“I lived at The Field and police swept us out. So, I moved to the Spokane Street camp and then police swept us there. Now, I’m here,” said the first man I talked with who’d given me and a friend permission to put up a tent near his RV. It was past sunset, cool, and raining. I’d come from a day at work, but I’d stopped by mine and Nick’s apartment to pick up a backpack and sleeping gear, and to say goodbye to Nick for the night.
“You all can put your tent wherever you want. That looks like a good, flat spot right there,” the man said, pointing, a camp fire blazing in the distance behind him.
I asked him if we could put up signs protesting the police sweep of the community that was reportedly coming in the morning. “Yeah, anywhere you want. We’re glad you all are here. If anyone else is coming can they bring cigarettes?” he said.
Community members have named this spot Camp Sanctuary. It’s on Seattle’s south side between Georgetown and South Park in an area far from any houses, and nearly hidden from the road. One man here told me that more than 60 people call this home. Most of them live in cars or RVs parked around the lot which the State owns. Many I talked to moved here about a month ago, having been swept by police from previous homeless communities.
That’s me just after setting up the tent with a volunteer and friend from Neighorhood Action Coalition.
And, that’s the moment they found themselves in yet again as we joined them Wednesday night, May 31. Police say they informed the community two weeks prior, telling them that if they don’t get out by 8:30 a.m. on June 1 that officers would be there to force them out. This has become the new normal in Seattle. I’ve witnessed two other homeless community sweeps, one of them just last week.
One man who used to live in the community had come to show his solidarity. He wore a baseball hat with a pin on it that read “JUSTICE IS NOT POLITICAL”. He told me that the problem is that the City is making decisions about homeless communities based on research done by “somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who is homeless”. He said that government leaders don’t know the people in this community. The man said they certainly don’t feel represented in the City’s decision-making process that has led to the police sweeps over and over and over again.
I’d come to Camp Sanctuary by bus, about 30 minutes south of our apartment. I’d made
Our tent the morning of the sweep.
plans with my good friend and activist Daniel Goodman to spend the night here. Daniel and I had communicated with two folks living in the camp and they’d invited us. I also reached out to Seattle City Council Candidate Jon Grant and his campaign manager Kate Brunette. I have a relationship with them since I’ve been volunteering for the campaign. They immediately replied that they wanted to join us.
Jon is a fierce advocate for the houseless among our neighbors. And, he’s spent his whole career fighting for folks who are living on the streets or being displaced by skyrocketing rent and home prices. When he and Kate arrived, they said hello to some of the community members they had already long known. One of the former residents who was there for support was so happy to see Jon that he walked him around the camp introducing him to everyone and letting them know that Jon’s running for Council and that he will be their voice.
Jon called out city officials in a Facebook live video from Camp Sanctuary:
“What is the City doing? The City is actually perpetuating the problem. We have dozens of
Seattle City Council Candidate Jon Grant and Campaign Manager Kate Brunette.
people here who have homes, RVs, that are about to be impounded by the police department, in a vacant lot that is surrounded by no residential homes, there’s no one here to file a complaint. This is a self-inflicted wound that the City is doing to our community members who are homeless. We can do so much better than this.”
Through every conversation I had, one theme stood out. Camp Sanctuary is a community, it serves as a support network, a place to find hope and solidarity. One man I talked to has been homeless 23 years. He says it would be hard to go back to sleeping inside again without other folks from this community living near him.
I talked to a houseless and disabled U.S. war veteran who said the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs did not care for him, but his homeless community has helped him find meaning and support in his life. Another man told me that he lives in this community in order to stay sober because going back to his family of users would mean he would be susceptible to that. That’s not to say drugs aren’t used in Seattle’s homeless population, they are. But, that’s true of other communities in our city too.
We found ourselves at Camp Sanctuary the same day that the headline of The Seattle Times proclaimed the horrific news that deaths of homeless people are on the rise in our city, with 48 people dead already this year between January 1 and April 30. The following day, the Times led with another devastating headline that there are nearly 12,000 homeless folks in King County. The tracking measures are imperfect, but that’s somewhere around a 10% increase over last year. This is a growing crisis.
