Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Business of Being Homeless


Executive Committee
There is an executive committee (EC) in charge of running Tent City. Every Wednesday night, at an outdoor, mandatory, camp-wide meeting, five ECs and two backup ECs are elected. Once a week, the whole camp convenes in the heart of their plastic city to air their complaints, voice their opinions and address camp business. Everyone gathers in the common area, in the rain, in the cold, smoking, waiting, growing frustrated with the process, ever long, ever tired of the same voices and the same issues, accruing an impossible number of new rules and positions. Rarely does one hear a positive turn. We also elect Tent Master, Fence Master, Papa Smurf, Kitchen Coordinator, Donations Coordinator, Maintenance Coordinator and Blanket Washer at this meeting. Each position carries with it a set number of security credits, otherwise earned by working 3-hour shifts as a camp security officer.

Job Description
The standard tour of duty for an EC is two weeks, after which they're clear of all duties for the following two weeks (except for their community credit which must still be earned once every two weeks). Those two weeks off from security duty are considered the pay, incentive and relief for a job that carries with it a fair share of work and worry. If you make it one month, you get a month off. It's like earning vacation pay in the regular world. The EC on duty is in charge of handing out bus tickets, screening in new tenants, answering the phone and making sure the security officers are doing their job. The EC is hammered at relentlessly by requests from campers (for coffee, nails, tape, pens, paperwork, information on this or that meeting) and is advised, all the while, by numerous lesser chiefs on how to do their job. The EC is kept busy handing out and receiving incident reports (the paperwork by which one camper formally writes up another camper for cursing, stealing, hoarding, being loud, belligerent, smoking in an inappropriate place, &c). What happens on your shift usually affects the other ECs. At the start and/or the of a shift, you might spend 20 to 40 mins listening to or explaining what happened during your previous shift and discussing what needs to be done now. The desk is often awhirl when you arrive and doesn't settle down until an hour into your shift. Sometimes it never settles down. There is rarely consensus among the ECs about what's to be done when a problem arises and, since most issues cross shifts and there are few quick answers, the problems either continue or build. It sometimes leads to one EC writing up another EC for acting in a way other than they see as proper. All this amounts to a great deal of paperwork and exhaustion and, in the long run, is damaging to the whole camp. I suspect copious amounts of stress hormones are produced behind the desk that lead to unnatural and premature aging in the homeless population.

Pay Day
ECs work five to six 6-hour shifts per week. That's 30-36 hours without pay. The incentive is that you get to rule the roost, but then you're responsible for anything that happens, in and out of camp, while you're on duty. Shifts run from midnight-6am, 6am-noon, noon-6pm and 6pm-midnight. I tried them all. The graveyard and afternoon shifts seem best to me. Quietest. The EC is posted at a desk at the entrance to Tent City 3 in an open, tarp-covered structure. At the current location, that means a parking lot across from Maple Leaf Lutheran Church in Meadowbrook (Seattle). The front desk is the only place with a heater, an electric heater. The ECs is tethered to the desk for 6 inactive hours, so the heater helps keep her from freezing.

Mimi Signs On--Receives Phone, Keys, 200 Bus Tickets
You keep a log of everything that happens while you're on duty. If a visitor comes in, you write it down. If you receive a phone call or a donation or are having problems with a camper, you write it down. If the moon falls out of the sky, I suspect you'd better write it down. The EC is responsible for the camp and the camp phone and the camp keys a day's worth bus tickets. If any of these items go missing, guess who's responsible? ECs must give 24 hours notice before stepping down. The penalty for stepping down mid-term is that you can't hold the position again for a month. But if you step down, presumably you don't want to. You can't be an EC until you've lived in camp for a month. Being EC is more of a burden than a privilege. When I was first nominated, a few weeks ago, I declined with an appreciative smile. Thank you, no. Not only did I not want the position, I didn't have the time. I was behind on my writing and still had much to do for the gallery show. Then, I was nominated again and the gallery show was over and I had more time, so I accepted. I was voted in that night. After the meeting, the ECs gather around the desk to work out a schedule. I took two graveyard shifts, two day shifts and an early morning shift. So much for pedaling my way to warmth! Ovid will have to wait. I'm too busy setting anchor. Wouldn't want this barge to go adrift.

Mental Health
Too few campers are willing to take the job of EC. Fewer still are able to perform the job well. Making a mistake as an EC is one of the easiest ways to get barred. The blame for any incident is quick to fall back on the EC. The mentality of it reminds me of a movie I once saw, The Sweet Hereafter. When procedure says someone is to blame, someone must be blamed. Seldom is a mistake in camp seen as an opportunity to learn or to question the process. Hit 'em with a bar! Being homeless means loss of property which equals loss of power, loss of family, loss of opportunity, loss of speech, loss of dignity and police reports and missing teeth and citations for urinating in public and blame, some of which looks to the establishment like non-accountability, but where were the tools? Where are in this system? And anyway, everything was gone before you started so what did you have to lose?

