Homeless and Hiding in Suburbia

In the woods outside of Seattle, the homeless are setting up camp, even building communities.

This story was originally published on September 23, 2014, and is being resurfaced as part of the Homeless in Seattle media blitz.

The matted-down grass leads into a thicket of heavy brush, bushes, and tall trees. From the pavement of the Interurban Trail, which carves a path through south King County suburbs once traversed by cars for the Puget Sound Electric Railway, you can’t tell where exactly it leads. But you can tell that someone has been using it to disappear into the parts of Kent that typically go unseen.

Kent Police Officer Adam Ferguson knows where it goes. And with one hand on his weapon, he leads me toward it.

“This is Scrapper Dave’s spot,” Ferguson, a three-year veteran of the Kent PD, tells me once he’s deemed it all clear. “We call him Scrapper Dave because he steals stuff like crazy to support his meth habit.”

Scrapper Dave isn’t there when we arrive, but—presumably, at least—most of his worldly possessions are. There’s a broken office chair; a sleeping area complete with a mattress kept off the ground by pallets and protected by a black tarp; a few pieces of scavenged plywood; and a lot of garbage. “We’ve cleaned him out of several places. He’s very good,” Ferguson says. “He’s had six or seven illegal-camping trespassing charges. It doesn’t seem to faze him.”

Scrapper Dave is just one of the unknown number of homeless individuals who call the wilds of suburbia home. Typically out of sight, and almost always out of the minds of south King County’s growing population, men and women like Scrapper Dave inhabit the bushes, underpasses, foreclosed homes, and overgrown parcels that strip-mall developments and tract housing have yet to claim. On a nearly 90-degree summer day, Ferguson shows me no fewer than 10 such campsites along the Interurban Trail and Kent’s West Hill. He says they’re just the tip of the iceberg, and indicates that he and his Kent police colleagues regularly interact with roughly 50 known homeless residents—many of whom live in similar conditions. Many also have nicknames: Scrapper Dave, Arkansas, Coffee Cup Mike. Nearly all, according to Ferguson, are battling drug addiction and mental illness.

From Seattle Weekly’s office in Pioneer Square, our homeless epidemic is obvious and unavoidable. Men and women sleep in doorways; City Hall park teems with downtrodden humanity with nowhere else to go; a line forms nightly for one of the Union Gospel Mission’s coveted beds—by latest count, over 2,300 people are living unsheltered in the city. In suburban and rural King County, however, the problem isn’t as apparent. But that’s not to say it isn’t there. You just have to know where to look.

Much like Scrapper Dave, homelessness outside of the big city is just better at hiding.

From the Kent Police Department’s downtown headquarters, Commander Robert Scholl, tasked with overseeing the six bike cops who make up the Special Operations Unit, describes what his unit is faced with. In an office not far from the new Kent Station—a bougie outdoor shopping complex billed as a “contemporary, open-air urban village” where residents flock to enjoy burritos at Chipotle, movies at a gigantic AMC IMAX theater, ice cream at Cold Stone Creamery, and the many scented products of Bath and Body Works—he states the obvious.

“I think our guys every week are consistently dealing with homeless camps,” the commander tells me.

This, despite the fact that Kent spends more than $400,000, or nearly half of the city’s annual human-services budget, on homeless services. This, despite the fact that homeless advocates have been trying, unsuccessfully, for three years to open a 24-hour shelter in the city.

So I ask Scholl the obvious: Does the average Kent resident have any idea how many homeless people are camping in the woods?

“I would say no,” the comannder says simply. “I don’t think so.”

It’s hard to fault them, of course, considering no one really has any idea exactly how many homeless people call King County’s suburban and rural areas home. Tallying the homeless is tricky, inexact guesswork, with only two real methods of doing so. The best-known, or most-often-referenced, is the annual “One Night Count” of unsheltered individuals, undertaken locally by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. In 2014, the count identified 63 people living unsheltered in Kent—30 men, three women, and 30 people whose gender was unknown. Renton tallied 96; Federal Way 113; Auburn 97. In Kent, according to the count, only three people were found living in city parks, and another three living in the “bushes/undergrowth.”

