SPU students earn an A from Tent City residents
When Tracy Arant moved along with Tent City 3 to an athletic field on the Seattle Pacific University (SPU) campus in January, she didn’t have any preconceived ideas. “When you’re homeless,” she said, “you don’t expect anything.”
Still, Arant was surprised when a hundred SPU students showed up on moving day to help unload the trucks and lay down pallets and plywood to keep the tents out of the mud on soggy Wallace Field. Administrators provided the roughly 100 Tent City residents in the self-managed homeless encampment with student ID cards, including $10 already loaded onto them, good for buying food in the cafeteria. The cards also let them into games and theatre productions and gave access to facilities such as the Student Union and the library. The school sponsored skills classes, such as knitting, and a book club, and made campus kitchens available for SPU students to prepare and provide meals to the campers.
But Arant said she would give up all of that for the best part— that the students treated them as people.
“It’s an experience I will never forget for the rest of my life. It’s given me hope because it’s the future,” she said.
It wasn’t what students did, Arant said, as much as how they did it.
“They were interested in getting to know us. Students would drop by when they had fifteen minutes between classes and ask if they could take a tour.”
In turn, Tent City welcomed students who wanted to visit them, not just those who brought meals of chicken curry, chili or spaghetti.
To ensure students benefitted from the experience, too, the Christian university, which has 4,100 students, put on a series of eight forums on homelessness, with Tent City residents among the presenters. Topics included women, demographics, affordable housing and advocacy, as well as the gospel and homelessness.
Outside the forums, the camp was a kind of classroom.
“The most important thing was that it broke down barriers,” said Owen Sallee, coordinator of the Global and Urban Involvement program. “There’s a difference between serving meals at a shelter where you don’t eat with the guests and sitting down with people and getting to know them. You find out that they’re not really that different from you. The differences are often no greater than the differences you might find with some of the people in your dorm.”
One big lesson, he said, was that many people in Tent City did not become homeless because of addiction, contrary to the stereotype. Students learned it could happen to anyone.
Students have engaged with Tent City residents in other ways. Student Laura Nile is involved in a book club with Tent City. Right now they’re reading The Shack.
“It’s kind of a Christian book. It’s fiction and we’re talking about matters of faith and life and literature,” she said.
Students and residents had a chess tournament last month. The winner was somebody from Tent City.
Support for hosting the encampment grew out of the university’s “Urban Plunge” program, which encourages students to spend several days on downtown Seattle streets with minimal money, eating at food programs and talking with the people they meet. In that program, “You discover you have a lot of things in common,” said student Tucker Rogers. Another program graduate, Ben Goebel, said Urban Plunge broke down stereotypes for him before Tent City came to campus, and that “For me the biggest learning [from Tent City] is how they trade off the leadership. They think they should all be leaders.”
Tent City residents pack up their camp March 24, but many say they’ve forged a lasting relationship.
Arant said she was impressed that students told her they will keep visiting Tent City once its time at SPU is up. Sallee, the Global and Urban Involvement program coordinator, said he’s discussing ways the school can bring Tent City 3 back to campus
As a UW student, I feel the University of Washington really missed out on an opportunity for its community (especially the students) by choosing not to host tent city a couple of years ago. I am so happy to hear about the generosity of everyone involved in this effort at SPU. What an absolutely fantastic story. Thank you, Real Change, and thank you, SPU!!
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