Before moving to Washington, D.C., to work at The Washington Post, I lived and worked in Seattle. I had moved there from New York. I had never been anywhere near Seattle or the Pacific Northwest until I boarded a flight in New York and landed at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport the evening before I would begin my new job. When I arrived, it was already dark and so I had no idea what anything looked like. It was only after I woke up the next morning and walked to work that I started to become familiar with my surroundings.
The first thing that stood out to me about my new home was the breathtaking beauty of the city. There’s a good reason that Seattle is dubbed the “Emerald City.” If you are a fan of temperate climates, bountiful greenery and proximity to water, the city is paradise. By the time I (and my now wife) left, I lived on top of a hill and could walk to multiple gorgeous parks where I could melt away from the city. But any route I’d take back home would also take me to a vast array of eateries, bars and quirky shops.
All good things come to an end, as the saying goes. Or to put it another way, the varnish of a thing starts losing some of its luster the longer you have it. Despite the beauty surrounding everything in Seattle, there are noticeable blights. For example, I would regularly see open-air drug deals in my neighborhood. Once, while waiting for my wife in the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, a man walked past me with a hypodermic needle in his mouth heading to a nearby alley, where I’m guessing he put it to use.
The city was also home to a very sizable homeless population, so much so that I was initially shocked by it. I’d walk past many homeless people enshrouded by gray blankets, sleeping on the awning-covered sidewalks as I made my way to work early in the morning. Even coming from New York, it was surprising to see homelessness so out in the open. I will point out that, in the time I lived in Seattle, not once did I ever encounter any problems or any threat to my own security. Never. But it is still shocking to see for someone new to the area.
Danish photographer Lasse Bak Mejlvang was in Los Angeles working on a story about wildfires when he first noticed the issue of homelessness in the United States, and it made him curious to find out more. Later, while on a different assignment in Seattle, he took the opportunity to explore the issue a little deeper. He contacted organizations working with the city’s homeless population hoping for permission to visit one of their campsites. One of those organizations, Share/Wheel, not only gave Mejlvang permission to visit, it invited him to stay in Tent City 4, one of the places it has worked to organize to provide homeless people with shelter
One of the things that struck Mejlvang was that many of the homeless people he encountered actually had full-time jobs. This made photographing in the camp challenging because, as Mejlvang told me, people got up early to go to work and didn’t come back until late in the evening. And while Mejlvang’s overall experience documenting life in the camp was positive, he did tell me, “it is terrifying to face the reality that people with a full-time job have to have a home inside a tent.”
At the end of the day, Mejlvang hopes that his photos will help shed some light on a world many people are unfamiliar with. As he told me, “It just seems strange that so many people at the same time have to live on the streets and in organized camps — we are talking about people from lower-middle class that can’t afford to pay the rent. Something must be wrong with the system.”
To be sure, issues surrounding why people end up homeless vary widely. This article, part of the Seattle Times initiative “Project Homeless,” goes into much more detail about the continuing situation in the Emerald City.
Dimitri Shvetsoff originally came to the United States from Brazil and lived the American Dream. He had a house, a wife, two cars and a good career. When the financial crisis hit the country in 2008, everything changed. Shvetsoff lost his high-paying job as a civil engineer in San Francisco. He lost his wife, house and cars, and he never managed to get his career back on track. He decided to move to Seattle and later ended up in Tent City 4, where he has now lived for three years.
“I have worked unskilled minimum-wage jobs for a long time now. It is quite simply not possible for me to find a better job. For the time being, I’m working in a church as a janitor and cleaner. I’m actually quite happy working there, but I really hope to soon have the money to move out of the camp again. That is everyone’s dream here. It is also what this place has to offer. It gives us the chance to save some money and eventually afford to invest in something. I hope to be able to buy a piece of land and build my own house some day.”
In 1980, Dean Spiker moved from Arizona to Seattle. Here he was educated within finance and worked in Seattle as a stockbroker. When the stock market collapsed in 1987, it was the end of his career. Later, he held sporadic jobs in banking. Since 2013, Spiker has worked part time because of back problems, which has pressured his finances so much that he had to move into Tent City 4.
“I live in this camp now, it has become part of my reality. It is hard for me to see a way out again. If you do the simple math, then I simply cannot afford to rent a place with the income I have. The house prices have increased so rapidly, and the wages haven’t really followed. I have never lived in a place where I have had less in common with my neighbors — however, I have never felt a stronger sense of community than I do here. We really take care of each other. People have prejudices that homeless people either have mental illnesses or take hard drugs. That is absolutely not the case here. We are just completely ‘normal’ people.”
Vijah Lih has battled severe depressions for large parts of his life. He is adopted from India and has had an unusually difficult relationship with his adoptive family throughout his entire upbringing — an upbringing plagued by traumas and abuse. Lih felt he had the choice between taking his own life or leaving his family. He chose the latter. A year has passed since he left, and he has lived in Tent City 4 ever since.
“Normally, I work 40 hours a week, and I still can’t afford to pay rent. The math is simple. If I work 40 hours a week, then I will earn approximately $1,600. A one-room apartment here in Seattle costs $1,500. The minimum wage is simply not high enough to match the high rental prices. Add to that, that you often need to pay three months’ rent upfront. The lower- middle class often do not have that money. And then, what about transportation, food and other expenses? Luckily, I have solid pension savings from before, but I will not get it until I’m 65 years old. So right now, I am faced with the choice of either paying for a roof over my head or for food.”
For most of her life, Theresa Huddleston has worked as a computer network technician. Among other places, she worked for the U.S. Postal Service for more than 12 years. Because money was tight, Huddleston lived with her parents in the family home. When her mother developed Alzheimer’s, the family was forced to sell the house to afford placing her in a nursing home.
Huddleston lost her job at the Postal Service and stayed in a motel until her money ran out.
“Unfortunately, I don’t have any savings left, most of it was spent on financing my mother’s treatment, and then later also my father’s. I have given up on finding work again, since it is extremely rare that people my age can find a new job. I’m taking one step at the time. I have a bad hip that needs surgery, and I have applied for Social Security. Actually, I don’t really know how to get out of this camp, but I’m hoping things will change soon.”
Joseph James comes from a large family. He has six siblings and a mother who is addicted to drugs. When he became a father himself five years ago, stress caused him to break down. He worked as a manager at a bar and drank all the time. He drifted apart from his girlfriend and moved in with his sister. Later, he lived in his car for eight months before deciding to settle down in Tent City 4.
“I usually work more than 50 hours a week, and I am saving now. I still have my children half of the time, so I’m working towards being able to move on from here soon. We are in touch every week, but I don’t involve them too much in my situation. They are 5 and 3 years old, and I don’t intend to mix adult problems into their world. That was one of the big mistakes my mother always made — making the adults’ problems the children’s problems.”
Sam Robertson is a former Marine and was stationed in Vietnam. He has held good jobs for most of his life, at the Hilton hotels among other places, and he is now retired. Five years ago, he decided he wanted to be a volunteer and moved into Tent City 4, where he now functions as a general manager of the camp.
“Right now, the average age in the camp is around 50. It is people that late in life, for one reason or another, who have been hit with financial problems. Many of them are not in contact with their family anymore, so there is no one to help them. When I was young, America was a proud country. A country with strong family values, where you stood up for one another. That has changed extremely. War, politics, drugs. All that has caused our core values to change.”
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