The great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr once said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” With that in mind, Emerging Leaders came together to spend their day off as a day on, serving hot lunches at the Low Income Housing Institute’s Ballard and Interbay encampments. It wasn’t just a lunch, though – it was a chance to connect with the neighbors the city too often forgets.
More than a few volunteers couldn’t believe the encampment was so close to where they went about their daily lives – “I never knew this was here!” – a fitting start to a day we spent learning about the lives of people who come and go under the radar of Seattle life. Some residents were away from the encampment, working on day contracts through organizations like the Millionair Club, keeping the city running even as many celebrated a three-day weekend.
At Interbay, we did have the chance to meet many of the people who call the encampments home, including a member of the encampment’s advisory board, a panel of 5 people who are tasked with making decisions for the camp. He’d been at the encampment since its founding at Interbay (encampments tend to move around a lot, due to city laws), and was proud that he was an old-timer who knew the ins and outs of life there. They’d just extended their lease on the unused city property, so the camp is safe for at least another year, and it was a happy talking point among the residents.
A quick tour of the camp left us experts in tent design and type – some collapsed with heavy wind this winter, and stronger new ones have taken their place – and with an understanding of what it means to be a resident. At the encampments, new arrivals are assigned to the dorms at first, until a single tent space opens up, and there’s little tolerance for fighting or general unruliness at the encampment. All residents spend 3 shifts a week (security shifts) at the check-in tent, which is open 24 hours a day, and “security credits” are traded like currency: sweep the encampment and earn a few; miss a shift or break a rule and you owe more.
As we served a meal and chatted with residents, we learned what had brought them to the camp, how long they’d lived there, and their future plans. Many were happy to have a hot meal and weren’t sure about their plans much beyond the day or week. Some, though, like a woman unable to work due to her disability, were planning on sticking it out in Seattle (she’d come with her husband from California for him to find work) until the time came that it made sense to head on out to the next place. Short-term, though, they had plans to adopt a pair of husky/lab puppies – “pretty just like their daddy,” she said, a smile spreading across her face as a blue-eyed, snow-white husky nosed up to us in search of a good head scratch.