While the time of year is surely a factor, what Officer Ferguson shows me in the bushes of the Interurban Trail suggests there are many more than that. The One-Night Count—taken annually at the end of January, largely by volunteers—produces what’s known as a “point in time” figure. Though the volunteers do admirable work, the resulting figures depend greatly on who wants to be counted and where the volunteers have the ability to look, given their resources. Men like Scrapper Dave can easily go uncounted. At best, the One-Night Count is an educated guess.

The other method for tallying the homeless is the Homeless Management Information System, which uses figures from a full year but counts only homeless individuals accessing shelters or similar services. If a homeless person is living in the bushes, in other words, HMIS data most likely won’t include them. Still, according to the 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report—a nationwide outlook delivered to Congress annually by the Department of Housing and Urban Development that includes both point-in-time homeless counts and HMIS data—54.7 percent of the nation’s homeless population lives outside major cities, in places just like Kent.

Ascertaining whether the problem of suburban and rural homelessness is getting better or worse proves difficult as well. Some statistics show homelessness rising in these areas. Others show it falling slightly.

“Essentially, the answer to whether homelessness is increasing or decreasing in suburban and rural areas depends on which data is being used and what years are being compared,” explains Julie Klein, a spokesperson for the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

While evidence and common sense suggests that suburban and rural homelessness has likely increased since the Great Recession began in 2008, the scope of the problem—specifically, how many people are living in the woods—remains impossible to know for certain. Speaking with those who deal with the issue firsthand, the only certainty seems to be that it’s more than you think.

“Anywhere that’s somewhat wooded but close to a road, that’s where they’re at,” says Carey Fuller, a 48-year-old mother of two from Kent who lives in her car and has become a well-known homeless advocate and blogger. “I’d say at least 60 percent of the homeless out here aren’t trying to be counted.”

During two months of reporting on this story Fuller attempted to connect me with several homeless campers, but none agreed to speak with me on the record, for fear of being rousted by police.

To be certain, Kent is not the only city in King County dealing with homeless people living in the woods. Far from it. Even in a sleepy rural community like North Bend, where Twede’s Café serves Twin Peaks cherry pie and a “damn fine cup of coffee,” homelessness—and men and women disappearing into the wilderness—is an issue the community has had to face head-on. North Bend has not participated in the One-Night Count in several years, according to City Manager Londi Lindell, so gauging the size of the city’s homeless population proves difficult, if not impossible.

In March, the Snoqualmie Police Department entered a five-year, $6 million contract to provide police services to North Bend. It marked the end of an agreement under which the King County Sheriff’s Office had provided police services to North Bend since the 1970s. According to Snoqualmie Police Chief Steven McCulley, a 20-year resident of North Bend, one of the first areas of concern was to address a transient homeless population that had taken refuge in the woods surrounding the city. McCulley is quick to differentiate between the area’s local homeless population—which he says the city is prepared to help—and the criminal transient population that he says mainly wants to live “their life of crime and drug use.”

“What was happening is we have this beautiful area, and we were getting a lot of reports of people getting accosted by transients,” explains McCulley. “We conducted a citizen survey, and it was pretty resounding that the criminal transient population was very concerning to people.”

Tucked between Rattlesnake Mountain and Mt. Si, North Bend has long been a destination for hikers and outdoors enthusiasts. The area’s natural beauty makes it easy to understand why. Perhaps it’s also no surprise that homeless men and women have found North Bend an enticing place to set up camp. Plagued by resident complaints, small-time thefts, and a noticeable uptick in used hypodermic needles found in local parks, McCulley says the decision was made to create what came to be known as the “Criminal Transient Camp Task Force.” Manned by three officers and paid for through overtime dollars, the Task Force’s goal was simple: to locate homeless camps in the woods and get rid of them. Less than a month after taking over in North Bend, McCulley had his officers lace up their boots and get to work.

Still, while Snoqualmie Police knew there were people living in the woods, the extent of what the task force found was alarming.

“Yeah, it was shocking,” Snoqualmie Police Captain Nick Almquist tells me in the cab of his SUV cruiser, not long after showing me a recently discovered campsite behind a local park, a mess that included discarded bandages, a pop-can pot pipe, and—as usual—a lot of garbage.

