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Originally published Tuesday, June 11, 2013 at 8:01 PM

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Closing tent city won’t stop homeless from camping out

Seattle Times staff columnist

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The man in the blue tarp lean-to says he knows where the homeless will end up now that Seattle is putting a halt to the spread of official tent cities.

“Right here!” he shouts, above the roar of freeway traffic.

We’re standing on a sliver of pine-treed land next to Interstate 5, behind Harborview Medical Center. At times over the years this has been a mini tent city itself, with dozens of huts made of cardboard or tarps. On a recent day, though, blue-tarp guy had the noisy woods to himself.

He’s in his late 20s and wouldn’t give his real name — just to call him “Snarkey.” That with an ‘e,’ I ask? No, with an ‘s,’ he cracks. So Snarky it is.

He’s been camping in the greenbelts along I-5 for six months.

“They do sweeps so you can’t stay in one spot for long,” he says.

He crouches to show me his lean-to. It’s made of a newish, hole-free blue tarp stretched over poles made from cedar fencing.

“I can break this down and be out of here in 28 seconds.”

With the Seattle City Council deciding that the 100-tent Nickelsville encampment has to shutter this summer and that, further, there will be no sanctioned tent cities anywhere but temporarily on church properties, Snarky, for one, seems certain how his homeless brethren will respond.

“It’s about to get damn crowded out here,” he says, gesturing at his wooded enclave.

Despite all the well-intentioned efforts to house the homeless or give them emergency night shelter, there are 275 living in tent cities countywide. That doesn’t count Snarky or the estimated hundreds like him who set up tents or tarp huts in the underbrush of the city every night.

“We should not create an environment that facilitates or invites substandard living or increased or more permanent camping in Seattle,” seven of the nine City Council members wrote, effectively laying down a “no camping” city policy.

I get why they’re doing this. Everyone’s weary of the tent-city issue, not to mention that one of the cities, Nickelsville, has been at the same spot for more than two years. A long-term shantytown won’t fly in most any neighborhood.

But Snarky is surely right, too. The alternative isn’t going to be less camping. It’ll be less regulated camping.

It used to be that people like Snarky — who said he makes a little money at odd jobs but has no regular work — might stay in the SRO hotels. SRO is “single-room occupancy,” and it meant a room with a bathroom down the hall for a few bucks a night. After some hotel fires in the early 1970s, the city passed new building codes that, combined with the Seattle boom, led to the end of some 5,000 units of super-affordable housing.

The City Council calls tent cities “substandard living” but in a sense they are the new SROs. Substandard, yes. Also Someplace to keep the Rain Out.

The city’s aim is real housing for everyone. But we are heading into year nine of the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness, which has done a ton of good but clearly won’t reach its Pollyanna goal. There remains, far below the planners and the City Council members and well-meaning nonprofits, in spots like the scrap land behind Harborview, this night-by-night matter of survival.

We got rid of the substandard rooms. We’re moving to get rid of the substandard tent cities. What they’ve got left are blue-tarp lean-tos that can be broken down and moved in 28 seconds.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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