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Rachel Belle

Seattle Homeless Are Honorary College Students at SPU

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From left to right: Tracy Arant, (student) Audrey Riddle, Lisa Ewing, (student) Alex Mikulas. (97.3 KIRO FM Photo/Rachel Belle)

By Rachel Belle

Listen to Feature: Seattle's Homeless Are Honorary College Students

When Tent City, an organized, vagabond community of homeless people, sets up camp in a new neighborhood, they are often met by disproving neighbors.

But last month Tent City arrived at Seattle Pacific University to set up camp at Wallace Field. Tent City resident Tracy Arant couldn't believe the crowd she saw when they arrived.

"There was close to 200 SPU students that were here to help unload trucks. By 10:30 in the morning we had done what would have taken half a day to do. They were happy to be here, it wasn't like they were told to do it, they were volunteers. The spirit of the day was just positive. It was unlike anything I have ever experienced."

Since that day, Tracy has been blown away by the generosity, warmth and helpfulness SPU students have brought to their camp.

"They make us feel like real people. There was talk of some students who weren't real hip on us being here, but I couldn't tell you who they were because everybody has been so gracious. You're on the bus and they'll start a conversation with you. They come down all during the day and hang out. When you're used to be looked down on for being homeless, or people are leery of you or afraid of you because they think you're gonna rob them or kill them or something. These people, it seems like they really do understand that we're them, just in an unfortunate set of circumstances."

The 80 plus residents of Tent City have basically been adopted as honorary college students for their two month stay.

"They gave us student IDs and they put $10 on each ID for us so we can go to the student union and get a cup of coffee. Ten dollars might not sound like much, but when you multiply it by 80 people? That's a chunk of change."

Every Monday, a student comes down to tell them about the activities of the week that include full access to basketball games, book clubs, a knitting group and yoga classes.

"I went to the foot clinic, which was heavenly," says Lisa Ewing, another Tent City resident. "I got a foot massage and a pedicure! And offered coffee, cream or sugar. I mean, I felt spoiled. It was heavenly."

Lisa has been homeless for nine months, unable to pay for rent after her husband passed away and her elderly mother went into a nursing home. She has spoken at a couple of well-attended university forums, like "Women and Homelessness," and is working with the city to raise awareness about the realities of homelessness in King County.

"Being on a campus, where the students are educating and raising awareness to the issues, is contagious and exciting and I couldn't get more involved. I'm spending all my time doing this, and gratefully so. To give back, since I'm not working right now, I'm sort of in transition, I find myself being such an advocate for raising awareness, and dispelling stereotypes, about about homeless people."

Half way through our interview, two students showed up and Lisa gave one of them a big hug. She has become close with junior Audrey Riddle. Audrey was one of the students who pushed to get Tent City a place on the SPU campus.

"We can divide ourselves and say 'Oh, we're not the same.' Through [Tent City] tours and through forums and making a meal and sitting down and sharing, you realize that the residents of Tent City are just like us," Audrey says. "Learning from them. Being able to have our lives change and inspired through tearful stories and inspiring motivation to get involved and to advocate."

Students serve a hot meal every night, which is the first time in Tent City history that the residents have been guaranteed a nightly meal. Sociology student Alex Mikulas says his classmates are really eager to help out.

"I think the students at SPU are a unique bunch in that they have kind of an outlook on humanity that people really are equal and people are on the same playing field. We can look at people in Tent City and realize 'That looks just like my mom' and 'She grew up in the same place my mom did.' You see so many similarities between us."

"The best part is it's not like it's an act," Tracy says. "They're genuine, in everything they say and do. It's really cool. For what it's done for my spirit inside? Words won't explain."

The next forum, about what homeless people really need and want, is scheduled for March 7th. Learn more about Seattle Pacific University's involvement with Tent City here.

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