Peggy Hotes looks like your stereotypical Bellevue mom: coiffed hair, shiny red pedicure, chunky jewelry hanging off her wrists. She has a modest...

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Peggy Hotes looks like your stereotypical Bellevue mom: coiffed hair, shiny red pedicure, chunky jewelry hanging off her wrists.

She has a modest suburban home in a high-demand neighborhood and a rewarding job as an elementary-school teacher.

But every night for nearly a month, Hotes, 54, has huddled inside a sleeping bag on the ground below Interstate 5 in Seattle.

She has chosen to sleep at the outdoor Seattle shelter and occasionally at Tent City 4 on the Eastside, she said, to better help and understand homeless people.

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What began as an occasional night cooking meals for the hungry has evolved into a new and unusual lifestyle for Hotes.

A typical summer day goes like this: She arrives about 9 p.m. at Safe Haven, a loose-knit outdoor shelter for 25 to 30 people who congregate around Seventh Avenue and Cherry Street in downtown Seattle.

From her trunk, she unloads the 10 quarts of coffee she brewed earlier at home and passes it out. The group, an assortment of single men, women and sometimes a few couples with their belongings in tow, gathers in a circle for introductions.

Though Hotes usually trades her strappy summer sandals and capris for long pants and sneakers, the Safe Haven folks realize with a glance that she isn’t truly “homeless.”

“But once they see that I’m genuinely interested in them, then I’m accepted,” said Hotes, who is divorced and has a 22-year-old son at home.

The group exchanges news and talks about the search for an indoor site. The program, operated by Seattle Housing and Resource Effort, or SHARE, had been using St. James Cathedral until the end of June, when the Seattle church began a remodel.

As the sun sets, Hotes and the others pick their spots and set up tarps and sleeping bags on the ground. Tucked into a nook underneath a section of I-5, the concrete roadway just above their heads, they are somewhat protected from the elements.

Still, the spot makes Tent City 4 — usually set up in church parking lots — seem like a hotel. Ambulances from nearby Pill Hill scream past at high speeds, and street sweepers kick up soot as they brush by. On a cold night, wind can creep into one’s sleeping bag; so can rats.

“I don’t sleep well,” Hotes admitted. “Things wake you up.”

Each morning, after storing her sleeping gear, Hotes heads to Tent City 4, now at Lake Washington United Methodist Church in Kirkland, to run errands for residents and talk to friends. After a walk in Bellevue Downtown Park, she tries to nap inside her house. Then it’s chores, more coffee brewing and back to Seattle for another night under I-5.

Her spare time is spent going to meetings about homelessness and helping the shelters locate services and future host sites.

“It’s the best summer vacation I can remember having,” she said.

Hotes, who teaches special education at Carl Sandburg Elementary in Kirkland, is a member of Evergreen Peace and Justice Community, an Eastside group promoting nonviolent solutions to conflict.

When the roving Tent City 4 moved to the Eastside last year, friend Dorli Rainey invited her to a public hearing in Bothell.

“She went to that one meeting, and the rest is history,” Rainey said. “She’s an incredible person to be doing what she’s doing.”

Hotes began cooking meals for homeless residents and last fall decided to spend one night a week at the encampment.

“One of the things we keep saying is that people from the community should come and see what we’re really about, and she’s done that,” said Leo Rhodes, a Tent City 4 resident. “Now she can share her experiences and get that stereotype about the homeless out of people’s minds.

“When she does move on, she’ll really be missed.”

Hotes said she’s never felt threatened at the shelters and has been touched by the kindness of those who have almost nothing themselves. Once, she said, a shelter resident noticed Hotes did not have a mat under her sleeping bag. She assured the man she didn’t need one. Later, Hotes returned to find a cushion carefully tucked underneath.

Another time, a man who stayed at Safe Haven went out to work as a day laborer and was hired permanently. Days later, Hotes said, he returned to offer her $20 of his paycheck, to put toward coffee and supplies for the shelter visitors.

She isn’t sure what will come of her time sleeping outside. She’s not doing it to write a book or get famous. She won’t guess what the long-term impacts will be.

But her immediate goal is clear: To get to know homeless people as individuals. To advocate on their behalf. To press for more programs and services.

“As long as I can do it, I’ll keep doing it,” she said. “I’m just concerned for these people. They have the real courage.”

Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704 or