Time Bomb
How long will I last behind the desk? After only a few days, the mentality of it is already beginning to destroy me. It is, at times, too much. You're treated rudely and accused of things and are expected to babysit several people at the same time. All complaints come to you. All anger is blotted on you. Why would anyone do it? One only hopes they're able to step down before they're accused of something ridiculous and kicked out of the camp forever. Poetry is no protection from this EC hitlist. This is no longer about survival but about avoidance and about emotional and mental stamina. Do I have it? We'll see.

A Page Out of the Rule Book, Torn Into Four Equal Pieces & Flushed Down the Toilet 
(After Jean Genet)
Maneuvering TC3 is like driving down a roadway in a rain storm (make that a convertible) in a strange, new city with one inch of a ripped up old map to help you find your way, with speed limits that keep changing and streets that go one-way for part of the street and change half-way through to one-way the other direction, and everyone is fueled on fear and... it's a jumpy ride. The condensed list of bar-able offenses (offenses for which you can be given extra securities or barred from camp) is four pages long. Spitting. Foul language. Not sanitizing hands after leaving Honey Buckets. Being smelly. All punishable actions. Standard bar periods are 3, 7, 10 and 14 days--then there's permanent bar. In the past month, I've seen all of the casualties. Where do these castaways go? Some go to Nickelsville. Some to Tent City 4. Some stay with a friend or go to a motel. Some go under the bridge. The complete list of camp rules is over 40 pages long (or is that urban legend) and are constantly changing. It's unlikely any one person has ever had the rule book in their head at one time. You can imagine then, the struggle to get it down on paper. But that's what the camp sage is for. That's what the camp advisor is for. To assist the EC and resolve camp conflicts. The camp sage may be consulted at any time and gives thorough camp tours. The camp advisor is on duty whenever he is in camp. Learning the rules takes time and patience. You'll likely get it wrong the first time around, serve the penalty, then get it right. I wonder, does this sort of learning help one gain accountability? Or does it account for the various scowls I see etched into camp from time to time?

And then, out of the blue, comes a light day. And day where everyone is in a fine mood. And the sky is clear. And smiles and laughter abound. And a blanket of goodness spreads out. There is no telling where it came from or when it will go, but the roller coaster is on its way up and so let's ride.

No letting the honey bucket doors slam
No profanity
No loitering
No littering
No smoking in the neighborhood
No smoking in your tent
No open flames
No parking within two blocks of camp
No pick-ups or drop-offs at camp
No spitting
No alcohol
No drugs
No walking in the planters
No eating in the kitchen tent
No going anywhere near the host church
No contact with the shelter in the church basement
No going into the donations tent after hours
No going into the pantry
No extra blankets
No hoarding clothing
No trespassing
No men in women's tents
No women in men's tents
No anyone in anyone's tent (except your own)
No threats
No violence
No degrading ethnic or homophobic remarks
No missing a meeting
You must disinfect your hands before entering the kitchen tent
You must post a name on your tent
Smoking in designated areas only

Listed right there under the time and date of each meeting you sign up for is the penalty for missing it. In signing up, you're agreeing to the punishment. Such measures are in place to help engender accountability. Yet many of those who find themselves here in TC3, in this situation, are challenged with just that, a lack of accountability. They are challenged by this as well as other things, equally heavy and equally hammering--depression, illness, debt, bankruptcy, social pressures, addiction issues, broken relationships, shame, loss of family, loss of personal items. What, but dignity, restores dignity? Many campers store their belongings in a locker miles from camp. If they need something, they must spend half their day getting there. A storage unit insures their most important possessions are not stolen or lost. Some just start anew whenever they move, which happens every two or three months.

Who Do the Rules Serve?
The rules were made, we presume, to keep camp happy and safe, albeit invisible. But the ever lengthening list of rules serve to oppress and restrict an already disempowered population. By encouraging the rules to be self-enforced among members of the camp, an ever quickening vortex of blame forms and festers. Instead of helping, the exhausting list of rules mires the camp in frustration. It doesn't take long for a new camper to walk into a net of confusion and get themselves barred. Depending on who they are, what their state of mind is, how hard they've tried to make it work and who's around to help, they either get barred forever or shrink further into their shells, serve their time and come back to camp on. Because there is no stable body of leaders who know the rules, are trained in enforcing them and know how to mediate disagreements, we're all just stumbling about and falling down. We're bloodied by the work of it all. And the jaded scowling gnomes wait in masses at the wings for their justice, their chance to get even or straight or back at whomever punished them, with a bar or an extra security. It can work. It has worked. There are beautiful people and many beautiful moments, but it has also failed.

