Crates, tents — and lots of empowerment

Camp Unity now in Bellevue doesn't see itself as a homeless camp

Steve Wiggins weaves between a sea of blue tarps at Camp Unity. Drills buzz in the background and some tents are still being pitched. The front of a few are decorated with potted plants, wind chimes or other yard decals, though the space between one tent and the next is only a narrow concrete aisle.

“We’re an empowerment camp, not a homeless camp,” says Wiggins, executive operations officer of Camp Unity Eastside, a nonprofit started in November of last year after breaking with Tent City 4.

Earlier this week Camp Unity moved into its home for the next three months, the parking lot of First United Methodist Church of Bellevue.

Around 70 people live on site, says Wiggins, as he leads a tour of the site. Blue-tarps are arranged in neat rows, each organized with a number and name. There is a kitchen, dining area, front desk and office with a communal computer to be shared by members. Showers, wash basins and portable toilets will also find a home when Camp Unity finishes settling. In about 48 hours time, the residents have packed up their last location in Kirkland, and moved to Bellevue.

“We broke one down and set up another one essentially. And now we’re in the fine-tuning stages. Usually four or five days after a move we have to readjust structure placement, the aisle ways, many little things,” says Wiggins. “But we’re in good shape now.”

Camp Unity broke with Tent City 4 in November of last year, in part because parent group Seattle Housing and Resources Effort (SHARE) objected to randomly running members through a sex offender registry. Earlier that month a suspect wanted for first-degree child rape had been arrested at its Kirkland location. Tent City officials argued that while they prioritized safety, they felt such routine background checks were an invasion of privacy.

“We were just generally displeased with the way the SHARE organization did things. [Tent City] gave you a place to get out of the rain, and a place to live and something to eat, but really there was no improvements in peoples’ lives,” says Wiggins, a former resident and camp advisor at Tent City 4. “No goals were set, there was nowhere to go.”

Camp Unity doesn’t have a limit on how long members can stay with the nonprofit, but as a community they actively encourage one another to look for jobs or schools. Camp Unity distinguishes itself not only on its commitment to transparency, but also the number of resources at its disposal – services that empower members to transition out of homelessness. Those could take the form of legal advice, acupuncture or job training, resources that are more accessible because of Camp Unity’s small size.

Tents are set on crates, but Wiggins says he hopes to slowly transition into structures, similar in design, but with more headroom and greater durability. Around the perimeter of the encampment is a fence that Wiggens explains is in place because neighbors are sometimes nervous about its proximity.

Asked about the community’s response to their presence and understanding of homelessness, Wiggins said, “There is an awareness on the Eastside to a degree. But it needs to be grown and refined.”

He cites a recent survey that revealed there are an average of 406 homeless people on the Eastside each night. Camp Unity can accommodate 100 people and Tent City, now in Redmond, an additional 100. And though smaller groups can take 10 or 20 here and there, Wiggins calculates that 166 people will still be homeless at the current level of available housing. Often times when Camp Unity settles into a new location, neighbors will ask to tour, bringing with them friends or family members. And out of those touring groups more need arises, says Wiggins.

“We end up getting intakes and residents from the church community. It’s this phenomenon, people didn’t know they had homeless people living next door to them because they’re living on a relative’s couch or in a car in their brother-in-law’s driveway. It’s a much bigger problem than is commonly known.”

Still, Wiggins is optimistic. He notes a member of Camp Unity who that morning left for work as an engineer in North Carolina. Later, during conversation, he pauses to sort out transportation for a group of members who are headed to a job that day.

Camp Unity will stay at First United Methodist Church of Bellevue through December and it is looking for volunteers to help with hot meals in the evenings. For more information about meal coordination, contact Marsha Petersen at or 425-454-2059. Camp Unity also is looking for additional funding for other areas of operation. More information can be found here.