The crisis is obvious the moment I walk out the door of our apartment. Take for example my walk to get to the bus as I was heading to Camp Sanctuary. I passed one man sleeping on the sidewalk, steps from our apartment on Capitol Hill. Once I was downtown, people lined the sidewalk wearing large bags, pushing carts carrying life necessities, and holding signs. Some of them asked me for money as I waited at the bus stop.
Last week when Nick and I went to the grocery store, we saw the anger about the housing crisis on a sticker pasted prominently on a refrigerator. It was a photo of our current Mayor Ed Murray with the angry, sarcastic words “BUILD MORE HOUSING FOR RICH PEOPLE”.
Jon, Kate, Daniel and I stayed in a five-person tent. As we went to sleep with the rain pattering outside, we talked about ideas around how to approach and end our city’s crisis. We discussed treating the immediate needs first, providing medical care, social workers, and more on the site of the camps. Then, have those professionals get to know the residents over a period of weeks or even longer so that they can gain understanding of what the best next move is for each individual. Only once that stabilization has happened, that’s when we can think about moving folks to housing, if that’s indeed what they want. Otherwise, the city could create more sanctioned places for folks to form communities like this one, but with appropriate city services like trash.
During our bedtime conversation I learned that Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien introduced legislation that would have halted the homeless camp police sweeps. But, shortly after O’Brien introduced that measure, it died because of lack of support from other council members.
We woke around 5:00 this morning to the frenzied sound of folks in Camp Sanctuary trying to gather their things ahead of the 8:30 a.m. police-imposed deadline. Some folks were moving out their RVs or cars. Others had RVs and cars that are not in driving condition and would have to be towed to get them out. Kate made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for everyone that wanted one. Neighborhood Action Coalition volunteers brought support signs and coffee.
By 8:00 a group of about 30 people, residents and their supporters, had gathered and were standing in a circle–a community meeting. An organizer with Nicklesville had come to offer his advice.
“The City expects you to be powerless and just move when they come to sweep these camps. But, you can change the way they view you if you decide to stay here and take a stand!,” he said. Nicklesville started as an organization advocating for homeless folks after residents of a camp refused to leave until they were granted permission to stay.
The group entered a debate about the best approach to the situation—to go, or to stay and resist the police sweep. There were mixed reactions as some folks didn’t have a choice to try to stay because they are already facing serious records. The group continued talking, but it was perhaps too late, the police were already arriving.
I saw one SUV, then two SUVs, three, then I lost count. Officers stood outside the gate of the community for some time, talking with one of the residents who’d gone out to speak with them. These are photos I snapped during that time and as police entered:
The officer who appeared to be in the lead of the force, stopped just inside the gate and talked to a few of the residents. He told them that police had already gone out of their way to give them two weeks notice about the sweep. He told them that he would allow them more time today to move their things, or to find help to move their things.
But, things sounded really daunting after that. One elderly woman who lives in an RV at the camp asked the officer where she could move her home. The officer replied saying that he wasn’t there to help them find a place to go, that that was beyond the scope of his work and that they’d have to find a place on their own. He mentioned that around the city there are spots to park RVs for 72 hours, but he said he didn’t know where they were. He mentioned nothing about permanent parking spots for folks that need a place to live longer than 72 hours.
I heard chatter among the residents about different places they might try to go to, but one thing was clear. They were not going to be able to stick together as an entire community. What the police were doing here was tearing apart a community and support network, a unified voice that may no longer be unified.
So, the police will give you a few more hours to vacate your community, but good luck finding a new spot and good luck staying there very long before police come to sweep that location too.
Shortly after the sweep began, a day-long gong ringing ceremony got underway downtown at City Hall to focus attention on the nearly 12,000 people experiencing homelessness here. This is what the event page looked like on Facebook:
I don’t have the answer to the homeless crisis. But, I know the answer is not continuing to sweep these communities without first taking weeks, or even months to get to know the folks living there, what they want, what their individual struggles are, creating places to set up community elsewhere and finding ways we can all work together to achieve those goals. We have to start with getting shoulder-to-shoulder and realizing that we are all part of this city. The suffering of the homeless as we continue to displace them and strip them from community is our issue to work on, and urgently.