This morning, Seattle authorities evicted an encampment of tents, campers, makeshift structures and RVs beneath the east side of the West Seattle Bridge. A camp resident and a city spokesperson both estimate that about 40 people are being displaced by the sweep, out of the hundreds of campers who live beneath and along the bridge/overpass. The city has not offered campers an alternative site.
The eviction of the ad hoc village known as Trollsville is a response to a recent fire beneath the bridge, in which two RVs were engulfed in flames. According to firefighters, KOMO reports, the fire started early Thursday morning after an “RV owner started up his RV to run the heater, but a fire started in the engine compartment.” A camper who tried to put out the fire said that if he’d had “two more fire extinguishers I could have gotten it out.” This is not the first time campers have asked for fire extinguishers.
SDOT found no structural damage to the bridge from the fire, but when a bridge in Atlanta collapsed from a massive fire the same day, city officials’ interest in removing flammable campers from the underbelly of Seattle’s infrastructure intensified. According to a blogpost by Julie Moore of the Human Services Department, “According to SDOT, RVs include many of the same chemicals that brought down I-85 in Atlanta.”
The area being cleared covers the median along Spokane Street beneath the West Seattle Bridge up to Colorado Street. You can see ride-by video of the encampment here:
According to city spokespeople, RVs will be cleared this week from the entire area beneath the east side of the West Seattle Bridge. However, tents under the bridge that are east of Colorado Ave. S. are not currently scheduled for eviction. Here’s a map showing the distance from Trollsville to that boundary:
Camper Tsiago Cross estimated that about 20 or 25 Trollsville residents originated from the Field and about twice as many came from the Jungle. Asked whether he knows where he’ll go after eviction, Cross replied, “No, I have no idea.”
According to Moore and campers I spoke to, the city began notifying people of imminent eviction on Friday. However, there was no posted notice until early Monday evening, and that notice was labelled as having been posted Monday morning. The bilingual notice reads in part: “Materials in this area are an obstruction of the intended use of this property, are in a hazardous location or present a hazard. This is not an authorized area for storage or shelter. Any materials left here will be removed by the City on or after the date and time posted above, and belongings will be stored for 70 days at no charge.” The notice says the city will deliver belongings to people or schedule a pickup time at the storage location in SoDo. The reclamation phone number is 206-684-2489.
These notices were posted by FAS workers Monday evening around the Trollsville encampment below the West Seattle bridge. pic.twitter.com/OPTXYQSBCh— Casey Jaywork (@CaseyJaywork) April 11, 2017
The city has overridden normal protocols that require at least 72 hour notice to encampments before evicting them, partly because of last week’s fire. “The City determined this encampment was a hazard that needed to be removed due to the totality of circumstances,” said Moore via email, “including last week’s fire, the history of fires there, the dense concentration of flammable material — RVs, vehicles, tents, furniture and other large items, garbage, and open flame sources (barbecues, grills and burn barrels) — as well as the physical characteristics of the site, including the low bridge deck and proximity to traffic (including within the parking areas and along sidewalks where people pitch their tents), and the damage (lighting system) and potential (e.g., bridge deck) to public property that compromises everyone’s safety.”
Moore says that because of these hazardous circumstance, the city doesn’t have to follow its regular 72-hour notice rule—but it did anyway. “Removal under [these circumstances] requires no notice or outreach at all. However, we effectively acted according to our rules by providing notice to individuals last Friday and extensive outreach with offers of services beginning last Thursday, following the fire.”
Campers have different take on what happened. “Friday [police] came in and intimidated people—they told them they had to leave, to get their stuff and go,” said Cross. But the urgency turned out to be flexible. “By the end of the day, they’d started saying, ‘Oh, it’ll be Tuesday before you have to leave,’” said Cross. He suspects that police did the morning routine “as a tactic, to come in and intimidate and get [campers] to move without haveing to deal with [providing them with] services.”
“They’re using the fire as an excuse not to follow that protocol,” said camper Rebecca Massey, 45. “They’re not giving us notice or a place to go or any real help moving us to an acceptable location.” The morning of the eviction, before police started moving people out, I asked Massey about the eviction and the help she is (and isn’t) receiving. Here’s her full response:
Rebecca is trying to leave W Seattle bridge homeless camp but had flat tire. Gonna try to put it on a trailer. pic.twitter.com/MFYLSuEXNl— Casey Jaywork (@CaseyJaywork) April 11, 2017
Massey eventually got some help with her car from a mechanic she said Union Gospel Mission hired:
Motor checkup at W Seattle bridge pic.twitter.com/BTEBteKmNE— Casey Jaywork (@CaseyJaywork) April 11, 2017
Massey added that there was some outreach to campers from REACH (I also saw a handful of them Tuesday morning), but the offers of assistance were vague and fleeting. Massey said four spots were offered at Camp Second Chance, a sober-only homeless encampment (and one which the city tried to evict last year, until pressure initiated by coverage of the camp in Seattle Weekly and other outlets prevented their eviction; the camp is now formally authorized and funded by the city).
Polly Trout’s agency Patacara Community Services is contracted with the city to provide services at Camp Second Chance. She said that C2C may not be a great fit for Trollsville campers, whom she has visited in the past. “I don’t think it’s very humanitarian to ask them to give up their homes,” she said. “It seems like it would be a better plan for the city to offer them a vacant city block where they can continue to be together.” Trout pointed out that Trollsville is already a functioning community, so why split it up? “They know about each other, they care about each other, they stay safe and watch each others’ backs,” she said.
“Camp Second Chance is an awesome community,” said Trout, “but we need fifty more” to deal with the scope of the homelessness crisis. And those communities can’t all look the same, she said: “People have a universal right to self-organize into communities that work for them.”
Monday afternoon, Cross and Massey both pled to Seattle council for help delaying the eviction. The only councilmember who took any action on behalf of the campers, as far as Seattle Weekly has been able to ascertain, is Kshama Sawant. In an email to city homeless czar George Scarola that begins “Dear George,” Sawant asked Scarola, “Please cancel the plans to sweep the encampment under the West Seattle Bridge tomorrow morning, and instead start a dialogue with the encampment’s residents on how to meet their housing needs.” Monday morning, she sent a staff member to observe part of the eviction.
Sources in city hall say that after losing an attempt to rein in the mayor’s evictions this past fall, encampment-friendly councilmembers are backing off the issue for the time being. Last year, the council considered legislation based on recommendations from the ACLU that would have required the city to provide encampments slated for eviction with an alternative location, but Mayor Ed Murray and Human Services and Public Health committee chair Sally Bagshaw were able to banish it into a legislative limbo from which it has not yet emerged. With the consent of council, Murray also stopped sending observers from the city’s Office of Civil Rights to evictions, though a mayoral spokesperson says OCR still does “spot checks.” A spokesperson for OCR said they couldn’t comment whatsoever, and referred me to FAS, the department that coordinates evictions, for any comment.
Seattle city council candidate Jon Grant was present at Trollsville Monday evening at a community potluck the night before eviction. Asked for his thoughts on the situation, Grant faulted the council for driving too soft a bargain with developers when trading upzones for affordable housing—an issue he points out is directly related to homelessness. “The community needs to organize around these issues of displacement just as hard as they organize around fighting the Trump administration,” said Grant. “With the Trump administration blocking immigrants and refugees from entering our country, the city is now pushing people outside of the city borders with these sweeps.”
This post has been updated.