Life in a tarp town

On Beacon Hill, the homeless encampment struggles on—and racks up big city fines.

"MY STUFF IS A SPONGE," Jos頏rnelas says, rain on his face. "I have a duffel bag that drips like a mop."

Greetings from the front. The war on poverty in the land of millionaires continues behind the newest line of defense, drawn along 16th Avenue South. On a wet asphalt lot guarded by a chain-link fence, Ornelas is part of the security patrol at the home for the homeless, a carnival of army surplus tents, camping shelters, blue plastic tarpaulins arranged on poles, and A-shaped canvases strung across lines. The resident foot soldiers—a few have cars, some have bikes—number 100. They are men, women, and children of various colors and predicaments.

Nevertheless, their foul weather gear is assembled. Their Honey Buckets are primed. They're armed with good humor.

"You know how they say weather in German?" asks a man in a rain cap. "Wetter!"

He is among a small gathering at the shelter's center, a drafty gazebo with hot coffee and running water—most of it, unfortunately, now running outside. Slanting rains have this day arrived at what is called Tent City 3, a home with no address, facing eviction, seeking a stay of execution.

It has been uprooted a dozen times since March. Along with Tent City 1 and 2 of past years, the fly-by-night homeless encampment has tried to stay a pace ahead of police and bulldozers. Here, the first tents went up in midsummer, followed by months of sunshine and hopes the city would approve. Now the temperatures have dropped and Seattle's slate clouds are moving in. The canvas village drips and sags. Beneath the tentative cloth and plastic roofs, puddles form and steam condenses, bedrolls turn mushy and blankets offer only another layer of dampness. Soon will come the real fun, mud and ice.

"When the weather gets bad, all you can do is hang out in your tent," says Ornelas, 30, well spoken. He is stocky with black cropped hair and, between part-time work, receives counseling from the VA. He wants to be a writer and works with Real Change, the creative street monthly. "I'm part of their poetry group," he says.

His outdoor encampment, run by the homeless advocacy group SHARE/WHEEL, has been sitting in a prominent corner of the Beacon Hill property of El Centro de la Raza since July. The Latino/Chicano civil rights and social services agency discussed the criticism they'd likely get from Not In My Back Yard critics—then, in a stand-up move, put Tent City in El Centro's front yard.

FOR THIS, CITY HALL is fining El Centro $75 a day because the use does not conform to city code. This week, the total will top $3,700 and counting. SHARE and El Centro want to maintain the village into January, and have applied to the Department of Design, Construction and Land Use (DCLU) for a land-use permit, a process that by itself cost $2,500, ponied up from donations and car washes. "We don't know when a decision will be made or what the next step is," says a SHARE spokesman. "We don't know how we'll pay any fine, either."

DCLU spokesman Alan Justad says the city is studying potential "negative impacts to the public welfare and the property in the vicinity." Because the temporary use permit sought by Tent City organizers is the first of its kind presented to DCLU, says Justad, it "makes it fairly difficult to predict when a decision will be published."

El Centro's application is for 50 tents, with up to 100 people, through January 16, 2001. Another application would have to be made for any extension. At a recent public hearing, neighborhood residents expressed concern the tents would be permanent and worried about potential crime. "I know I shouldn't think this," a neighbor who lives blocks from Tent City told me last week, "but I recently had mail stolen out my mailbox, including a driver's license that was being mailed to me. And the first thing I thought was: 'Tent City.'"

Ornelas thinks, however, Tent City may be the safest ground in Seattle. "Absolutely!" he shouts. "Yeah! We've gotten comments from neighbors that before we got here the lot was generally a hangout for drinkers and druggers, and so we've actually had a calming effect. We did some neighborhood cleanups too."

Cooking appliances are not allowed. Trouble-making earns you the door. And a long list of camp rules requires signing in and out and bans booze, drugs, and weapons. Can Broadmoor make this claim?

"We try to be tolerant with people who are inebriated. So if you come to the door and you're drunk, you can't come in for 24 hours," Ornelas says as we walk among the tents. "If you stay clean and sober you can come back. A couple times we've caught people with alcohol in the camp. They were thrown out."

Besides the half dozen portable toilets, there are facilities for hand washing (showers are taken downtown at a hygiene center). "The city and the health department are always here," says Ornelas.

This newest camp requires a permit because it violates the single-family residential code. However, organizers ask: "Is this not one big family with few options in a city of 5,000 homeless and 2,300 shelter spaces?"

"I arrived the night they opened here," Jos頏rnelas says. "The previous night I camped in Ravenna Park."

IN THE EARLY MORNING, organizers say, at least a quarter of the camp's residents wriggle out the doors of their canvas town and head off to work. Others putter about, help with coffee, pick up the garbage, and provide security. "Everyone here wants to be somewhere else," says a woman who prefers not to talk about why she is homeless. "No one is here by choice."

Including Ornelas. "I was working and I had a depressive episode, to use the clinical term," he says. Ornelas was born in California and as a teen enlisted in the Army, stationed at Fort Lewis. He stayed around after his hitch. "I'm getting counseling, but no medication yet." He is a typical Tent City resident in some respects, Ornelas says. "Single male, working, a veteran." He points to a graying man coming down the walk. "William, he served in Vietnam." William nods and walks on. Ornelas beckons to another man. "Robert, you were in the Navy?" The man nods. "Lots of veterans here. I don't know why."

A shaggy-maned man in his 30s then walks up. "Went to Labor Ready. No work, man." he says to Ornelas. "But Monday's usually a slow day."

"The weather's changing, too," Ornelas says. "Summer it's good, winter hits and there's a big drop. Things are getting tougher."

"Not for me," the man says. "I'm going back home to the good weather. Alaska."

Ornelas laughs. He looks at the sky.

"I have to go dry my stuff," he says. "Got to go to work tomorrow."

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