Tent City 3 at Seattle Pacific: What I learned as a student researcher
Micailah Moore, a sociology student at Seattle Pacific, recently spoke about Tent City 3’s recent three-month stay on campus in a New York Times article about homelessness in Seattle. A student researcher, Moore interviewed several Tent City 3 residents during their time at SPU.
“No. No. I’m sick. I’ve been sick all night. I think I need an ambulance. Can you call for me?”
His voice was weak and shaky. I was terrified. I’d never called an ambulance before. Not wanting to break any of Tent City’s rules, I ran to the resident on security duty and asked them to call an ambulance.
I’d been interviewing Tent City 3 residents for a research project when Bill’s 6-year-old daughter told me her daddy was sick. When the ambulance came, seeing that Lily was comfortable with me, I was asked to take her to the hospital. In a perfect world, someone would have been there to watch her. However, there was no protocol in place for this situation. It was up to me to step up and be a neighbor. I’m so glad I was there.
It was up to me to step up and be a neighbor. I’m so glad I was there.
Tent City 3 is a self-managed community of men and women experiencing homelessness. In November 2017, over 300 students and neighbors helped them move on campus in the parking lot between McKenna Hall and the SPU bookstore. TC3 residents follow a strict code of conduct around sobriety and community standards, and they generally move to a new location every three months. SPU hosted TC3 in 2012, 2015, and most recently from late Autumn Quarter 2017 to early Winter Quarter 2018.
As a sociology student, I had the opportunity to participate in a research team, gathering stories in order to understand the lives of Tent City residents. To learn more about the camp, I visited every day for the first few weeks, playing with kids, walking dogs, and chatting about the purpose of our research project.
I hadn’t been sure if Tent City 3 residents would have the energy to form relationships with me because of all of the difficulties they faced. I was wrong. When I stopped by after winter break, every resident I saw was genuinely interested in my trip to see family and how I had done on my finals. I was surprised by the reciprocity of relationships I experienced. TC3 became family. My interviews with residents were mostly focused on their stories, but afterward every resident asked me about my own life and studies.
As a person of faith, I am reminded of Jesus’ commandment to love my neighbors. This proved to be much more challenging than I thought it would be. I felt prepared to do the research because I took a class on homelessness last spring with Karen Snedker, associate professor of sociology. Actually interacting with TC3 residents, though, was a totally different experience. Nothing can really prepare someone for research in a vulnerable population. To listen to their stories is exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.
There were days when I didn’t want to visit Tent City. The burdens of my friends without homes were so heavy. One resident was taking care of her 2-year-old grandson, because his parents didn’t want to deal with him. Another resident had been homeless since the age of 6, and now is homeless with a 6-year-old daughter. Some days I did not have the energy to walk alongside my friends facing so much hardship. As a student, I had to balance homework, tests, and my own mental health with the emotional turmoil of listening to the real life struggles my friends were facing.
Because of the days when it was difficult to visit Tent City, I realized that I’m not passionate about homelessness. I’m passionate about people. People shouldn’t be homeless. It’s not about something just for people who are “into” certain causes. For homelessness to be eradicated, it must be everyone’s problem.
For homelessness to be eradicated, it must be everyone’s problem.
Because of this experience, Jesus’ commandment to love my neighbor takes on a whole new meaning for me. Now, when I see someone holding a cardboard sign, I don’t just give them some change. I stop. I take time to ask about their lives. If I’m driving, I share something with them — a smile, a handshake. I ask their names. Most importantly, I see them as people with something to say, people who have something wonderful to offer the world.
I’ll always remember the hug I got from Bill when he and Lily were accepted into housing. He buried me in his arms and we cried, praising God for providing them a place to stay. If I would not have listened to Bill’s story, and been there to take Lily to the hospital, that moment of celebration and prayer wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful.
Victor Hugo wrote “to love another person is to see the face of God.” Though my faith was challenged by doing this research, my idea of God has expanded. It now includes the reflection I see in Tent City 3 residents’ stories. I am so grateful that I will no longer miss an opportunity to love my neighbors, with or without homes, and to see God through them.
For more on how students are engaging in issues of housing and homelessness, read senior Hannah Evans’ reflection on taking part in advocacy efforts at the Washington state capital.