What's it like to have a homeless camp in your university?
Tent City 3 is sparking conversations about homelessness around campus. Source: Twitter/@seattlenewz

The homeless are everywhere in the world’s major cities. In India, an estimated 78 million are homeless, including 11 million street children. In Jakarta alone, 28,364 people were homeless according to a 2001 census.

Now try this as an unusual spot to host the homeless: The backyard of a university in Washington State, US.

As many as 65 homeless people lived at Seattle Pacific University for months, the New York Times reported. But there’s a big difference here: They’ve been invited by the administration to set up camp on campus grounds.

Tent City 3, or TC3, is an orderly spot on the Christian university parking lot, protected from government raids and sweeps. There are even rights and rules enshrined in a 14-page book such as no drugs and alcohol intoxication, as well as a front desk to register newcomers.

In the last six years, Seattle Pacific has allowed TC3 to set up camp on their land for three 90-day stays.

“Seattle is doing some things that are fairly innovative,” said Maria Foscarinis, the executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, a nonprofit legal group in Washington, DC.

“But the encampments are there because of the failure to create affordable, decent housing. I absolutely fear that they will be seen as the solution.”

The university benefited from the conversations sparked by having the homeless camp there, regardless. Students did too – one global development and sociology student, Emma Goehle, managed to conduct research with the people camping there for a university research project on homelessness.

“It does change the institutional DNA,” said Nate Mouttet, Seattle Pacific’s vice president for enrollment management and marketing.

Prospective students, Mouttet said, know right from the time they first tour the campus that “sometime in their experience here, they’re going to encounter what it means to be around homelessness.”

For students working his TC3 residents for coursework, it’s been a good learning experience.

When Micailah Moore, a 20-year-old sociology major, had to drive the 6-year-old daughter of a TC3 resident who has been rushed to the hospital by ambulance, she learned about ethics and liability involved in interactions with homeless children.

Moore, raised Baptist in North Carolina, also started digging deeper about her faith.

“I’m a Christian, and I think it’s OK to struggle and have doubts, but I’ve had a lot more,” she said.

“I want so badly for these people to be miraculously helped — I’ve gone through placing that blame on God, and being frustrated.”

Seattle Pacific isn’t the only university hosting the homeless. Two other Seattle schools, the University of Washington and Seattle University, have done the same.

In March 2016, another Christian school, the University of Washington asked the college community whether it would be interested in hosting a community like TC3 for the winter quarter, College USA Today reported. Out of nearly 1,000 people who responded, a 2-to-1 margin favoured the idea.

This hosting, as well as Seattle Pacific’s, give rise to conversations about a Christian university’s values, mission and their role in modern communities. To those in doubt, University of Washington’s president Ana Mari Cauce asked for their “open minds” to host TC3, and to ” take this opportunity to learn from the experiences of our neighbours”.

“Our educational mission and role as a public university call us to find innovative ways to teach, learn and serve,” Cauce said in a statement.

“It is my firm belief as a teacher, a scholar who has studied these issues, and a citizen of our community that hosting Tent City 3 is wholly consistent with our mission.”

The relationship between Seattle Pacific students and TC3 residents is a symbiotic one. As much as students benefit from learning about homelessness, so do the homeless, including those that come from generations of poverty.

Having escaped an abusive relationship, Krissy Deserley, who lived at TC3 with her 14-year-old daughter Genny, said it made her hopeful seeing Genny explore the campus and understand what education might offer.

“The students have become our friends,” Krissy said.

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