Editor’s note: Ashley Johnson is now the media contact for the Tent City Collective. She started the article prior to accepting the role.
When I moved to Seattle this past summer to start my journey in the Communication Leadership program, I was excited to explore the Emerald City and discover all of its hidden gems. After some doing typical touristy things (thanks Buzzfeed!), I asked a few friends and coworkers for a some “local” suggestions. Instead of recommending fun, trendy, night spots, many chose to offer warnings — they told me to stay safe and avoid “the homeless,” especially those living in tent cities.
I’m from a small suburb in the mid-Atlantic states, and the concept of “tent cities” was unfamiliar and foreign. Even though I had spent years advocating for impoverished communities back East, I was not familiar this term used to describe a subset of the population experiencing homelessness. So, I did what any curious millennial would do; searched “tent cities Seattle” on Google and started researching the topic.
One search result detailed Ballard residents‘ adverse reaction to a temporary housing encampment to their neighborhood. It reinforced the notion that there is a disconnect between the stable housing community and those living in man-made transitional camps. So when Comm Lead Associate Director Anita V. Crofts challenged Cohort 15 to find a novel and useful solution to a communication challenge in our community, I jumped at the idea of using communication techniques to address the widespread stigma towards homeless people living in housing encampments.
But, how does one find a way of destigmatizing homelessness and tent cities that has not already been attempted?
Talking about homelessness in the media
While there are dozens of organizations in Seattle that advocate for homelessness through creative storytelling — not to mention many of media outlets covering the issue from a variety of angles — there are few organizations and people who have undertaken the challenge of advocating on behalf of entire communities suffering from the loss of stable housing.
Aaron Burkhalter is one of those people. Burkhalter is the Editor in chief of Real Change News, a weekly newspaper that covers new stories about social justice and homelessness issues in Seattle. Burkhalter said Real Change News is unique because it’s one the few newspapers in the Pacific Northwest that is “constantly looking for stories that illustrate what life is like for homeless people.”
Burkhalter has written about temporary homeless encampments in King County, and noted the importance of interviewing the members of the population experiencing homelessness. It’s one way to accurately represent the many identities and stories that comprise the community. In advocacy, it is important to have a wide set of terms that describe the issue at hand. Without accurate and culturally representative terminology, stories become homogeneous and repetitive.
“Each experience is worthy of attention and needs to be accurately portrayed.”
“We don’t use the phrase ‘the homeless,’ for example. We say ‘homeless people.’ But beyond that, we try to understand specifically what someone’s experience is. Homelessness can mean that someone is living in their car, sleeping in a doorway or living in an organized tent city surrounded by a community,” Burkhalter said. “Each of these examples is a unique experience that deserves to be called out and explained to our readers. A homeless person in a shelter, for example, has a very different experience than someone living in a car. Each experience is worthy of attention and needs to be accurately portrayed.”
A community centered approach to homelessness
In my research to better understand the multifaceted landscape of homelessness in Seattle, I met a group known as The Tent City Collective (TCC). I was struck by their community-focused approach to homelessness. TCC is a team of University of Washington students, alumni, Tent City 3 residents (TC3), and community members who work together to involve the university in ongoing conversations about homelessness. The group ultimately hopes to bring TC3, which is currently located just north of UW at University Congregational United Church of Christ, to campus. Group members believe conversations concerning people experiencing homelessness must include homeless people themselves.
“If we are working with a stigmatized group and are not experiencing the same oppressions as their community members, there are many, many nuances about their lives that we will be ignorant to,” said lead organizer Hana Alicic.
By including the TC3 community members in their advocacy efforts, the TCC advocates for temporary housing encampments on multiple fronts. They hope UW community stakeholders will build relationships TC3 residents and learn how the stigmatization of people experiencing homelessness results in systematic discrimination against people unable to find stable housing.
“Any effort meant to further the goals or meet the needs of a community absolutely must center their voices,” Alicic said. “We need to stand in solidarity with communities experiencing homelessness, not speak for them.”
The University of Washington administration is integrating TCC’s approach in their ongoing efforts to address the homelessness crisis in Seattle. In a recent email to the UW community, President Ana Mari Cauce announced that the University is considering hosting the temporary housing encampment known as Tent City 3, writing, “hosting would be in line with our mission as a public university that is committed to helping solve the challenges of our city, state and world.”
Everyone living in Seattle, unsheltered and sheltered alike, is a Seattleite.
Both approaches to the destigmatization of homelessness centered around one common train of thought: creating empathy for one’s neighbor. Recognizing that people fear and stigmatize what they do not understand, Real Change News and Tent City Collective challenge the societal consequences of stigmatization of homelessness through representative storytelling to bridge a communication gap within Seattle.
Because at the end of the day, everyone living in Seattle, unsheltered and sheltered alike, is a Seattleite.