Two days after Melissa Burns’ tent encampment was swept by City of Seattle workers from the small triangle city park at Third Avenue and Broad Street, a small crew of homeless volunteers helped her begin to build a much larger wood and tarp structure half a block away, on a busy Third Avenue sidewalk.
The structure, complete with glass French doors connected to wooden-pallet walls, surrounding their interior furniture, can be easily seen by Seattle tourists heading up and down the Space Needle elevators.
“When in Rome, you modify, adapt and overcome,” said one of the homeless carpenters who built the structure, which passers-by have dubbed the “Tent Mansion.”
The Wells family, visiting from London, walked by the structure on their way back to their hotel from Seattle Center. They paused to look at it, as if it was an official exhibit of Seattle culture.
“We just said we were surprised it was allowed to stay there, right on the street,” said Sian Wells. “In London, they would not allow that.”
Melissa Burns is friendly to everyone who passes by with questions.
“We’re homeless, so we’re solving that problem,” she said. “We are creating a home here.”
Burns told KIRO 7 she’s a former children’s social worker who moved to Seattle from West Virginia. “We appreciate Seattle’s liberal vibe,” she said.
She and her boyfriend say when city workers swept them out of a homeless camp a block away, they moved to this highly visible space for a number of reasons.
“We’re not going to cower in our tent like we’re scared of the world,” she said. “We’re going to come out and live and we’re going to help other people, because we feed other homeless people with food bank food, and we plan to set these up all over town.”
KIRO 7 sent photos of Burns’ sidewalk structure to four Seattle agencies, including the mayor’s office. The city’s homeless navigation team contacted KIRO 7 four hours later, saying Burns and everyone else who lives in the encampment refused offers for shelter days ago.
The city navigation team says only 37 percent of homeless people they contact accept offers of shelter. Burns says few shelters accept couples to live together, and she and her boyfriend don’t want to comply with a typical shelter’s rigid rules.
“We don’t want to change our lifestyle to fit their requirements,” she said.
The city of Seattle told KIRO 7 they’ve gotten complaints about 400 illegal unsanctioned encampments. They say their outreach teams are stretched so thin they average removing only two to three per day.
Burns says she asked the navigation team questions.
“The options that I asked them for at the last sweep was information,” she said. “Where is it safe to set up? We don’t use drugs, so where would we be able to go and not have needles all around us, and where would we able to go and not get robbed or be in a position where if someone attacked us that we could still receive emergency services?”
The city says they expect complaints–they expect to reach out to Burns again, and they’ll keep offering services — and housing — before they give her 72 hours’ notice to move again. They say the encampment could be there for days – or weeks — because they prioritize encampments which are safety hazards first — and there are hundreds on their list before this one.
When asked if she would accept permanent housing offers, Burns said she would not likely accept them.
“We intend to stay here,” she said. “This is the solution to the homeless problem. We want autonomy, right here.”