On April 1, McCulley delivered a report to the North Bend City Council. In it he detailed what his task force had encountered in just three patrols. He reported a total of 39 campsites found in the woods outside North Bend—areas described as “heavily wooded and almost inaccessible.” Of the 39 camps, 37 were unoccupied or abandoned, according to McCulley. Police made contact with four campers, and two warrant arrests were made.

In a PowerPoint presentation, McCulley went into detail: “Extensive amounts of garbage from abandoned campsites was spread throughout the woods,” councilmembers learned. “The largest area was 100 by 200 feet and was littered with untraceable stolen property, miscellaneous drug paraphernalia, furniture, brand-new and used sleeping bags, cookware, barbecues, beer cans, glass bottles, propane cans, and miscellaneous garbage… . The amount of garbage discovered will fill several dump trucks.”

Overall, since the Task Force took action, Captain Almquist tells me there’s been a dramatic reduction in calls for service and criminal activity in North Bend. City Manager Lindell says that at one time the city’s maintenance staff was picking up an average of 12 needles a week in local parks, and “now that’s down to almost none.”

However, Almquist is weary of claiming complete victory. “I think we’re near the tipping point,” the police captain says. “But it also feels like they’ve just moved further out.”

According to Lindell, the North Bend City Council has reacted accordingly, allocating “$30,000 this year for police emphasis patrols to focus on the criminal transient homeless encampments” and approving a mid-year budget adjustment to pay for overtime so police officers “would be focused on addressing this public-safety issue.” She goes on to explain that the city “spends a little under $100,000 a year on Human Service grants, and even this amount is difficult for a city as small as North Bend, but Council continues to make caring for those in need a priority.” In total, Lindell says, the city has a general fund budget of $6 million.

Wade Holden knows the stats—and the financials—well. While Snoqualmie PD’s Criminal Transient Task Force may have located the 39 homeless campsites in the woods of North Bend, it was Holden’s 18-year-old nonprofit, Friends of the Trail, that had the pleasure of cleaning them up. “We do a lot of shit most people won’t do. It’s always nasty. And a lot of times it’s very discouraging. You feel like you’re just pissing right in a fan,” Holden explains of the work. When it comes to the Snoqualmie PD’s efforts, he says, “I love ’em to death, because I think they’re on it. But they’re just kind of following the same trails that have always been there. The camps have been established forever.”

Holden has built a career out of cleaning up after the homeless. From the 1,600-square-foot home off Mt. Si Road in North Bend he shares with his wife Tania, Holden speaks bluntly and honestly about his operation, which has grown by leaps and bounds since he started it in March 1996. “One of the main reasons we came up here is I’ve always been real big on backpacking and camping,” says Holden, who moved here from Texas with Tania in 1994. “I got here when I was 32, I guess, and I was really into getting out and seeing all the backcountry stuff.”

But along with the area’s natural beauty, what Holden says he found was “piles and piles of crap.” In the beginning, he says, he encountered mainly garbage left by recreational campers, partiers, and target shooters—a mess that inspired him to start Friends of the Trail. Originally he simply hoped to break even. “We wanted to make a difference and fix a problem, because nobody else was doing anything,” Holden explains.

These days, however, Holden says he spends much of his time cleaning up after the homeless. Friends of the Trail has a six-member board of directors, and with truckloads of people serving court-ordered community-service hours providing the labor, Holden spends five days a week throughout the summer removing human-created waste from the woods. He says his personal record is clearing 7,000 pounds of garbage from a single campsite.

For Holden, business is good. Tax filings for Friends of the Trail indicate he earned just over $66,000 in 2012 as the nonprofit’s executive director, while Tania, serving as secretary and treasurer, brought in another $12,000. The nonprofit is funded through grants and various contracts; King County records show two agreements between the Department of Natural Resources and Parks Solid Waste Division and Friends of the Trail —one for $65,000 that ran from July 2012 to June 2014, and another for $100,000 covering April 2013 to March 2015. Both contracts fall under the description “Illegal dumpsite cleanup.” Overall, tax filings show Holden’s nonprofit had a total revenue of $131,217 in 2012.

“I never dreamed it would take off like it has,” he says.

