Should Seattle Be Building Tent Cities for the Homeless?


Feature reporting and photography, published in Next City, July 11 2016

Even though he’s considered unsheltered, literally homeless, Charlie Johnson isn’t ready to move inside.

He lives in a tent, in a row of tents, a procession of polyester and tarp, side by side by side. Across from his door is another row, and behind them another, six rows, 31 tents in all. The kitchen tent is stocked with a bin of potatoes and a locker full of donated bread. A solar panel on the roof powers a toaster; there are two grills on a little deck outside. Unlike the parks where Johnson’s shoes and backpack were stolen while he crashed between shelter stays, at Tent City 5 campers run 24/7 security shifts. Johnson’s tent is his own, day in, day out, unlike at the emergency shelters, where he had to leave early each morning and return each night, toting all of his belongings during the day.

TC5 is quiet too, tucked into a mixed commercial and light industrial zone, just off a main artery in the north Seattle neighborhood of Interbay, between a supermarket and the railroad tracks, on a lot owned by Seattle Light and Power. Rows of single-family houses are visible on the hill blocks away; a “Now Leasing” banner is unfurled from the roof of a brand-new apartment complex one street south. Johnson, 48, sometimes takes his laptop to a nearby Starbucks to read the news, when he isn’t busy dealing with camp paperwork or resolving campers’ concerns. He arrived while TC5 was going up in December, and helped build most of the low wooden platforms that keep the camp’s 31 tents elevated off the sodden ground. Since then, he’s been almost continually part of the camp’s elected leadership, helping to mediate conflicts, intake new residents, enforce the drug and alcohol ban, ensure residents are fulfilling their weekly security shift obligations and, only when absolutely necessary, bar people for breaking the rules.



Until last summer, Johnson — bespectacled and tall, like an earnest high school teacher — had never been unhoused. He had his own place up in Homer, Alaska, and a job he found fulfilling, coaching youth hockey. When his addictions to alcohol and Xanax led to a breakdown and several rounds of treatment, he was too ashamed to return to Alaska. After getting kicked out of a sober house in Seattle, he found himself in the park, then the shelter, then the camp. It’s been a disorienting experience, but Johnson says TC5 is the transition zone he’s needed to return a modicum of stability to his life. He’s on a waiting list for housing, but right now, he can’t imagine moving in. “I’m just shell-shocked still,” he says, “so I’m just trying to do the best that I can right here.”

Johnson is one of about 130 people living out an experiment in urban homelessness policy. Tent City 5 is one of five encampments sanctioned by the city of Seattle and one of three (of those five) funded directly by the city as a means of addressing its homelessness crisis, at least temporarily.