This morning, the City of Seattle began the eviction of “the Field,” the homeless encampment at Airport Way South and South Royal Brougham Way. The soft, never-ending rain of Puget Sound poured down, soaking though clothes and gradually sapping body heat. Police, police cars, and police barricades surrounded the camp, keeping out protesters and volunteers (and press). About a dozen camp supporters watched from across the street early in the morning.
A group of volunteers, including camp advocate Cory Potts and city council candidate Jon Grant, are currently trying to reclaim a large Army tent that they set up in the encampment about three weeks ago after a fire destroyed three other tents. They fear it will be trashed. Chris Potter, Director of Operations for the city’s Finance and Administrative Services department, told the volunteers this morning they can get the tent when the campers are gone. Here’s a picture of the tent (behind the mailbox):
We've established a mail box for you all to reach us at:
747 S Royal Brougham Wy
Seattle, WA 98134 pic.twitter.com/84l1I2aBL6
— Common Cents (@Commoncents206) February 15, 2017
The Field, which has had serious health and safety problems, originated as a dumping ground for homeless campers whom the city evicted last year from the adjacent “Jungle” homeless encampments beneath and along the highway. Since then, the Field has continued to receive homeless evictees from other campsites—until this morning, that is. Authorities have not provided an alternative location for the campers evicted, though Union Gospel Mission—the religious charity that helped authorities evict the Jungle last year—says that it has 50 overnight shelter beds available. Peter’s Place, a higher-quality shelter, filled up this morning, according to city spokesperson Sola Plumacher.
Estimates of the number of campers who remained this morning ranged from about 25 to 70, depending on whom was asked. Plumacher said she did not know whether any of the people being displaced from the Field today were previously swept into the Field by the city’s sweep of the Jungle last year. The answere turns out to be yes, at least for two of them: Rachel Johnnie and Keith Poley, a young couple I met in October when the city evicted them from the Jungle (beneath I-5), where they’d been living for about a year, and into the Field. This morning, the pair could be seen packing their belongings again, preparing to to move again. They didn’t have time to talk.
The eviction of the Field is yet another round in Seattle’s never-ending game of homeless Whack-a-Mole. Campers say they could have managed the Field’s problems—which range from fires to rats to rape—with better resources and support. Instead, they’ve been scattered.
Yesterday afternoon, four members of city council—Debora Juarez, Kshama Sawant, Mike O’Brien, and Rob Johnson—signed a letter asking Mayor Ed Murray to hold off on the eviction for a week while campers tried to clean up the camp enough to obviate eviction entirely. CMs Lisa Herbold and M. Lorena González considered signing it, but declined after receiving an email from Public Health director Patty Hayes saying that the rat problem couldn’t be fixed until the campers and trash were all removed. Sharon Lee of the Low Income Housing Institutute, which hosts multiple authorized homeless encampments, opined in response that “It seems like the health department cares more about rats than exposure” to cold, wet weather.
Julie Moore, spokesperson for the city’s Finance and Administrative Services (FAS) department, said via e-mail that eviction was necessary “due to the growing criminal activity and public-health hazards, including significant rodent infestation and biowaste hazards” on site. Moore said that outreach workers have already “forged strong relationships with many of the residents,” and that campers will be able to store personal belongings with the city for pickup later on. One pregnant camper has been moved into a shelter, while others “have already moved to another encampment (don’t know location),” she wrote. The city “will actively monitor and mitigate potential impacts on surrounding areas,” Moore said.
She’s not kidding about the rodent infestation. Walk through the Field day or night in the weeks leading up to the eviction, and you’d have seen small, furry bodies scurrying in and out of trash piles and abandoned tents. The ground is mostly mud that, in the words of Seattle City Council member Sally Bagshaw, who visited the camp on Friday, sinks “literally up to your ankles” unless you stick to a makeshift walkway of pallets and wooden planks.
There are also serious safety problems. Last month, Seattle police arrested two men for allegedly raping two underage girls at the camp, according to The Seattle Times. Scott Lindsay, Mayor Ed Murray’s public-safety advisor, wrote in an e-mail sent last week to Council members, “Since September 2016, the Seattle Police Department has received more than 100 dispatched calls for service at the [Field] and responded to 36 significant incidents resulting in a ‘general offense’ report, including several serious assaults with weapons. During the same time, the Seattle Fire Department has been dispatched 41 times for fire and medic responses, including a recent significant fire.”
There’s no question that the Field presents urgent public-safety and health problems. No one knows this better than the campers who have to live alongside rats, mud, and the occasional gunshots or fire. Camper Reavey Washington and others have been trying to address these problems for the better part of a year, but they’ve lacked adequate resources.
Take fire, which in a tent city during the winter is often the only way to cook or heat. Washington has been trying to get the camp fire extinguishers for months. He says Seattle/King County Public Health donated four last year, but only one is left. We spoke with him in February after the “significant fire” Lindsay referred to. “Had somebody died,” Washington said, “they would have blamed us.”
This is the dynamic Washington and other homeless advocates see in the city’s stance toward the Field: Campers get blamed for problems that they lack the resources to solve. For instance, Washington’s been trying to get woodchips for the mud and gloves and strong trash bags for picking up litter, with little success. He points out that the very existence of the Field is a consequence of the city’s eviction of the Jungle; in fact, part of the rationale for clearing the Jungle last year was that by moving campers into the Field, police and firefighters would be able to reach them more quickly in emergencies.
Potts and Washington say that multiple city representatives, including homelessness “czar” George Scarola, assured them last year that the Field wouldn’t close until the opening of the Navigation Center—a new shelter that’s supposed to rapidly cycle homeless people into housing. (Moore declined to confirm or deny that.) The Navigation Center was supposed to open by the end of 2016, but has been delayed. The eviction of the Field has not.
“The city was in the mood to make promises when they were cleaning the Jungle,” Potts says. That changed once the Jungle was empty and the Field became the new locus of “criminal activity and public-health hazards,” in Moore’s words.
“So long as the city was able to move the targets of its sweeps to the Field of Dreams, it voiced no concerns over how the camp was run,” Washington and Potts said in a press release. “Nor did it provide resources to the original residents who have been tasked with taking care of literally hundreds of new arrivals.
“Ultimately, the city has caused the problem that it is now attempting to sweep under the rug.”