Tent City: a personal reflection

Birk was only 18 years old when he found himself at a crossroads in life. Separated by a significant distance from his parents, he was homesick. But times on the family farm were tough and couldn’t support him. With only a few bucks in his tattered trousers, he braved an uncertain future.

Birk’s hunched back and prominent limp were visible reminders of his bout with infantile polio. But there was something else about his 5-foot-6-inch frame that was just as observable. His young face boasted a determination impossible to ignore. He would do whatever it took to make it.

Birk lived in a tent city (of sorts) on the Olympic Peninsula. It was a logging camp. The near-constant rain and damp surroundings resulted in cold, miserable nights. Birk complained about bed bugs and lice. The red rash on his limbs proved that his bark was not inconsistent with the bites he endured.

On those cold, wet and lonely nights, Birk took comfort in the fact that there were other homeless loggers who shared his plight. He was also warmed by the motto he had seen as he made his way to Washington state. As his ship steamed into New York’s harbor, Birk had seen the Statue of Liberty and the core values of the country now welcoming him. This teenage immigrant couldn’t ignore what was engraved on the base of the copper lady.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me…”

Birk made his way west. He had no idea how he would survive, but he was convinced that he would. Determined to prove that he had what it took to succeed, he dreamed with his eyes open and prayed with them shut. If the process included makeshift living situations, Birk was not opposed to them. He welcomed help along the way and celebrated the companionship of fellow travelers. Community was a core value of his faith that he’d carried with him since leaving the fjord country of Norway.

I know Birk’s story well. You see, Gunder “Birk” Birkeland was my maternal grandfather. He died in 1976, but I can still picture Papa recalling his “survival” stories in broken English.

Fortunately, my grandfather’s temporary housing tenure was short-lived. Living in a transient community provided him with the necessary lifeline to save money in a safe environment until he could land a full-time job and a permanent address. Birk was involved in the construction of the first multi-storied building in Bremerton. He later became a successful general contractor in Seattle and built several homes on Queen Anne Hill. Would you believe a former mayor of Seattle currently lives in one of my grandfather’s showplaces overlooking downtown?

The immigrant teenager who battled a crippling disease, homesickness and transient employment and housing never forgot the path that led to prosperity. He was a generous supporter of charities that benefitted the homeless and jobless.

As I contemplate the ongoing debate between those who are in favor of Tent City 4 returning to our community and those who are opposed to the idea, I can’t help but think of Papa Birkeland. I’m forced to wonder how many “Birks” can be found in the traveling community of sleeping bags and tarps. What if such encampments were not permitted to exist? What if the unexpected loss of job and home also resulted in the loss of dreams of starting over?

Perhaps you are reminded of a relative, neighbor or classmate whose journey to economic stability or job security led through the wilderness of temporary housing. Does their experience impact how you feel about those whose names you don’t know and whose faces you wouldn’t recognize? Shouldn’t it?

Greg Asimakoupoulos is the pastor of Mercer Island Covenant Church and can be contacted at

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