When I arrived at the southbound onramp for I-5 in Northgate, 14 of the more than 20 tents that had cropped up since early November remained. The sweep was scheduled for 9 a.m., but at 8:30 a.m., the camp stood still and silent in the rain.
Matt Lang, an organizer from the Transit Riders Union, had just arrived. A couple of SDOT trucks and a police car were parked along the road. Yellow police tape ran the length of the area.
Stephanie Angelis, 32, an efficiently fearless woman from Homeless Help – Direct Action, emerged from a van parked up the road with a large box of Thriftway sandwiches. She looked me up and down. “You going to help?” It wasn’t really a question.
I followed her across the mud and up the hill to carry hot Starbucks coffee and water to the campers.
She nodded toward the cleanup vehicles. “I told them to back off because we’re giving them breakfast first.”
Her group, just a few months old but growing, has gotten to know the campers. Angelis walked around the tents, rousing people by name.
Over previous weeks, Homeless Help had laid down straw to help people navigate the mud. They fed folks and talked to them about services. They arranged for Seattle Public Utilities to pick up trash that campers piled in bags by the side of the road.
But the same day SPU said “yes” to a trash pick-up, the camp was posted for clearance. The SPU trucks never came. Angelis said that a half-dozen emails to Mayor Durkan went unanswered.
Her group of Shoreline citizens took the trash to the dump themselves.
One of the first campers to emerge from his tent was Cory, 36, who came to Seattle from Colorado about a month ago to visit his daughter. Sleeping in his car, Cory got picked up on a warrant and went to jail for a few days.
The car was impounded and sold, and his belongings and identification got lost along the way. He says the city wouldn’t let him near any of that. Now, Cory is here.
“The roughest part is the mud,” he explained. “It’s a good community. People help each other. Starbucks helps with hot water. McDonalds has been pretty decent. We’re human, too. We bleed and breathe like everybody else. We’re not monsters.”
Right about then, sweep coordinator Officer Newburn told us it was time to move to the other side of the police tape. Lang and I, joined now by the “Zelig”-like activist/artist Ed Mast, moved up to watch from the road.
Angelis and her small crew continued as if they hadn’t heard. Feeding people. Helping them pack. Offering advice.
Off to the side, I chatted up Will Lemke, the director of communications for Seattle’s Homeless Response. He said that while there were a few spots at the Navigation Center, six openings at DESC and a few more at First Presbyterian, no one here had accepted shelter so far.
I asked Lemke to tell me about Nav2. “That’s more of an internal term, since they’re not separate from the Navigation Team. But those are teams with more police that focus on sidewalk obstructions. Especially visual impairments and what-not.”
This would have been the team that showed up with four cops to clear away the tents in front of Real Change recently.
By the next day, everyone returned. Two weeks later, the encampment on our sidewalk has only grown.
By 9:30 a.m., the Navigation Team had arrived at Northgate, along with at least seven cops. They mostly hung back while the people from Homeless Help, now joined by Lang and Mast, helped people carry belongings to the clearance perimeter.
Most had no clear ideas about where they might go. My gut was that they, like the campers in front of Real Change, would simply return.
Meanwhile, Homeless Help – Direct Action can be found on Facebook, and are looking for helping hands. Their name says it all.
“Safe Seattle [A Facebook site] is a hate group,” says Angelis. “But if they’re gonna talk shit, I’m gonna DO shit.”
They could use your help.
Tim Harris is the Founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace.
Read the full Jan. 16 - 22 issue.
Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice. Since 1994 our award-winning weekly newspaper has provided an immediate employment opportunity for people who are homeless and low income. Learn more about Real Change.