On a gravel parking lot on a city parcel spitting distance from Seattle’s border with White Center sit 17 personal tents and three open group tents. The camp is mostly surrounded by trees, but one side is adjacent to Myers Way South. Between the road and the camp is a chain-link fence with a sign that reads NO TRESPASSING. Its wide door is open. A cardboard sign on the fence reads “Camp Second Chance: another safe solution.”
C2C is a drug- and alcohol-free encampment of about 25 human souls, including a toddler, plus a bleary-eyed English mastiff and a few other pets. On June 18, the campers left Riverwood United Methodist Church because their three-month informal lease was up.
After a first new site didn’t work out, they moved to an unused parcel of city land, where camp advisor Polly Trout says she cut the chain on the fence so that campers could enter. Campers say they’ve been harassed by some neighbors and aided by others, and District 1 City Council member Lisa Herbold says she’s received complaints about the camp’s existence.
On Thursday the city served C2C with notice that the residents would face risk of eviction starting the morning of Tuesday, August 2. Katherine Jolly, spokesperson for the city’s Human Services Department, says they have to go because the City Council hasn’t authorized another city-sponsored homeless encampment and because the camp is adjacent to a federally protected wetland. “Establishing a large unauthorized encampment contiguous with sensitive wetlands is incompatible with the city’s environmental stewardship of this property,” Jolly says.
But Sally Bagshaw, chair of the City Council’s Public Health and Human Services committee, doesn’t think the currently allowed maximum of three city-sponsored encampments is adequate. There were, after all, a minimum of 14,681 homeless people in King County as of this past January’s One Night Count, roughly a third of whom slept outside. “I think we need more,” she says. “And I think the county needs to join us and have more too.”
On Monday afternoon Bagshaw and County Council member Jeanne Kohl-Welles both publicly asked Mayor Ed Murray, who is ultimately in charge of all homeless-encampment clearances by the city, to give C2C more time. They successfully kept the campers from being evicted on Tuesday, but there’s no telling what the encampment’s fate will be after that.
C2C’s pending eviction isn’t unusual. According to a city spokesperson, Seattle has cleared more than 400 homeless encampments since Mayor Ed Murray and county executive Dow Constantine declared a state of emergency regarding homelessness in November. That track record has put the mayor on the defensive with homeless advocates. (The county, by contrast, has evicted only “a handful” of encampments over the past few years, according to a spokesperson.) Just on our own staff’s commutes to work, we’ve seen encampments in the International District and Pioneer Square constantly come and go in a terrible merry-go-round of setup and teardown.
Why is Murray—an avowed social-justice Catholic given to quoting Dorothy Day—chasing homeless people out of their tents and shacks? Here’s the answer he gave SW reporter Casey Jaywork in May: “If we believe people are in a place where they are in danger, if you want to call it a sweep, call it a sweep. I call it trying to save lives.” But that humane gloss peels off to reveal a much more banal motive: Murray is afraid of “losing the ability to control our streets,” as he wrote in a May text message to Bagshaw.
But if it’s control the mayor is worried about, he’s missing the point. A city that cannot deliver shelter, the most basic of services, to thousands of its constituents is a city that’s already out of control. Those pesky homeless encampments are merely a symptom of that lost control, in the same way that wet clothes are a symptom of a sinking ship.
Evicting homeless people from what meager shelter they have is wrong. Period. It’s time to end Seattle’s longstanding policy of herding homeless people around the city; the only function of that de facto policy is to allow housed Seattleites to pretend that we don’t have shantytowns. The mayor should stop the sweeps. The Council should expand the number of city-sponsored encampments. And Camp Second Chance should get a long-term site to live on, whether on Myers Way or elsewhere.
A spokesperson initially told SW that King County has not evicted any homeless encampments. After publication, another spokesperson corrected that statement, saying that the county has evicted only “a handful” of small encampments over the past couple years. This online article has been duly corrected.