To another camper, the one who recently changed his life, to the one saved by Tent City, this parking lot is a very good place, a stepping stone, a savings and loan, for which he is thankful. I hear that perspective and can imagine how it is true. I have seen the people go, a few of them, from tent city into an apartment. Hooray! Their time has come. They're off to the great indoors. The cold is the hardest thing about being homeless. The wet is the hardest thing. The loss of private space is the hardest thing. The weather has a huge effect on the campers. Mold grows in wet environments, like a tent covered in a plastic tarp for three months. It causes allergic reactions and respiratory problems. Just one more hazard.

I too can sit in camp with a scowl and walk about looking for flaws and blame and then warn and then post the rule. I must keep the larger picture in mind. What is this here? Who am I? Who is this? What is our education? What is our mental state? What conditions have we endured? What are we currently enduring? It's raining. It's freezing. Our teeth are falling out. We have no income or too little for an apartment. Where's our job training? What kindness have we received? Seattle doesn't care about us. The nation doesn't care. Ah no, you are wrong. Tent City 3 is no a hand-out and it certainly isn't a hand-up. It's often the exact opposite--a strong, unloving foot down. But, if you can make it here, I suspect you can make it anywhere, because the rest of the world doesn't run like this. You don't lose your home if you make a mistake or miss a meeting. Yes you need to be accountable. Yes you need to go to work. But you'll lose your home for other reasons. The banks and the corporations are the cancer out there. I wonder. Are harsh rules and more strict accountability the answer? Or does this only end up creating more failure and deeper sorrow?

Pit Stop
There I was, one happy Wednesday evening, riding my bike before the camp meeting, staying warm, feeling good. My cheeks were rosy. I exchanged laughter with a few people. After a few days away, I was feeling free. That was all about to change. Starting that night, I was going to be an EC.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ovid on a Bicycle

Changes of Shape
I'm now beginning my second month as poet-in-residence at Tent City 3 in Seattle, WA---Tent City 3, tactic 2, one more try. I've decided to find a stationary bicycle, select a collection of poetry and read it all while riding in camp. What why? To stay warm.. to build strength.. for my health.. because I got sick four times last month.. for the positive turn.. because I have to do something..? Anyway, something! Perhaps a few fewer stresses, a bit more sleep and a spin on the old bicycle will do it. And so, like any good search, this one began at the Goodwill. I do so love the Goodwill. I spotted an elliptical trainer in the furniture aisle and a recumbent cardio-machine in the lawn care section, but no stationary bike. I'll have to look online. Then I wandered into the poetry section and out jumped Ovid (43 BC-18 AD). Hahah! That musty, old, yellowing, 99-cent, mass market mythster! For under a dollar, he said, he'd give me all the myth I could take, along with a few heroes (which we desperately need at Tent City), some drama (we have enough of that) and a whole lot of passion. Promises, promises!! Upon reading that Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, had banished Ovid in 8AD for corrupting the youth of Rome, I began to take him more seriously. In fact, he sounded like he might understand life here at our Tent City. I bought Ovid's Metamorphoses, a collection of ancient Greco-Roman myths featuring the lives and loves of the gods, translated by Horace Gregory, 1958.

Second Time Around
After the big push for the gallery show and the fabulous Tether opening, I slept for a day and then took two more days off. While I was away, I worked on a plan, a new plan, a way to go back. If I'm going to stay at TC3 through the Meadowbrook tour, 24 February, something needs to change. I haven't wrapped myself around this project, this thing, this city I'm in, at least not in a definable way. I need a plan. I don't want to waffle any more. I want to do something. Make progress. But how and where and why? And what? I spent my time away thinking about it. By day two, I had a plan. It was based on three crucial bits of information: (1) The only thing I can control is me, (2) the only one I can transform is me and (3) metamorphoses is what I need. Again and again, it's me and change. Ahhh.

Banish Me
Me. Seattle. Ovid. Albania. Tent City. What does it matter? It's a disgrace and a shame for us all. Either way, we lose. No distance, no amount of praise, will win us back into the light of day, into harmony. Let's just apologize and get on with on. Let's solve the problem from within and grow from it. Let's sit in the seat of it and turn the pedals. Pedal right up that hill. Can you see us pedaling? Each time we move an inch, one degree in fahrenheit  rises. You can't see change in a day. Give it a month, a year, a decade. Give it a push. We'll crest the hill eventually, we promise. Put an endpoint in sight.

