Books | Winter 2012
View From the Tent
By Owen Sallee, Coordinator for Global and Urban Involvement
View From the Tent Miller: Thoughts From a Homeless Man
M. Barrett Miller
Lulu.com (2008), 152 pages
“How could you help? I’ve been watching you for a couple of years and I’m not sure that you’ve got everything so tightly wound around a good plan. Are you looking for some kind of forgiveness here? I am not your project!” (31)
View From the Tent is a candid firsthand view of life in a Seattle tent city, written by Atreus, a Tent City resident and compiled by M. Barrett Miller. The book contains correspondence exchanged over a period of years between Atreus and Miller. Though the exchange of letters was two-way, View From the Tent contains only Atreus’ writings.
In addition to its raw view of life in an American tent city, View From the Tent raises important questions about volunteer service and the motivations of those who seek to “help the homeless.” Atreus’ letters tell of a number of groups and individuals who visit the homeless camp: elementary school students, social service agencies, and church groups reach out to the camp in various ways. Some of these encounters encourage Atreus and his campmates. Others churn up anger as Atreus and the camp feel dehumanized, judged, or misunderstood.
The unfolding friendship between Miller and Atreus is an ever-present theme. At times Atreus writes defensively, refusing to allow himself to become the object of Miller’s self-justifying charity. Later Atreus writes back to Miller’s reaction to his “I am not your project!” letter:
My apologies. I should have known you had some insight into the challenges here. I was getting caught up in my ‘righteous indignation’ and stepping all over myself.
I agree with everything you said – sorry that I can’t seem to come out long enough to say anything back to you. These notes have become more important than I ever could have imagined. I was wondering what I would do if you didn’t come round anymore. That is an uncomfortable thought as I have become used to you and actually enjoy our relationship. It is a relationship, right? Am I a case study? Please say no. (35)
As Atreus’ story continues, he shares snapshots of his haunting history: broken relationships, mental illness, and the day-to-day challenges of living in a tent city in all seasons of Seattle’s weather. The letters also highlight the growth of friendship between the two men: Atreus enjoys walks with Miller’s dog, and the two discuss the possibility of publishing Atreus’ writings.
Another important relationship recorded in Atreus’ stories is his friendship with Father Jim, a Jesuit priest. Atreus has felt judged by many people associated with the church, but is encouraged by Father Jim’s willingness to listen and share life without judgment or agenda.
View From the Tent challenges readers to carefully examine motives for engaging those on the margins. Atreus has obvious needs and challenges but readers discover he must not be viewed as an animal or a service project. Though many people visit Atreus’ camp with good intentions, members of the camp can easily identify those who come with arrogant or judgmental attitudes, or whose words are not supported by genuine commitment. More than anything, people in Atreus’ place desire authenticity before handouts, relationship before help.
As Seattle Pacific prepares to host Tent City 3 on our campus this Winter Quarter, View From the Tent presents an important reminder to those who will seek to help Tent City 3 residents. Atreus’ story is not the story of all TC3 residents, but his awareness of helpers’ motivations should cause all of us to reexamine our intentions and perceptions. This book points out that those of us who are not homeless cannot “know” the homeless experience — but we can engage in authentic, truly helpful ways by listening, sharing, and serving with humility and friendship.
Owen Sallee trained under World
Vision's Vision Youth Initiative, and he was a youth director for Choose
Life Youth Ministries in White Center for 12 years, during and following his
time as a SPU undergraduate. He graduated from SPU in 1999, and in 2006, he
completed his master’s degree in school counseling at Seattle Pacific.
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