With a population of just over 2 million and 10,000 of them lacking permanent shelter, the county that encompasses Seattle has more homeless residents than any other major metropolitan region in the country other than Los Angeles and New York, according to the federal government. At the last point-in-time count in January, 2,942 people were sleeping outside during the rainiest winter on record in a famously rainy city, 4,505 in King County as a whole.

In a city with a tighter than tight housing market, a city feeling the squeeze of explosive population growth, where residents have strongly resisted upzoningto create further density, developing enough affordable housing for everyone will take years. In the meantime, as recently as May, 400 people were sleeping beneath a stretch of Interstate 5 known as the Jungle. As many as a thousand people are sleeping in their vehicles.

And about 200 people, including Charlie Johnson, are sleeping in tents and tiny houses in secure, self-managed communities in the city-funded camps and in roaming tent cities hosted by churches and private entities. Another 38 people are living in their RVs in city-sanctioned safe zones and safe lots, without fear of being towed.

Tents and tiny houses that resemble garden sheds more than anything you’d see in Dwell are not housing, of course. Seattle Human Services still counts camp residents as homeless. But compared to emergency shelters, the camps provide a higher level of flexibility and self-determination, residents and advocates say. Because there are fewer rules and restrictions — they allow people to remain in couples, bring their pets, store their belongings during the day and come and go as they please — supporters say the authorized encampments create fewer barriers to transitioning into permanent housing and finding work. “It gives you the chance to focus on the real issue behind the homelessness, rather than focusing on where will my next meal come from, what will I do for the next seven hours before I can rest my head again,” says J.R., a camper at a city-funded site.

Meanwhile, detractors counter that the temporary encampments distract from developing long-term solutions and, though better than the sidewalk, are still inhumane. For the city, which declared a state of emergency over homelessness last fall, there are no easy answers. In August, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray hired Barbara Poppe, the former head of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness as a consultant to help the city manage the growing crisis. In February, she angered supporters — and many colleagues working on the issue — when she told the Seattle Times that she believes encampments sap the resources and political will that could otherwise go toward long-term investments in housing. 

“I find it horrifying you have children living in encampments and that is somehow acceptable to this community,” she said. “It’s just unconscionable to me this is a choice that’s been made here. That said, I understand there’s great pressure to have a short-term solution. But I don’t happen to think these encampments are the best solution.”


Seattle has embraced Housing First, and boasts several innovative and successful models. But given the scope of the need and the time it would take to build enough permanent housing, residents and advocates are saying there is still a need for provisional shelter, for options that fall somewhere between emergency shelter and permanent housing. We might call it “transitional shelter.” (The city calls the new camps “transitional encampments.”) More flexible than transitional housing, safer than the streets, cheaper than your average subsidized or market-rate apartment.

In other cities, most notably San Francisco, that need is being met by low-barrier indoor shelters. And in cities like Eugene, Oregon, and Austin, Texas, encampments have been established not only as emergency shelter but also as more traditional transitional housing, and, even in some cases, permanent housing.