Name Plates
All the tents in camp have names, written on paper plates and attached with a paper clip or duct tape, so you can find someone when you need them. There is a map that constantly needed updating. The bunk houses are named after hotels, The Desert Sands and The Palms. Single and couples tents are named by the people who move into them. There's a tent in camp called "Second Time Around," a good name for a hard luck home, hopeful and honest.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

First Thursday @ Tether Gallery

Image by Dan Smith

Song of Tent City
Amazing that we pulled it off in such a short time! Thanks to the generous support and expert assistance of Dan Smith, Vanessa DeWolf, Dr. Clinton Lee Bliss, Christopher Wilson, Lyn Coffin, Mark Miner, Josie Elizabeth Davis, Jacqueline Juarez, Oakley, Jim Roe, Scott Morrow, Darren Norrington and others, the show opened to a healthy and appreciative audience on Thursday 6 January at Tether Design Gallery in Occidental Square. Many thanks to all who attended and offered support!! Representatives from Tent City 3, SHARE/WHEEL and Sprout were among those in attendance, along with 10 residents from Tent City and many friends from the art community! We were all mingling, there was no fence, and it felt natural and healthy enough. Items on display in the gallery include: (1) the ger in which I lived in Tent City and, inside it, my milk crate bed and sleeping bags and chair, (2) My Poet's Cape fanned out on the wall, (3) the Whitman quote that inspired it all painted on two blue tarps, (4) handwritten lines of my own original writing on the rafters, audio of the script and discussion between Tent City collaborators Lyn Coffin and Mark Miner (with assistance by Vanessa Dewolf), (5) six original works of art created by resident artists at Tent City 3, (6) letter-press printed broadsides with stencils of my yurt and blue smurfs (the tall community tents), (7) a sign-making station where people were welcome to think about what they truly needed and write that on a square of cardboard, (8) original sketches and hand penned letters from my time in Tent City. As a fundraising show, Song of Tent City will continue at Tether gallery for two weeks (gallery hours are M-F from 11am-5pm). Sales items include original framed works of art made by Tent City 3 residents, hand-stenciled broadsides with images of my ger and  TC3 tents and handmade Song of Tent City journals. Thank you for engaging with this art and for doing your part to ease the burden of homelessness in Seattle.

Audio Recordings of Artist Pairings
Lyn Coffin & Mark Miner Script (read by Mark & Vanessa)
Mark Miner Explains the Script
Mark Miner Talks about Tent City
Vanessa DeWolf & Jacqueline
Josie Davis & Oakley

Monday, January 10, 2011

Going Going Gone

My spirit has begun to foul and all the trash bits have begun to annoy me. Picking them up, I think, "Does no one see this? Does no one see!?" Cigarette butts, cut up zip-ties, bits of string, bus tickets, tissues. Twice I have asked people to lower their voices, for the sake of the camp, for the sake of our neighbors, to which they retorted with even louder voices or walked off in a huff...while someone, somewhere, cocked and shot an air rifle.. kaPoW kaPoW! Now here's someone I could learn something from, the rifleman. Here is someone, I think, who knows about life in camp. It's a waste of time to even try to understand. Better to shake your head and walk away. Keep your mouth shut or take on a cargo of pain. Isn't that what he's saying?

And yet here I am, the new me, the neatnik, the loyalist, the pessimist, the aggravated one, roaming through camp with a critic's eye. What's this?! What's that? Out of order! Out of whack! Internalizing, scanning, scowling. Hmh? Where did this come from? I thought I'd looked in enough eyes? Thought I'd come to care about these people? Learned to sympathize with their situation? Or is it that I've looked in too many eyes? Is it that I've looked too long? Or that I've begun to bore right through and miss the point? Perhaps it's the weather and the headache and the sinus infection and the litany of rules and constraints and the constant smell of smoke and the dampness? Yes, the dampness. Perhaps it's all of these things doing the damage? An what comes after identification--oppression? Is the boat going down? Is it time to swim? Where is the shore? At first, one month ago, I looked on with curiosity. I thought, o what drama and o how silly. Now I look and think, enough already, please and phew! I thought I was skilled at evading it, but now the smoke is inescapable and making me sick.

New Year's Eve
I worked the 9-midnight security shift on New Year's Eve. Another holiday passes without ado. No ado. And the desk was steeped in smoke and chaos. What do I care? I walked through camp again and again. We had three securities because of the lost signup sheets. Happily, I was let out on a neighborhood sweep with the other woman on duty. A silent walk would have done me well, but she needed to talk so I listened as we walked down the dead end street. At the end of our tour, she told me about a dream she had where the trees held onto our stories. I asked the trees to keep us in mind, especially the one at the entrance. Remember this.

