Neighbor to neighbor | Tent City 5 hosts community open house

Homeless encampment Tent City 5 held an open house June 12 for people in the surrounding Interbay, Queen Anne and Magnolia communities.

The camp, located on a fenced lot on 17th Avenue West in Interbay, is the newest tent city overseen by the nonprofit organization Share/Wheel. Opening in November, it was the first of three tent cities to open with the city of Seattle’s authorization and support under an ordinance passed by the City Council in March 2015. Tent City 5 will remain on its site on a one-year lease through November 2016, at which time Share/Wheel will have the option to renew for another year.

“We want to bring people in to get them feeling comfortable and friendly with the idea of having us in the neighborhood,” resident Justin Alexander said. 

So campers opened their fence and fired up their grills Sunday to welcome their neighbors. Residents answered questions about the camp and led tours, showing people the locations of the men’s and women’s dorms, personal tents, couples tents and amenities like garden planters, tool storage and kitchen facilities.

The meet-and-greet also provided an opportunity to educate current and would-be donors about what items do the most good. A surprising example was that bulk deliveries of produce are no good, according to Alexander. The reason is simple: they rot quickly and residents haven’t yet voted in refrigerators, for reasons of cleanliness and upkeep. Likewise, cupcakes, while appreciated, are re-donated to other tent cities for health reasons.

“I don’t want to be a diabetic on top of everything else,” Alexander said.

Alexander was a cook before he was hit with medical complications from an enlarged heart valve. He controls the condition with medication now, but his extended hospitalization put him out of work. Even before then, Seattle housing had proven unbearably expensive compared to where he had come from in California.

Now Alexander’s plan is to secure a new job and save enough money to return to his home state. 

Pete Soukup has the same general plan. Only he’s already home. The 50-year-old is a lifelong Magnolia resident who became homeless last year after he was fired from his job for alcohol abuse.

Soukup recognized many of the visitors to the open house. Some of them were neighbors and family friends. He got caught up in a long conversation with area resident Trina Wellman. 

Soukup told her about how he lost his job and how he came close to the brink of suicide, saved moments before committing the act by the sudden return of his missing cat. He told her how he lived on the streets alone, isolated by a philosophy he summarized as “Don’t ask, don’t talk, don’t feel.”

“What changed your mind?” Wellman asked.

“One day I think it was just too f—ing wet,” Soukup said, laughing.

Soukup entered Tent City 5 on Dec. 3 and was temporarily banned early on for violating the camp’s strict policy against alcohol use within a three-block radius. He decided to stop drinking on Christmas and has remained sober since, he said.

The alcohol ban is just one of the camp’s rules. Members also a three-block ban on panhandling. 

Wellman, a Tent City 5 supporter, said she tells critics of the camp that it helps contain a problem that will exist whether the camp exists or not.

“You guys are doing it right,” she told Soukup. “You want to be good neighbors.”

Soukup said he’s recently had some promising interviews. He’s concerned employers won’t be attracted to a middle-aged candidate but he’s eager to contribute to his neighborhood again, he said.

“I would love to help this community in one way or another,” he said.

Soukup recently received paperwork putting him on a waiting list for low income housing. 

The Low Income Housing Institute aids Tent City 5 residents with apartment residence, but the process can take several months, Alexander said.

Regardless, he said tent cities are far preferable to overnight shelters. Shelters only accept sleepers on a night by night basis and, when daylight comes, there’s no storage for personal effects.

“That is a huge freaking deal,” Alexander said. “When you’re looking for a job, you can’t bring your whole backpack to the interview. … I couldn’t even look for a job during the daytime because I had a huge backpack and two briefcases.”

Now Alexander thinks he’s close to solving the puzzle.

“I have a couple good leads,” he said. “I might get a job this week.”