Back in Kent, between Highway 516 and the Green River, lies a small, picturesque body of water known as the Old Fishing Hole, fed by precipitation from the local drainage basin and stocked annually by close to 1,500 fish, courtesy of the Rotary Club of Kent. It’s as Andy Griffith as it gets. Or as Opie, rather, as a small sign indicates that the fishing is “for youths 14 yrs. and under.” On a sunny day, the spot offers a pristine glimpse of what life was like in the Kent Valley before it became sprawling suburbia full of industrial warehouses and commuting workers—when the area’s natural agricultural gifts made Kent “the lettuce capital of the world.”

Not far from the fishing hole is another worn path of matted grass, visible from Frager Road, which runs parallel to the river. It leads into the shade of trees and a former thicket that’s been cut back by work crews—disappearing under the Kent Des Moines Road. Unless you have a reason to follow it, you’d never know what was back there.

But the path is well-traveled. Two years ago, had you wandered down it, you would have found the largest unauthorized homeless encampment anyone in the area can recall.

“That was a big one,” Kent PD’s Commander Scholl says of the camp. “It’s the biggest one I’ve known down here.”

Technically, the area at the end of the path is known as Mullen Slough, a 30-acre parcel in unincorporated King County and located on a Green River flood plain, formerly home to a privately owned tree nursery. But the local homeless population, and the cops who had to deal with it, bestowed another, more descriptive name on the area: the Carnie Grounds.

“There are a lot of properties in rural areas where there are a handful [of homeless campers], but nothing as large as this,” explains Doug Williams, a spokesperson for the King County Department of Natural Resources, whose agency bore the responsibility of cleaning it up. “I don’t think we’ve ever run across this kind of stuff.”

No one knows exactly how many people have been living at the Carnie Grounds, discovered in August 2012 by King County Rivers and Floodplain Management maintenance staff, at any one time. Carey Fuller, the Kent-based homeless advocate, estimates a fluctuating number of “at least a hundred.” County officials doubt it was that high.

“I’d go into the camps. I’d walk right back in there, because there was a lot of youth in there. There were runaways. There were old people,” Fuller says of the Carnie Grounds. “In there, it was a mix of just people hanging out and drug addicts. There were a lot of tweakers in there.”

What’s certain about the Carnie Grounds is what was removed during the cleanup effort, which concluded in October 2012: 25 to 30 tents, according to DNR officials, and a total of 11,580 pounds—or nearly six tons—of garbage. That’s six dump trucks full. Animal Control, meanwhile, recovered three cats.

Williams says cleanup alone cost the county $17,000. According to documents obtained by Seattle Weekly through a public-records request, another $10,000 was awarded to Sound Mental Health to provide outreach to the homeless campers living in the flood-prone area. Signs warning residents to vacate the area were posted a week in advance of the cleanup. By the time the workers with garbage bags showed up, the vast majority had moved on.

“It was a pretty unusual thing. This wasn’t something that my agency does every day,” says Williams of the cleanup. “It was a big event. And there were some pretty significant concerns that we needed to address appropriately.”

Another document, a memo dated Oct. 8, 2012—the eve of the full-scale cleanup effort—sheds light on some of the concerns in play, including “information from residents that 4-5 people do not plan to leave and may resist.”

“Staff has been made aware that one resident has a large stockpile of weapons. Not much more is known,” reads one bullet point from the memo. “This information is being given to the [King County Sheriff’s Office] Captain providing enforcement support.”

“The weather will not hold up forever; the sooner we move people from this flood-prone area, the better,” reads another memo. “We will also need to remove several hundreds of pounds of garbage—including human waste—from this location. Delaying the clean-up would mean the possible further dispersion of these materials.”

Even now, for those involved, the images of the cleanup at the Carnie Grounds linger. “It’s one of those things that just kind of sticks with you,” says Williams. Today, he says, the property is checked weekly for homeless campers in the summertime and less often in the winter, “because it gets really wet back there.”

Two years later, the big question is obvious: Where did the people living in the Carnie Grounds go? While a multi-agency approach was employed and $10,000 in taxpayer money allocated to provide outreach to the homeless living there, unfortunately, it’s a question no one seems to know the exact answer to.

“I don’t recall that anyone kept track of where they went,” offers King County Department of Community and Human Services spokesperson Sherry Hamilton.

Indeed, according to King County and Sound Mental Health, no such record exists.

“They’re still out here,” offers Fuller. “They just fly under the radar.”