The Sleeping Altar
A firework or two in the distance. Inconsequential. I grabbed my bundle of sleeping bags and hauled them on my back to the church. It was freezing. Seattle Climate Date reports a low of 21F, 4 degrees colder than last night. I tiptoed around a man spread across the aisle and went up to the altar. I unrolled my bag by the wall at the far edge on the carpet. A floor has never been so comfortable. Or warm! I fell asleep immediately, but woke up to the same harsh story. Overhead lights. "You got half an hour to get up and get out!" It was a security calling us to wake. Not five minutes later came the second call and then individual calls, "You up? You up?" What happened to my half hour? Agh! I'm sleeping! It takes two minutes to get up and get out. Leave me be. I have a headache and two securities to pull after my meditation walk. Ok! Ok! I got up. I put my boots on and hauled my bags on my back. I exited the church and stuffed my bags in my ger and walked on out to my car. Got to get out.

1 January 2011
It was the dawning of something new and clear and orange, something I didn't have time for. It was New Year's Day and so early I saw the sun rise, but I didn't feel new. Nothing was new or beginning for me. I went away to sleep. I wasn't feeling good. I slept in a bed for three hours then cancelled the meditation walk. I knew four of five regulars were out of town. After two more hours of sleep, I dragged myself across town and back to Meadowbrook. I put on my security vest and walked around with my fingers in my neck, pushing on the nerve that calms the pain. I spent some time sitting low on the curb to avoid the cigarette smoke, but I had to keep moving if I was going to make it. I got up and walked around. I followed the gutters through the neighborhood on two perimeter sweeps. I had the feeling the neighbors getting into and out of cars were judging and pitying me. I was picking up bits of trash in a bright yellow security vest that marks me as a homeless camper. I felt I was being cast as a martyr.

The Siberian Bear
Richard the Russian, Richard the Bear, Richard the Siberian, in the fuzzy hat with the ear flaps--where does the hat ends and where does the beard begin--pleasant Richard who sits long and moves little and cannot maneuver without his walker, asked the donations coordinator if he could have the mat that came in with the new donations. "I'm tired of people nagging me when things come in." "I'm just asking. You won't get anything if you don't ask." "What happened to the last mat I gave you?" "It compressed to nothing and, you know, I had that accident. I threw up on it." "Well, you need to wipe that up." Now here is a guy who could benefit from a warm place to live with access to assistance, but they say he's where he wants to be, among friends who care about him, yet he's begging for a mattress from someone in the same situation. Dear Richard, You have altered my state completely. Up is down and down is up and I'm sorry the world is unkind and forgot you--forgot your farm and your cask of wine and the children clambering and the birds for your hair. You deserve better. I'm resigning my post in the hopes that one better than me might fill it. Sincerely, The Poet.

When I came back from my second perimeter sweep, Richard and Jarvis were hatching a plan. They'd seen I was sick and were working it out. The camp accountant informed them, "She owes two securities," and so they found someone to cover my second shift. Richard promised her $5, the going rate for a security and I found her in the community tent and gave her $6. I nearly made it to 3pm, but as I was restocking the paper in the honey buckets the scales tipped and the nausea hit and my mouth started to water. I threw up. I can think of nicer ways to spend New Year's Day. I went out, pulled off my security vest and said, "I'm leaving." Someone behind the desk shouted at me to read the letter on the bulletin board. Not now, I'm sick. My eyes were still watering. Roger asked if he could introduce me to some people on a tour. I looked at them all and said, "I'm sick." I had a difficult drive across town. When I got to Fremont I crawled into bed, took some Phenergan and slept and slept. By 4am, I was up and eating and feeling human again, then I slept some more.

January Marching
I was back in camp and breaking down camp on Sunday morning. I needed to be at Tether Gallery by noon to install my ger and cape and milk crate bed. I brought a foam roll for Richard to use as a mattress, probably not the best bed, but perhaps better than what he had. My head was still heavy with the memory of ache. The roof of my ger was covered with frost, the edges of my cape were frozen and it seemed everyone wanted something from me. Hear me! Hear me! But no one came to help. No wonder. I was emitting sparks and my mood was darkening still. I was losing the tether altogether. Then, as I was carrying my things to the car, Brian offered to help. He carried three loads to my car. That acted as a stabilizer and so I held on, but after my second trip to the car I came back to find half my bed gone. My stack of eight milk crates was now down to four-- swiped to make another bed. No...! I still needed my bed. I found the person who had them and asked for them back. He said he'd be with me in half an hour. But I needed my bed back now. I had a friend on the way to drive them to the gallery. I took my complaint to the EC who assisted me. I was now floating free from my tether. Yes I need some time away. Yes I was unwell. Yes I was going...

