Monday, September 3, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Tent city returns to its Rainier Valley roots

Seattle Times staff reporter

The tents and tarps and people have pulled up stakes and moved on again, to the Dunlap Baptist Church in Rainier Valley. They've erected their homes and kitchen and toilets again, gotten permission from another church again, sent out letters explaining their presence and intentions to the neighbors again, staked the American flag by the entrance gate again.

Tent City, the roving camp of about 100 homeless people that often has found refuge in church parking lots, has come back to Rainier Valley, the neighborhood where it was first established in March 2000. Last week, St. Therese Church in Madrona was its home; tent-city residents spent the weekend carting their belongings, by truck or by bus, down to Dunlap Baptist. They are hoping to stay for one month.

City officials and homeless advocates have often been at odds over the tent-city encampment, which is run by SHARE (Seattle Housing and Resource Effort). The city says the camp does not meet accepted housing standards. Homeless advocates say the tent city offers a safe choice for people living on the streets and shut out of overcrowded shelters.

Yesterday afternoon, almost all the tents were set up in the yard next to Dunlap Baptist; some had signs on them, reading, "Marriott' and "Hilton." A committee of residents manages tent city, makes the rules, assigns tasks, sorts out the fights, etc.

"It's nothing fancy, but we try and keep things organized," said resident Nick Rodriguez. "We try and have a little bit of democracy here."

Residents were eating, signing people in, working security and litter patrol. One man lightened the atmosphere by blowing soap bubbles all over the camp.

Rodriguez and his fiancée, Jennifer, have been homeless since they moved to Seattle from Las Vegas; the job and room he was promised here fell through, and they were on the streets, trying shelters that were smelly, crowded, and had rules that didn't favor couples who worked nights.

"Out of desperation, I looked this up," he said.

He had just gotten a job as a cutting-torch operator, he explained, showing off the scabs from the sparks that had gotten under his welding gloves. He plans to stay here a few more weeks while he saves for a room.

Tent city, if not a well-oiled machine, certainly knows well by now how to pick up and move. Resident Lantz Rowland didn't know for certain but guessed it was the camp's 27th move.

"At noon yesterday, the grounds were clean," Rowland said. He said it is hard work physically moving tent city, but most of the effort comes when tent-city residents have to combat neighbors' stereotypes of homeless people.

"People want reassurances on our community's attitude on sobriety," he said. "The stereotypes of bums that are junkies and crack addicts and drunks and don't work a day in their lives, that isn't the truth."

Rowland said that, in the end, tent city had energized the Catholic church that provided a temporary home.


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