In Seattle, Tent City reveals underside of the New Economy

The city vows to close the encampment soon, but even working residents say houses are too expensive.

When divorce pushed Raphael Brown from the home of his ex-wife and child, he reluctantly moved to the only place he could find - a wild corner of town known as "The Jungle."

Welder's wages weren't enough to cover the cost of a new apartment - first month's rent, last month's rent, and a security deposit could easily total $1,600. So he spent his nights in the woodsy bramble at the junction of I-5 and I-90 just south of downtown.

"People out there were getting killed," Mr. Brown says. "I mean, I was working."

Today, Brown has found a stable home - in a community where he says can live and sleep in safety. His house, however, is a tent, and his neighborhood is a canvas city set to be shut down within a few months.

Homelessness is a problem across urban America, as the nation's economic expansion passes over many of its neediest citizens. But the divide between haves and have-nots is perhaps most poignant here, where the dawning Internet Age has created millionaires almost overnight.

Indeed, both here and in San Francisco, the rise of tent cities and persistent homelessness is tinged with the faded promises of the New Economy.

Some blue-collar workers have come seeking bounty, but have found only low-paying jobs and rising housing prices. Many, swayed by the cities' temperate climates and liberal reputations, have chosen to stay.

Seattle vows to disband Tent City by Jan. 16. Residents say they won't leave. Their conflict offers a glimpse of the tensions and cultural forces at work as America convulses toward the economy of the future.

For its part, the city is straining to find answers. There's $4 million in next year's budget for homeless and housing initiatives, and officials are counting on strong support from charities and churches. They're also pressuring employers to pay a "living wage" and provide health insurance.

Tent cities, however, are not a solution, they say. "We're very open to creative initiatives," says Alan Painter, director of community services for Seattle's Human Services Department. "We're not open to tents."

At this moment, were Tent City to fold, the best this city's homeless could do is most likely The Jungle. That's the prospect facing Stewart Anderson, a day laborer living several tents from Brown.

"I came to Seattle because I know that there's work here in the trades," says Mr. Anderson, who hopes eventually to land a union construction job.

Right now, he earns between $200 and $250 a week, and he appreciates the freedom of Tent City.

"Other than not having a home, my life's pretty much like everybody else's," he says. "One of the things about Tent City: It allows me to work. The place allows me to come and go as I please."

By contrast, many homeless shelters insist that those who spend the night

leave each morning - and take their belongings with them. Such policies make it difficult to work during the day.

At Tent City, residents take turns policing the grounds, so people can go to work knowing their belongings are secure.

In fact, life at Tent City is governed by a strict code of conduct. The community is drug- and alcohol-free. No weapons are permitted, and violence is not tolerated. Not only can there be no physical punishment, no verbal abuse, and no intimidation, but slurs of any kind - ethnic, racial, sexist, or homophobic - are banned.

"With the diversity of people we have here, you'd expect to see cliques develop," says David Lewpaugh, a self-described hippie. "But that's not true here. There is no racism. We have a bigger goal of trying to survive day to day."

Residents have responsibilities, as well. Each must attend at least one community meeting every week and respect one another's privacy.

Mr. Lewpaugh, who has taken his tent to 46 states, is here because it fits his lifestyle. "I don't like to pay rent," he says. "I just don't."

But others ended up here by mistake. Reggie Roundtree and his wife left San Diego six weeks ago, en route to a fishing job in Alaska. When his wife learned she was pregnant, they decided to stay in Seattle, but had little cash and few choices.

"It's frustrating, man. You don't wanna be here, you know? But all the doors were closed," he says. "This was the only door that was open. Half the people who do work - like myself - we just can't afford to get that first, last, and deposit."

Now, Mr. Roundtree is one of the leaders in the community. He serves on Tent City's resident council, which makes policy and charts its future. He also attends meetings with city officials.

He says that Tent City, no matter what Seattle does, is here to stay. "Even if you house the 100 people now in Tent City, you can't close it down," he says. "You empty the place, give me two hours, I can go downtown and fill it right up again."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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