The Kites We Keep Alive
Take any sane, happy, well-adjusted individual (not saying I am), put them in a tent, in a parking lot, with 99 other individuals in Seattle, in the winter, and subject them to a litany of oppressive rules, they'd all go crazy, one by one. Some might look like me. Some might look like that woman over there. Others might look like him, or him. They'd all suffer emotionally and physically and mentally from the same disease--systems overload. Yes there's a next stage, but will I reach it? I don't know. At the next stage, you purchase an air-gun and learn to shoot it. You buy a permanent sealant and learn to glue your mouth shut. You buy a weighted hat for your head. You are fitted with a semi-permeable membrane to speed the internalizing process. What does it take to stay healthy in Tent City? Or is it impossible? Or is that the point? It isn't possible? You can't flip facts. I'll have to wait til the next level to know. I'll tell you when I get there.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Away Away Go

A 3-Day Bar
The night before the big studio recording, one of my main collaborating artists received a 3-day bar from Tent City for missing a scheduled meeting. Aiyiee! I was in camp when he arrived to explain his situation. His zip drive walked off with someone at the library. He'd been frantically trying to retrieve the disk and recompile his graduate school applications when he lost track of time and missed his meeting. The camp adviser was lenient. In light of the freezing weather, he'd be back in camp on Sunday and they'd hold off bagging and tagging his personal belongings if he successfully filled his three securities. Mark's participation is crucial to the project. He's one of five teams, only three of which are prepared to go into the recording studio. I stepped in to offer assistance. Here's a guy who, in the midst of trying to drive out of a rut, lost his very last home due to a missed meeting? Seems harsh, but rules are rules and Tent City isn't the easy ticket we outsiders think it is. I offered him a place to work for the day, a computer to help him reconstruct his files and sleeping quarters for three days. It took some pains to set it all up. It meant borrowing a friend's old computer, installing Word at 5am, reclaiming my boat heater from a friend's garage and going to Tent City at 6am before making a 7AM meeting. But I just couldn't fathom losing another artist. The collaborations have been a significant part of the project and, after losing Giant, the resident poet, I knew I needed to fight for Mark.

Where? Where?
Giant, aka Matthew Barrett, left camp yesterday with no proclaimed destination. It was planned, but not long planned, his departure. When I asked where he was going he said, "Away." I knew he'd been having a hard time, not only with the camp politics, but with the anniversary of a friend's passing and with his tent-mate's impending departure. And by now I also know that even a sane, healthy, well-adjusted individual would break down given these conditions. You need to get out. The conditions are too much, too constant, too implosive. I'd seen Giant begin to turn offers down. He didn't want to go through with the collaboration. He declined to read his poetry at the Christmas dinner. He seemed both hurt and proud. This wasn't his first time leaving and it won't be his last. I trust he knows what he needs and is following a path. He'll be missed. He is missed. He was an upstanding member of the community who fought for what was good and pulled his own weight and shared what little he had and was eager to help and quick with a joke and a smile.

Coffee at Victor Steinbrueck Park 
SHARE consultant, Scott Morrow, heads to Victor Steinbrueck Park (the little park with the totem pole by Pike Place Market) in the freezing dark, predawn every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday morning from 6:00-7:30AM with coffee and donuts for the homelessHe's been doing it for 20 years. It's the way he connects with people on the streets. Every few years, he moves to a new location in a different part of the city. If you want to  talk to Scott, that's the time to catch him. I needed to see Scott about arranging community credits for Tent City 3 residents willing to work the Tether Gallery show on 6 January. I'd like to mimic Tent City life and need a couple of securities and an EC to screen people. If it weren't for the predawn coffee, I wouldn't have seen the magnificent sunrise! Ten shades of orange washed over Puget Sound and Rainier stood up in her nightgown and the Olympics, powdered themselves in a wisp to the west. Everything was a mix and marriage of elements, then the oranges darkened and magically became blue and the day began.
Audio Recording
Christopher Wilson, the recording artist, arrived at my studio at 5pm with a large silver trunk in his arms. It contained the majority of his digital recording equipment--audio monitors, preamplifiers, filters, noise reducers and power sources. I went to his car and helped him carry the rest of his equipment in. I had no idea there'd be so much of it--headphones, vacuum tubes, mic stands, silver cords, acoustic blankets and, ah, that little Brauner microphone like a little robot in its box and like a satellite poised on the mix stand. Roger, from camp, could have told me its magnitude and star date. While Chris was setting up, I asked about the equipment and about the kinds of work he does. He records classical music. When he was at Cornish, he scored modern dance pieces then moved towards something called electronic academic. I asked, What's electronic academic? He told me to check out John Gibson. I'm listening now. Shhhhh. Don't anyone move. Such a focused music. Isolating, heady. It's got something to do with the horizon, I think. One moment you're walking on water, the next your father is breaking the china. It belongs in a gallery. Would be friendly to an installation. Or partnered with an art film. One of Gibson's pieces is a laptop orchestra called Wind Farm. Six sound artists sit on the floor working laptops, three florescent bar lights placed on the stage behind, three monitors above show clouds passing over water, then turbines.

