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.

1 comment:

  1. Very helpful guide dear mimi! Thank you. This really elaborates & articulates the essence of a mere 3 hour "artist residency" experience I had at Tent City, inspired by you. I am now posting article/photos/video about that at blog. Can only begin to imagine what 3 months would be like. Great respect and gratitude to you! Blessings to all at Tent City, especially with the upcoming move to another location soon at hand.