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Facing homelessness

For 90 days over winter quarter, the UW hosted Tent City 3, an organized tent city that offers safe, secure housing to people in need. These are the residents’ stories.

On behalf of Tent City 3, thank you. You’ve all been respectful and courteous, and have welcomed us with open arms. We’ve taken away and learned from this experience as much as y’all have. — Chad

What does it mean to be homeless? For many residents of Tent City 3 (TC3) during its 90-day stay on campus as part of the University’s mission to teach, learn and serve in innovative ways, being homeless had historically meant being misunderstood.

“There are a lot of assumptions that homelessness is a direct result of something the homeless person has done wrong, but that’s just not true,” says Donna, who moved to TC3 with her husband, Chad, after a job fell through. She poses a challenge: If you have an idea of what homelessness looks like, stop and think. Is your idea based in reality?

For three months, members of the UW community challenged their own assumptions as they connected with TC3 residents through courses, clinics, service days, meal sharing and by simply being good neighbors.

As they neared the end of their campus stay, TC3 residents reflected on the experience.

“Mama” TerriDee

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You have a job. You get fired. Your first paycheck after that, there goes your rent and your car payment. The second check is most likely your insurance and your childcare. The third check you don’t get. So where are you going to go? Straight to the streets. That’s how close you are from having a job to where we are right now. It’s not laziness. Living on the streets is hard. I wouldn’t wish being homeless on my worst enemy.


Donna

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We were in Denver, working. My husband was on a construction job with a man who came up to Seattle, got settled into another construction site, called us and said, ‘I’ve got a job for you, and y’all can stay with me.’ So we packed our bags and bought our bus tickets. Then we got the call. He wasn’t here, the job wasn’t here, the place wasn’t here. So we started scrambling on the bus. After an initial breakdown, I started Googling homeless shelters. TC3 was the first one that popped up and the first one I called. We’ve been here ever since, and it’s been a blessing. Every time students come here and do things for us, whether they’re bringing food or playing music, as soon as they step into TC3, you can just feel the ‘What can we do?’ attitude. The compassion. The actual caring. In just a few weeks, I’ve grown attached to all the students who’ve been in and out of here.


Justin

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I really like being on campus. It’s good community, good people, and everybody’s been really generous with donations. Students will bring in dinner, serve it and eat with us as we sit together and talk. It’s pretty cool because everybody’s interested in what homelessness actually is. Students will come all the way out here in this weather and want to hear our stories so they can help other people realize how homelessness actually works and what the people who are in it are actually like.


Chad

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I’ve learned from the students that there are still good people in this world. In the short time we’ve been homeless, we’ve been blessed enough to be on this campus. We’ve encountered nothing but open arms, generosity and people who are willing to listen and talk to us — people who ask us how our days are. Outside of the University, at regular camps and shelters, we don’t get that. We get looked at. We get treated differently. Everybody here has been fabulous. And I like it because it’s educating: It’s educating us, it’s educating the students, and the students are educating others. The students get to see the aspects of homelessness, the different people, the different reasons. And then they turn around and do papers, presentations and so forth that reach more people. It’s a revolving, pay-it-forward kind of deal. That’s why I like it.


Justin

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People think that all homeless people are either addicts or mentally ill. Some of them are, but the percentage isn’t as high as people think. I became homeless because I was having medical problems in California, where I’m from. My doctor said, ‘You need to leave your environment. You need to leave this town.’ Where I’m from, it’s extremely hot and there’s a lot of pollution. I was having issues breathing, so I sold everything I had and moved up here, just when things started getting expensive. I can’t afford to live here anymore.


Ivan

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I think we gave the students some good insight into the emotional toll that being homeless takes on you. It’s not easy living out here, but the interaction with the students — nursing, medical, dental — it’s humanized us instead of dehumanized us. And that’s the big thing, because we’re all human. We all have feelings. We all have wants and needs, and the outpouring of support from this campus has been awesome. I really didn’t expect it, but it’s been quite refreshing. I really enjoyed my time here.


Jonathan

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I’ve never been to school or anything like that, but ever since I came to Seattle and ended up in this place, I’ve thought about getting an education. I could leave here with a degree. Maybe fisheries or nursing, or maybe I could take an aptitude test and see what I’m good at. My experience here has been awesome and totally inspiring. Education suddenly seems pretty important. I’d probably be a lot happier if I tried to use my brain instead
of my muscle.


For more on Tent City 3’s stay at the UW, including the classes that formed connections with TC3 residents, visit uw.edu/community/homelessness.