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Thursday, December 6, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Don Williamson

Time For Tough Decision On Tent City

TENT City was a mistake.

From the day it rose from the mud into the wind and rain just south of the Kingdome, it was a mistake.

It was the wrong thing to do for all the right reasons. It was unwise political thinking in a situation that required tough decisions and permanent solutions.

No one wanted to seem mean to homeless people at holiday time.

A businessman, Bill Ackerley, didn't want to say no to people without homes who had erected tents and set up housekeeping on the vacant lot the day before Thanksgiving.

Mayor Rice didn't want a confrontation with homeless activists just as his city was settling in for the six weeks of holiday spirit from Thanksgiving to the New Year.

A loose coalition of community organizations hesitantly endorsed the Tent City concept even though there were serious concerns among several members of the coalition.

The consensus was that police, fire, and health-department officials would maintain a hands-off policy until the holidays ended, as long as there were no major incidents or serious health-code violations.

There were constant meetings between city officials and representatives of SHARE, the group of homeless people, activists, and volunteers who conceived Tent City. Promises of cooperation were obtained, police stayed at a distance, and people who should have known better hoped that it would all disappear after the holidays, like left-over tinsel or discarded Christmas wrap.

Early on, there was a problem with children living on the site. Members of the coalition of community organizations that had agreed to support Tent City remember an agreement that no children would be housed in the tents and that emergency accommodations - in the form of hotel vouchers - would be available to keep youngsters out of the cold.

No one seems quite sure why city officials

weren't called when a family with three children spent at least three nights in Tent City.

Some coalition members say privately that they think the family was allowed to stay there to gain public sympathy, despite the fact that people were on call who could have been contacted for emergency indoor accommodations.

And Tent City began to grow.

It grew from four tents on the day before Thanksgiving to eight on the following Monday to 18 the next Sunday. And with it grew the concerns of the people charged with running Seattle - a metropolis vying for the title of most livable city in the universe.

Tent City was an eyesore and an embarrassment. Promises to allow use of the Alaska Building as an emergency overflow shelter for homeless men and women weren't enough to coax SHARE to take down the tents.

Homeless people were beginning to take pride in the mud dikes and ditches they dug and the wooden pallets they used for sidewalks. The kindhearted or the guilty had begun to come with regularity - bearing food, clothing, blankets, and more tents.

People were starting to settle in and take ownership and make statements about staying forever. It was a bad situation getting worse: Something that shouldn't have been was getting completely out of hand, and there was no warm and tender way to shut it down.

A city staff desperate for solutions came up with the idea of spending at least $30,000 to spruce up an abandoned Metro bus base in Queen Anne and turning it into a shelter for homeless men and women.

It is a bad trade-off that swaps canvas tents for a concrete enclosure. It shifts people in need of housing from the back of the Kingdome to across from the Seattle Center.

The only advantage is getting people out of the cold, rain and mud. But the shift will do nothing to solve the basic problem.

Shelters warehouse people. More shelters warehouse more people and further institutionalize homelessness. It makes it more acceptable and creates more of a homeless bureaucracy that gets fat off people's misery.

Tent City can't be allowed to grow and fester until there is a fire or an outbreak of sickness or some other calamity.

A new shelter at the old Metro site is only temporary relief. SHARE people are saying even that won't necessarily make them voluntarily strike the tents.

Someone in charge is going to have to start counting up available housing stock, selecting some scattered site locations, developing some human-services intervention plans and skills-training programs.

It's either that or get ready for confrontation when Ackerley or the health department is finally forced to serve an eviction notice. Sooner or later, local officials will have to shut down something that never should have been erected in the first place.

It doesn't matter whether the tents are canvas or concrete - stop-gap measures are not adequate solutions.

Tent City should go. A new shelter should not be opened.

Bold, innovative decisions about permanent affordable housing have to be made, and made now.

It's a tough call. But that's what the mayor and City Council get elected to do - make the tough calls.

We'll talk more later.

Don Williamson's column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday on The Times' editorial pages.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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