In the drizzly cold of late November, eighty people empty two large moving trucks. They are in high spirits as they unload big, clear plastic bags of personal belongings, metal filing cabinets and towers of crates which will later be used for everything from shelving units to bed frames.
A.K. Mimi Allin, a small, unassuming woman, is among them, shaking out tarps, setting up pallets and raking out the parking lot.
Allin, a poet, is not homeless, but she has chosen to live alongside those who are for the next 90 days.
Through the end of February she will be staying with residents of the Tent City homeless encampment in the parking lot of Maple Leaf Lutheran Church. It's a project that the poet calls experiential learning, and one that she arrived at sort of by accident.
"I think this whole idea was about the poet having the experience, and if the poet has all [her] experiences here, but never goes into this sector, then [she's] not opening that to the rest of the world because [she herself] hasn't experienced it," Allin said. "By seeing and experiencing this," she said of Tent City 3, "I can place it on the map again for other people."
Last summer Allin and a friend built a yurt for a project called "From Mongolia, With Love," in which she attempted to mimic the experiences of a wandering poet.
Afterward, she didn't feel satisfied. The yurt had just been a prop and Allin didn't have any better sense of what she calls her "spiritual home." She decided instead to embark on a hermitage. She would mark out a plot of land and live in complete isolation.
Then one day a friend emailed her a story about Tent City. Suddenly, her new project began to take shape. She wrote up a proposal and submitted it to the homeless encampment. After visiting every day for the next ten days, she received a formal invitation to join the community at its next installment in North Seattle.
"It dawned on me, like that's where the poet needs to be," Allin said. "And you know, it was nothing like a hermitage."
Now halfway through her planned stay at the encampment, Allin and her fellow tenants have just recently figured out how to operate the coffeemaker and microwave at the same time without blowing a fuse. She gestures toward a small crowd of men collecting Styrofoam cups of black coffee in the community tent. "I think probably after a month, you [develop a routine] ... because there's only a certain amount of power we can use in the church, and [you learn] how to really get settled without tents blowing over."
The wind can also be a problem.
"One night there was a big flash and the television [in the TV tent] fell over. The television had turned over because it gets windy and wind is not a friend of tarps. Nobody is sleeping, and then you wake up the next day and everyone is grumpy because tarps make a lot of noise in the middle of the night. The wind. The rain. People are up. Or people are coughing. Sometimes I'm up, and it feels like everyone is coughing."
The weather has a powerful effect on the outlook of the residents, Allin explained, and one person's mood can be contagious. On this particular day the sun and blue skies are mirrored by the camp's upbeat attitude.
Though Allin describes herself as a habitual nomad, having lived in more than 40 different locations ranging from a boat to the wilds of Mt. Rainier, she still finds herself adjusting to her most recent change of scenery. The lack of permanence is unsettling, even for her.
"Sometimes there's no sense of place," she said.
The Ballad of Tent City
Surrounded by a sea of blue tarp, packed in with nearly 100 other tenants, Allin admits that her goals for the project have changed since she first moved in late November. She originally hoped to organize writing circles and to establish office hours in which she could share poetry with the other residents.
"I had all these great ideas in the cafe, and all these great ideas in my studio and then within the first few days [at Tent City] they were all flattened," Allin laughed. "Like okay, that little reading room that's going to be dry, where people can come in and take their shoes off, that's not happening!"
She realized that the harsh conditions of homelessness aren't always conducive to the creative process. Allin has since replaced her yurt -- a feeble barrier against the winter weather -- with a one-person sleeping tent, and is learning to resist the urge to attach her own meaning to the project.
"That has been really the most difficult part, to figure out what it means, partially because I'm [drawn to] solving problems ... and partially because it's really, really difficult physically and mentally," said Allin. "Every two or three days my understanding of where I am and what's happening around me and what might be needed and what I need to do to help, it changes."
Allin explained that writing helps her to simplify and reflect. She's chronicling her experience in blog posts
(http://songoftentcity.blogspot.com/) and recently finished an exhibit at Tether Gallery. The show featured resident artwork, sketches, short journal entries and the yurt in which she spent much of December. But Allin explained that this assignment wasn't so much about producing her own artwork, as helping to spark others' creativity.
"It would be nice to think that my own transformation has helped other people ... Me being the person that I am, it's easier for me to facilitate somebody else's art."
For some, the artistic process can be very personal and solitary. But Allin's work is uniquely interactive. It's about building relationships with the community and raising awareness, both of which she hopes to achieve by the end of her stay at Tent City.
"Being in the community, everything stems from that," she said. "Once you've formed and allowed yourself to be part of that community, you're responsible to it and it's responsible to you."
The project can be largely encapsulated in an interaction Allin had early in her residency. She remembers seeing a vendor selling Real Change and the inner dialogue that followed -- "Do I give him money? If not, why not?" It's a dilemma that Allin feels many people face when they see someone less fortunate than themselves.
Rather than evading her guilty conscience, Allin rolled down her car window and introduced herself, explaining that she had nothing to give at the moment, but that she hoped he had a pleasant day.
"We had a nice exchange, he told me his name and he smiled," Allin recalled. "...Eye contact is something. Get over the discomfort, [the homeless] are human beings...Being able to see what [the issue] is, and getting over that 'I'm ashamed, they're ashamed,' 'I'm guilty, they're guilty' thing, that like a fence, divides us, is important. [Let's] find a way to approach it."
No Place Like Home
A twenty-minute tour of Tent City 3 reveals an impeccably organized social order. Tenants are required to participate in community service activities, must keep the grounds clean, and are expected to attend regular camp meetings. The punishment for those who disobey is eviction, a sort of meta-homelessness.
At the front desk an elected security staff oversees the comings-and-goings of residents, dispensing bus passes when the budget permits. To the left is a row of Honey Buckets and a small sink that residents will sometimes wash in when the wait for the showers is particularly long. To the right is a community tent, filled with banquet tables, folding chairs and stacks of crates.
Halfway through the campers' stay in Maple Leaf, the kitchen has largely run out of food, except for several coolers, tanks of brewed coffee and a makeshift shelf filled with condiments, sliced bread and Top Ramen. Donations tend to taper off toward the end of Tent City's three-month stay.
The rest of the space is just rows and rows of canvas and blue tarp.
Allin explained that while Tent City provides a very necessary solution to homelessness for some, uprooting every three months can be disorienting.