Camp Second Chance is, if anything, one of this city’s more unlikely success stories. What began as a rogue rebellion against SHARE management — and briefly aspired to be the city’s first self-managed encampment for active drug users — has evolved into an inspiring model for what a city-sanctioned homeless encampment can look like.
Led by formerly homeless Eric Davis, with case management and contract services provided by the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), the tents at Camp Second Chance have been replaced by tiny houses.
The camp is clean and sober, deeply democratic and backed strongly by the surrounding community.
Willa Fulton, a neighbor to the camp, described the evolution she’s seen. When Camp Second Chance replaced the unauthorized campers that created problems for her community, she hoped the dangerous and illegal behavior she’d seen there would end.
Fulton now describes her neighbors as “an example of what a community can do when desperate times require desperate measures. It’s gone from a place that was ignored to a place of love and hope.”
The camp currently hosts 34 men, 17 women and an additional five couples. Most of them work or attend classes. The camp sees itself as “sanctuary.”
From their fact sheet: “Working together as a team, the camp leadership, professional case managers, and community volunteers help people calm down from the constant crisis of life on the street so they can focus on addressing their challenges. The camp is a source of safety, sanctuary, respite, and friendship …”
This is the dimension that’s missing from too many efforts to shelter homeless people. At Camp Second Chance, the love and responsibility that campers and community hold for each other is front and center.
On the evening of Martin Luther King Day, camp residents and their community supporters packed West Seattle’s Fauntleroy United Church of Christ meeting room to implore that city officials, for now at least, just leave things be.
“There is a love affair happening at Myers Parcel,” declared Cinda Stenger of Alki United Church of Christ. “The community has personal relationships with the people in the camp, and we would be devastated if they had to move.”
Alki UCC has built 13 tiny houses at the encampment with $21,000 they raised and a lot of hands-on support. “We are the only encampment that is building on-site,” Stenger explained. “Transformational relationships get created on both sides of the ladder.”
The camp now has a large “factory tent,” where jigs and equipment to mass produce tiny houses are available for community use. From churches to Boy Scout troops, community members are accepting the invitation.
But this success story may be at an end. The ordinance that allows sanctioned encampments on city property states that these must move every two years. Camp Second Chance is up against the deadline.
West Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold was clear-eyed when she addressed the room of supporters. “It’s a law,” she began. She explained that the two-year limit makes siting of sanctioned encampment more acceptable to host communities, and offers new communities the chance to build relationships as well.
And yet, the depth of community support of this encampment begs for recognition. “I’m feeling the spirit of Dr. King in the room tonight,” Herbold acknowledged. “We’re looking at the ordinance with some flexibility, but I don’t know how long that will last.”
Jackie St. Louis, the senior director of the Unsheltered Crisis for the Human Services Department, encouraged the campers to make their case. “Speak up, shed light, address ignorance,” he said. “Have people speak on their own behalf.”
Camp members and community supporters are asking people to contact the mayor and all members of City Council to support an extension at the present location.
“We’re a positive place where healing and growth happens,” said camp leader Eric Davis. “I hope all the frozen hearts out there will melt in God’s love and light.”
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.
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