Stephen Crow said when he met the sweaty man clad in a reflective vest and muddy boots, it was a reminder of how bad things have gotten for people.
A construction worker, the man opened his paycheck for Crow to see and broke down in tears. He cried because he realized he couldn’t feed his family on his current wages, said Crow, executive director of The Ave Foundation.
Crow and others began The Ave Foundation several months ago with the intent of serving as a homeless outreach program based in the U-District, but the focus has changed.
“Now, we’re an anti-stigma, human rights group that’s by the homeless, for the homeless, and [we] want to provide whatever service we can for others. We want to break the stigma that we’re just a bunch of drug addicts and screw-ups,” he said.
The Ave Foundation is at the heart of a encampment in front of the U.S. Post Office on Northeast 43rd Avenue and University Way NE. During recent nights, 15 to 20 people have stayed in the sidewalk camp.
While called a foundation, The Ave Foundation is not a nonprofit and does not make grants to other organizations.
Shilo Murphy, the foundation’s board president, said that hateful residents, businesses and others have targeted homeless populations in the area. “We’re tired of being pushed around by college students and police, and we’re not going to sit around and take it anymore,” he said.
“We shouldn’t have to be criminalized for everything that we do,” Crow added.
Both say services and organizations that serve homeless populations lack leaders who have been homeless. “The mission and the core of what we do should be decided by fellow homeless folks,” Murphy said.
As a result, they created a seven-person board of directors that provides leadership for the foundation, with a requirement that three-fourths of the members are currently or were formerly homeless.
Board members must also place a high priority on activism.
Crow said he has a special connection to homeless people living in the U District; he’s been homeless since he was 12 and grew up in the community here. “These people are my brothers and sisters, and we have to look out for each other.”
The homeless community within the U District is strong and diverse, Murphy said. It hosts an “Ave Rat Reunion BBQ” every year, a family reunion of sorts. An annual Christmas party provides gifts to single-parent families. “We do these kinds of things because these are the people we grew up with. They’re our family, and we look out for each other,” Murphy said.
He said adults over 25 have more difficulty getting access to even basic services, because preference in shelters and at meal programs is often given to families. Waitlists for beds are only getting longer, and with more individuals sleeping on the streets every night, the system is overwhelmed, he added.
The foundation seeks to address these and a variety of other issues, including access to mental-health services and a rent cap in Seattle.
To solve the paradoxical cycle of needing housing to get a job while needing a job to get housing, Crow is designing a housing program that would help homeless individuals find work and provide a place to live, rent-free. Tenants would be required to deposit half their earnings into a holding account, and the funds would be released to them at the end of their stay.
“With this, individuals will have enough saved up for first and last month’s rent payments and damage deposits. This also helps them build the nine-month work and rent history required to rent in other places within Seattle,” he said.
Organizers have established a set of rules akin to those of Nickelsville, including banning alcohol, drugs and weapons within the encampment. The site is cleaned daily, and there’s always at least one person awake at night to keep an eye out. No sex offenders can reside in the camp.
Seattle Police Department (SPD) spokesman Sergeant Drew Fowler said that there have been complaints about the encampment blocking foot traffic, leaving garbage and squatting on property.
“Ultimately, we’d like people not to have to live in these encampments, but homelessness is a societal issue. This is an issue for everybody in our society,” Fowler said.
Fowler and Crow said relations between SPD and the camp’s tenants have been positive, with plenty of communication.
Even with some complaints, Crow said community support has been positive.
He said University of Washington students have walked by and engaged with tenants.
“What we’re doing here is so important,” Crow said. “For the first time, people are seeing a light at the end of a tunnel that’s been dark for a very long time.”
‘As long as it takes’
In September, Mayor Ed Murray announced an additional $1.5 million for services for homeless people in his 2015-16 budget proposal, as well as a task force examining homelessness within the city.
Addressing the issue of encampments during a recent news conference, Murray said he’s not surprised about the number of “increased complaints” about camps, though he didn’t cite any numbers.
“We have a housing crisis that extends beyond homelessness. The challenge that I’m going to put forth on this task force is: How do we become a model to create both workforce housing and [address] the growing problem of homelessness?”
With more than 2,000 individuals living unsheltered on the streets of Seattle on any given night, emergency shelters are at capacity, the mayor said.
“It’s an incredible crisis. It’s a moral crisis,” said Murray.
Crow said instead of investing in relief programs, the city should devote money to create a city-run housing-development program, where homeless people could provide the labor to build their own housing communities. But that will take time. Meanwhile, the tents remain on the sidewalk.
Crow and Murphy said the encampment isn’t going to be permanent, but both added separately that it will stay in front of the post office for “as long as it takes” to get the message across.
“If it comes to it, we have over 350 homeless folks who are willing to sit in and squat to protest,” Crow said, “But we don’t want it to go that far.”