship offered moments of human connection and co-learning, he said. He remembered hearing from some residents, for example, about the dignity and respect some said they felt after sitting side-by-side with the former King County executive and an Episcopal bishop in a public panel on homelessness.
Jennifer McKinney, a sociology professor at SPU, said the experience for her students, who conducted a year-long research project gauging university and neighborhood attitudes on homelessness, was “utterly transforming.” During one stage of their research, the students interviewed TC3 residents on a weekly basis, ultimately arriving at a complicated revelation.
“Every week we debriefed,” McKinney said. “They recognized the paradox that they were asking the people of TC3 to give us something, and they really struggled with whether that was exploitative.”
While consciousness appeared to spread, neither Orlando nor McKinney profess that their university’s involvement with TC3 helped to significantly move the needle on solving homelessness. But they do believe their schools lived up to the expectations of their respective institutions.
“Universities, at their core, are about opening people’s world up so that they can be active citizens in their communities and be engaged as leaders to make a difference,” Orlando said. “If any student who was here at that time moved from fear or misunderstanding toward understanding, even toward commitment, that’s going to express itself as they move on in their work or their communities.”
The fact remains, however, that TC3’s visits to campuses are temporary. Some argue that the short nature of the relationship raises questions about the ability of these schools to push the conversation around homelessness toward solutions once the tent city has come and gone. One former TC3 resident, quoted in an essay by McKinney and her colleague Karen Snedker recounting the experience with TC3 at SPU, suggested that perhaps there were limits to the approach.
“The first time you host it is charity, the second time is to break down stereotypes, and the third time is for social change,” the resident said.