Oakley arrived at 6pm as instructed and the others were soon to follow. Three groups came in to record. Oakley and Josie Elizabeth Davis were the first pair. They recorded a loose presentation of their project, which involved photographs of a stream Oakley planned to take and a musicalized accompaniment Josie would develop. While their piece didn't appear to stem from a specific experience at  Tent City, Oakley's choice of an eagle and a running stream struck me as poignant--both powerful symbols of freedom in the natural worldLyn Coffin and Mark Miner were next with their prepared script, "Beowulf at Tent City." Unfortunately Lyn was out of town, but luckily the fabulous Vanessa DeWolf agreed to read for her. And Mark is such an articulate guy,  so able to convey the experience of life at Tent City in clean, clear language. They spent a bit of time reviewing the script and explaining the significance of the choices Lyn and Mark made and what a particular objects and actions meant. The last artist pairing was Jacqueline Jaurez and Vanessa DeWolf. They had an easy rapport and laughed a lot. They shared stories and talked about their ideas for a performance. At the very end, they tried a short improvisation with words they developed at their first meeting. That was exciting to hear.

3AM Security Shift
After checking in on the cats and resting a bit, I arrived in time for my security shift at 3AM. Quite a feat, given that I had, just moments before, been sleeping on a sheepskin rug in front of an electric fireplace with two black cats at my feet. I'm cat and dog sitting this week which means access to lovely, warm homes and sweet, furry animals that need my attention. I'm crossing town twice a day to visit them. Along with my many duties at camp and my attempts to prepare for the gallery show and listen for the Song of Tent City, it's too much, but I couldn't say no. Not only do I love all these animals, I need the money.

Alas, the sign-up sheet for Friday was "lost." When they reconstructed it, they forgot about me and someone else signed up for my shift--a shift I waited in line in the cold for, a shift I needed. So we had three securities instead of two, but with half the camp inside the church asleep, it made little sense to have extra securities outside. I offered to do a shift inside or fill a shift later in the week if that was needed. "So you're bowing out?" was the response I got. Ach! It's assumed, at all times, in all situations, that you're in the wrong, negligent, planning to be negligent, and should be made jump through hoops to prove yourself. The system is against you from the start and makes you feel as if you're in junior high school and being penalized for the mistake it is assumed you are going to make before you have the chance to make it. The whole world makes mistakes everyday and it is forgiven for them, but when Tent City makes a mistake they lose their home. That is the difference. But when one is working in a system where they cannot be right, they have little incentive to be conscientious or helpful and so have to learn other ways of coping. I understand why why people get frustrated. I myself need to get out and have been noticing that urge since I first came to camp. It's cold. One just can't stand around doing nothing, freezing their feet and hands off. One needs to get out. Go to a cafe, a bookstore, . The rules seem sometimes to be so roundabout and ridiculous, they seem designed to make you fail. They only way to outsmart them is by not being around to follow or break them, is by getting out. I signed up for three open shifts, then bowed out of this shift and went to bed. Before I left, I went inside the church to see the sleepers. I have work tomorrow. I have to clean house and make an airport run before noon. I could use the sleep. 

Going Inside
On very cold nights the residents are invited inside the church to sleep. Into. Inside. Walls around. Roof over. Into. Last night was one of those nights. It was our second invitation in fact. This time we accepted the offer. After giving up my security shift, I went in to see. It was my first time inside Maple Leaf Lutheran. I sat in the first pew, in the dark, listening to the concert of snoring. It was a mix of strange and peaceful and human, bodies all around. It made me think of the real and unhallowed sounds that would have accompanied that hallowed event with Mary and Joseph in the manger. People all swaddled and curled up on the altar, in the aisles, on the pews, sparkling paper stars overhead. Two men stood guard at the doorway, waiting, listening. The world outside stood waiting, listening, glistening and proud, as if just having exploded, as if just having stretched out.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Homeless Homeless Everywhere

