07/17/2013 12:21 pm ET Updated Sep 15, 2013

Escape Velocity at Tent City 3

Every three months the residents of a commune for homeless people called Tent City 3 have to move to a new site in the suburbs of Seattle. It's the law. There isn't much time to learn the lay of the land, if you live in the obligingly nomadic Tent City 3. There are four tent cities in Seattle, and in each of them the zoning laws comprise the only lay of the land you can truly learn. "Has anyone gotten the hang of this?" I asked one resident, during a recent visit to TC3's latest site. "That's the way it is," he said. "We move in somewhere and start looking for somewhere else." There was resignation in his voice, but it was the resignation of a survivor who is also a survivalist.

At the current site, there are two sets of tents, which are separated by a small hill. One set is for newcomers and one is for established residents. Newcomers share living space with strangers in very large tents, and established residents have their own standard camping tents. Some of the camping tents are available to couples.

Adjectives like "resilient" and "dignified" come to mind as soon as you've made the rounds at TC3. An old and maddeningly complex question comes to mind, too. The question is: "Can I help you?" What's most heartening about Tent City 3 is that you don't have to ask. The residents of Tent City 3 are already asking.

The first time I went to TC3 a couple of friends and I took with us a few cases of bottled water. It was a hot day, even by TC3's standards, and we hoped to find out what else we might be able to bring next time. A man with a beard that made his age very ambiguous greeted us in the parking lot. He wore a yellow reflector vest, the instantly recognizable uniform of an official helper. Some of the people who wanted to help us weren't official.

About a hundred people live in TC3, and not just anybody can live there. You have to go through an Internet-facilitated screening process, which counts as something of a perk at TC3. Sex offenders are invariably turned away. The city of Seattle pays for the screening technology, and also pays for electricity, Internet access and a handful of computers. Food is donated. Other amenities you can find listed here.

In the tent designated for computer use you can find people searching for jobs, mostly on Craigslist. "You get an odd job here and there," the man in the vest said. "But people see the state you're in and they underpay you. They don't think you need as much as everybody else." It's hard to know just how much money one needs to get out of a place like Tent City 3, to make independence more or less sustainable. One of my friends who accompanied me, a scientist, calls this need "escape velocity." The man in the vest, it turns out, is the resident with whom most TC3 residents share a bond, a comparable entrance velocity.

He graduated from high school and went straight to work: landscaping, construction, whatever he could find. A few years ago his mother surreptitiously sold the house he grew up in, and then she left town without giving him any of the money. At the time he had to move out of the house he had $1500 in cash. He had food stamps, but the government prohibits the purchase of hot food with them, presumably in order to make sure you don't spend all your food stamps in one place. His case supports the argument that, if you don't have a kitchen, a piece of pizza is a better choice than a towering pyramid of Spaghetti-O cans. His long beard, bad skin and teeth are deceptive: he is 26 years old. After a few minutes he had to leave us to "perform his duties," he said. He seemed skeptical of our persistent curiosity, which ran the risk of becoming too voyeuristic or too skeptical itself. During a subsequent visit to the Shoreline site, I learned that he was barred from TC3 because he didn't help during the big move. He was looking for a job in the city.

Before the end of my first visit to TC3, my scientist friend and his father, a political conservative in the Robinson Crusoe/do-it-yourself sense, talked with the man in the tent about the supplies we could bring next time. The man in the vest was sitting on a water cooler next to TC3's entrance. I was tempted to believe that he had merely had enough of us. But he was truly performing his duties. This is to say he was waiting to help himself or anyone else. Himself or anyone else, you think. In Tent City 3, there isn't much of a distinction. But the question remains: "Can I help you?" One hears this more and more often these days, and one hears it from all the wrong people.