In its nearly 20-year history, the homeless encampment known as Tent City 3 has moved more than 90 times. Usually, it has been hosted, with a permit, by a church or university but this weekend it moved, guerilla-style, next to I-5 on city land in the Ravenna neighborhood.

The tent city, with 42 residents, was most recently at the University Congregational United Church of Christ in the University District. But the location that Tent City 3 planned on moving to fell through at the last minute, and SHARE/WHEEL, the group that runs the encampment, had promised the church it would move on Saturday.

It’s only the second time in a decade that Tent City 3 has been in an unsanctioned spot, according to a letter sent Saturday to Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan “assert(ing) our right to survival and shelter,” signed by about 40 occupants of the tent city.

“Our staying here until another host becomes available will harm no one, and scattering and arresting us will hurt many and be costly,” the letter said.

Seattle can often feel awash in homeless camps, especially along I-5, but most of those camps are not legal or permitted. This move by the activist group SHARE/WHEEL, which has been at odds with city hall for decades, forces officials to decide between allowing a big camp to squat on public land or removing it.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Seattle Mariners, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

Will Lemke, a spokesperson for the city, said the city is “evaluating and monitoring the situation.”

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“We have sent system navigators to the site to offer services and connect with the residents and organizers,” Lemke said, referring to outreach staff who focus on unsanctioned camps.

Tent City 3 was Seattle’s first, and perhaps most famous, tent camp allowed by the city. First appearing in 2000, its founders claim it’s “the oldest continually operating outdoor encampment in the nation,” and operates under a self-governance model.

Michelle Atwood is an elected member of the executive committee at Tent City 3. Atwood said that leaving the tent city’s previous location after a 90-day limit was automatic. “We take our word very seriously. It’s all we have.”  (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Michelle Atwood is an elected member of the executive committee at Tent City 3. Atwood said that leaving the tent city’s previous location after a 90-day limit was automatic. “We take our word very seriously. It’s all we have.” (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

It’s been featured in The New York Times and on NBC News. In nearly 20 years, it has rotated through University of Washington and Seattle Pacific University, but has primarily relied on churches to take the organization in.

Now, Tent City 3 is almost a picture of the past. Most of the other sanctioned “tent cities” have morphed into tiny house villages, with shed-sized homes and doors that lock, with the intention of elevating living conditions. Not so with Tent City 3; residents still live in tents and they move every 90 days like they have for years.

“I’m always concerned when we’re in the wind,” said Michelle Atwood, a member of the camp’s executive committee.

Michael Cleveland, who lives at Tent City 3, shows off his Mister Rogers t-shirt under the vest he wears to work security detail. Cleveland said he relocated to Seattle, where he had heard about Tent City, after losing his home in a fire in California last year.  (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Michael Cleveland, who lives at Tent City 3, shows off his Mister Rogers t-shirt under the vest he wears to work security detail. Cleveland said he relocated to Seattle, where he had heard about Tent City, after losing his home in a fire in California last year. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

“The faith-based community offers a layer of protection just in general that we really rely on and it’s not about donations, or access to hygiene … but when we’re on that property we’re safe. When we’re in a situation like this, that is questionable.”

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Moving 42 people, their possessions and the infrastructure of a camp — a kitchen, bathrooms, pallets for tents — every three months is challenging but the residents of Tent City 3 are used to it by now.

Most of the move happened Saturday, over the course of 14 truckloads. As of Tuesday, the camp was mostly set up with the rest of the portable toilets arriving at 11:30 a.m.

Camps without permits, among the 400 estimated in Seattle, have sprung up here before. In January, the city removed a group of nonpermitted tents under the freeway next to where Tent City 3 is now.

Portable toilets are delivered to Tent City 3, which has relocated to a spot along I-5 near Ravenna.  (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Portable toilets are delivered to Tent City 3, which has relocated to a spot along I-5 near Ravenna. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

During the move on Saturday, Atwood said the camp distributed flyers in a two-block radius to notify neighbors of Tent City 3’s presence, and many have come to see the camp and provide donations.

But there have also been some negative responses. One person tried to film inside the camp, but was blocked by a tent camp resident. The video, submitted to the “Safe Seattle” Facebook page, was posted with a statement alleging Tent City 3 was evicted from its former location because of a stabbing.

That isn’t true, according to Catherine Foote, pastor at University Congregational United Church of Christ. She said the street corner the camp was on, Northeast 45th Street and 15th Avenue Northeast, was safer and cleaner while they were there.

Joe, 31, and his dog, Ronin, live at Tent City 3, which has relocated to a spot along I-5 near Ravenna after the plans for its next site fell through.  (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Joe, 31, and his dog, Ronin, live at Tent City 3, which has relocated to a spot along I-5 near Ravenna after the plans for its next site fell through. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

“The reason they left is they are a community that keeps their word,” Foote said. She said the camp would be welcomed back in the future.

“We always keep our word,” said a letter signed by around 30 Tent City 3 members and sent to the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, asking for last-minute accommodation. “We just can’t afford to break it.”

Atwood said they are open to working with the city.

“If there’s another piece of property that is more appropriate, then we’ll go there. Give us the address,” Atwood said.