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Homeless find home at Tent City in Tukwila

Christine Johnson is one of nearly 100 men and women living at Tent City 3 at Riverton Park United Methodist Church.   - STEVE HUNTER, Tukwila Reporter
Christine Johnson is one of nearly 100 men and women living at Tent City 3 at Riverton Park United Methodist Church.
— image credit: STEVE HUNTER, Tukwila Reporter

Christine Johnson lived in her truck for eight months after losing her home and job before she discovered the Tent City camp for the homeless.

"It saved my life," said Johnson recently at Tent City 3 in Tukwila. "I feel safe in Tent City where all are friendly."

Tent City 3, overseen by Seattle-based Share/Wheel, moved to a vacant lot at Riverton Park United Methodist Church, 3118 S. 140th St., in August from Shoreline and will remain at the site until mid-November. About 100 men and women live at the location.

The camp moves quarterly within Seattle, Tukwila, Shoreline and unincorporated South King County but has returned to Tukwila for the first time in about five years. Riverton Park also hosted the previous camp but did not offer to serve as a host for several years as it tried to sell the vacant land where the camp sits.

"We are very happy to be able to extend a welcome again to them," said the Rev. Jan Bolerjack in an email. "The five-year absence was due to an impending property sale that took that long to fall through. For now the property remains under our authority and as long as we can we will extend the welcome. We hope to host them as needed."

Johnson's glad to have Tent City. She lived in Sequim before losing her home when her father passed away. She also lost her job as a certified nursing assistant. She has lived on and off at Tent cities for about a year. She has applied for Supplemental Security Income from Social Security and hopes to be able to move out of the camp in October.

"It's a very humbling experience to be homeless," Johnson said. "You look at it from a whole different aspect when you see a  (homeless) person on the street. When you're working and got a home you look and see them and now it's me."

Tent City operates with a strict code of conduct which requires sobriety, nonviolence, cooperation and participation. Security workers are on duty 24 hours a day. Litter patrols are done daily. Those staying in the camp manage the community, working security, picking up litter or whatever else needs to be done. Others have jobs or attend school. Residents cannot afford housing or are on waiting lists for low-income housing that can take up to two years before a place opens up.

"There's no staff, we self manage," said Jennifer Ingham as she led a reporter on a tour of the Tukwila camp. "Our commitment to the neighborhood is to improve it rather than detract from it. We pick up litter within two blocks."

Bolerjack said Tent City has been a good neighbor.

"I am enjoying building relationships with the folks who currently call Tent City 3 home and pray daily that there will come a time when such a place is not needed," Bolerjack said. "I would encourage anyone to come and take a tour. It is a mini city, well organized and clean. The residents take pride in their city and are grateful to have the ability to be a part of their community, receive support from one another and give service to the area in which they find themselves."

Tent City provides its own trash removal and port-a-potties. Bus tickets are provided to each participant each day so they can get to work or appointments. The church provides electricity and water to the camp.

Ingham and her fiance have lived in Tent City for one year. She worked as a pharmacist in Virginia before losing her job because of battles with depression and bipolar disorder and decided to return to Washington.

"I was the last person you would expect to be homeless," Ingham said. "Everyone has their story. I lost everything when I was in the hospital for a few weeks."

The homeless in Tent City come from all walks of life.

"We have nurses, chiropractors and anything you can think of," Ingham said. "It's not all drug addicts like some people think. No drugs or alcohol are tolerated. We're really strict about that. There are a lot of rules here."

Indoor shelters struggle to handle all of the homeless and many also require residents to leave during the day. Ingham likes that Tent City provides a safe place for personal belongings and the ability for couples to stay together.

"We were living in Bremerton, lost our apartment and were looking where we could stay together and couldn't find anyplace," said Ingham, who then found out about Tent City. "They had two spots left in Shoreline at the time."

Ingham's tent includes a donated mattress as well as shelves for clothes. It gives her a feeling of a home, but the weather can make conditions tough.

"When it's wet and cold it's pretty miserable," she said. "It's hard trying to stay warm."

The camp has one shower, a kitchen with a microwave and coffee pot and a movie tent where residents can watch videos. Hot meals are provided by various volunteer groups in the evening.

Some people sleep in community tents that house up to 10. There are about 36 individual tents and 18 tents for couples. Children are not allowed in camps as part of Share/Wheel's agreement with the city of Seattle that it also follows in other cities. Residents can bring in a pet.

"When you become homeless it's hard enough when you lose your place to live," Ingham said. "To lose your animals too would be really hard."

While Tent City has regular residents, including one man for 12 years, most are looking for a new home.

"The rest of us are trying to get stable and move on," she said.

But without the option of Tent City, Ingham doesn't know where she would have ended up.

"I honestly can't tell you what I would've done," she said.

For more information about Tent City 3 or to donate food or other items, go to www.sharewheel.org.

 


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