I attended this week's SHARE/Nickelsville meeting. Once a month the group meets at the Nickelsville encampment, the rest of the month they meet at the SHARE downtown officeThis was a Nickelsville week and I was looking forward to seeing the site. I'd heard a bit about it and wanted to see how it compared to Tent City, where I've been living,  a couple miles to the southeast. Nickelsville is an unsanctioned homeless encampment in Lake City at the old fire station. It's been in the news lately because of the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness and because Mayor McGinn is working in earnest to find Nickelsville a permanent site. The meeting was congenial and well run. Credit is given those who attend, so there was a sizeable group, about 25, gathered in the community room, which is also a bunkroom. There were cots and bedrolls and bags of personal belongings lining the walls. It being just after 9am, there were still a few people in bed sleeping. Others were sitting up, working on crafts or reading. After the general discussion, we broke into committees. Half an hour later, we reconvened and reported on our work. I served on the Needs Assessment CommitteeDeputy Mayor Darryl Smith is asking to work with the homeless encampments to initiate an ongoing, anonymous survey of the homeless in Seattle. As with everything, the decision is considered and put to a vote. Should we work with the city? Should we accept the survey? Does it address our needs? What changes, if any, should we make? Who should administer the survey, an insider or an outsider? Copies of the survey were distributed. We took some time to fill it out and then talked about the experience. The survey requests information on your origins, gender and race. It asks about your willingness to find and keep housing. It asks about your sources of income, your impediments to finding housing, and your use of and need for social services. The city says they want to better allocate funds for the homeless, but to the homeless person completing the survey, those services may seem desperately far away or absent altogether. The incentive to fill the survey out is a gift certificate, dollar amount undisclosed. Our group of four was split. After much discussion, we decided, with some rewording and clarification, we could accept the survey on a trial basis of three months, if administered by someone in camp.
Dream Catcher
I met one the TC3 founders at Nickelsville. Falcon is an administrator at Nickelsville now. He showed me his dream catchers (he makes them) and took me on a tour of the camp. Their footprint is about half the size of TC3's current camp. Some of the residents live outside in tents, others live inside on cots. The insiders sleep in common rooms, a couple of feet from one another, on cots or bedrolls, with no dividers and no furniture for their belongings. They collectively share one refrigerator, one freezer and one tv. They are one hundred people. Pet owners stay together in one room. Cats and dogs, all on leashes, perch on their owners' beds looking innocently about. They seem healthy and well-behaved. The Animal Rescue League offered to license, spay/neuter and microchip any animal at Nickelsville free-of-charge. I wonder why, if you could live in warmth and comfort, you would choose to live at Tent City? At Nickelsville, you have access to indoor spaces, hot showers, plumbing, a kitchen with a sink, a stove and cupboards. With rules, come freedoms. More is required of you at Tent City but then there are more freedoms. The freedom to be cold. The freedom to be wet. The freedom to get rid of problems. The freedom to speak out and be heard.

Square One
After the Nickelsville meeting and tour, I went back to TC3. It was windy and snowing. The sky was in a dark mood. The fence was coming down. Bits of paper and bags were blowing about. A few people were sitting around recharging their computers and phones, eating, smoking, staring into space. I took in a handful of the Tether Gallery posters. I'm meant to be filling them with original art. "Want to make some art?" "No." "Want to try an experiment?" "No." "Want to be part of a gallery show?" "No." "What do you want to do?" "Let me think about it. I'll get back to you." It was cold. My head hurt. I was tired of trying, tired of being stressed out, tired of the conditions and the schedule and the need to produce something. Forget it. I give up. I can't do this on my own. I don't even want to. I have 200 blank posters and too few willing artists. It's not their fault. No one said they had to want to make art. I had hoped to organize a performance. I had hoped to make a film. I had hoped to construct a reading room. I had hoped to do so many things. But it's cold and we're sick and tired of the conditions. Our situation is leagues less than ideal and there's no end in sight. So maybe it doesn't want doing. Which is fine. Just fine. I don't want to be a ringleader. Or a misleader. Or a savior. Or a commander. Or anything at all. I just want to live and observe and communicate. Back to Square One. Hah. Square One. I spend a lot of time there. It happens every day or so. And it's frustrating and exhausting and confusing and makes me want to quit. How many times can you invent a project? I'm used to developing something and seeing it through. I'm not used to continually reinventing and failing and reinventing and failing again and...ugh.. all the many shifting variables. Whatever it is I'm doing, I quit. I have nothing to prove. Yes, I can be cold, but you could always be colder. Yes, I can be hardy, but you can get hardier than this. Yes, I can be insightful, but you already know everything. Yes, I know nothing. It's true. I'll never know your experience. It's impossible. And it's time to recoil now. Maybe in a day or two, I will try again, try to offer and receive, think of something new, but for now I quit. I'm getting too involved, too enmeshed. I care now at a fighting level and that's not good. I'm no longer in a position where I can help. I've been beaten down. And now I'm one of you. And here comes the song. I can feel it. Yes, here it comes.

I no longer notice them, the coughing ones around. Has it stopped? No wait. There. Someone sneezed. We're still sick. We've been sick all along, since before we began. I just finished a course of antibiotics. I got sick while I was on them. And now that I'm through, I'm sick again. Fatigue, sinus pain, congestion, headache. Oooo. I finally scheduled an appointment to see the doctor. I've just been sick too much. Like my many artist friends, I have no health insurance. If there's something wrong beyond what Country Doctor (clinic) can fix, I'll have to wait until I have health insurance. Alas. I'm just an artist. Expendable.

Tether Design Gallery
A designer-run gallery dedicated to supporting emerging artists, designers and visionaries.
323 Occidental Avenue South
Pinoeer Square, Seattle
Opening: Thursday January 6th, 2011 (6-8PM)
Regular Gallery Hours: M-F, 11-5PM