The tents were nearly invisible unless you knew where they were. When I arrived, the North Seattle College parking lot that sat near the encampment was almost empty. Weeks of January rain had soaked the ground and everything on it.
Railway ties and a mattress were laid across the flooded path to the camp. A chain-link fence marked the boundary between the college and the stretch of woods sitting on Washington Department of Transportation land.
A cardboard coffee carafe and cups sat on a table with three boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts. A half-dozen volunteers organized by Homeless Help Direct Action had arrived ahead of the Navigation Team. They filled shopping carts with campers’ belongings and pushed them to the parking lot.
Three carts sat near each other, filled with wet tents, blankets and sleeping bags, waiting to be rolled away.
A woman named Jessica told me she’d been at the camp since July and that I could help by taking up the strips of matting on the floor of her family-sized tent. I moved the heavy wet foam rubber to a nearby shopping cart while we talked. This was her first time homeless.
“We’re not bad people here,” she volunteered. She said it like I might not believe her.
The weight made the cart hard to push through the mud. The flooring, stacked carefully near the parking lot, would go into a dumpster anyway. If any of Jessica’s gear would be saved, it was the rain-soaked tent itself, and that seemed unlikely.
Just down the hill, a camper named Rick surveyed the muddy pallets where his home had just stood. We’d met almost exactly one year earlier, during a clearance of a nearby encampment near the I-5 onramp. I’d asked then where he was going.
“Probably right back here,” he said, “or somewhere nearby.” I asked the same question now and he gave the same answer. This was Rick’s tenth sweep. His things were in the shopping carts. He didn’t think he’d take them.
“It’s usually easier to just start over fresh,” he said. Rick looked around ruefully. “This place was perfect,” he sighed. “It really could not have been more out of the way.”
Navigation Team field coordinator Jeff Horan arrived and took photos of tents and trash for the file. I asked why this longtime encampment was being cleared now. He said WSDOT was focusing on sites near I-5, and its time had come.
“When WSDOT says a camp has to be cleared, we don’t have control over that.”
By 9 a.m., the posted time of the sweep, most of the tents were down. Nick and Candace, a homeless couple I’d often seen panhandling around Northgate, emerged from a small dome tent with five canvas bags and their dog.
A few minutes later, their tent was packed into a small roll and, carrying three bags each, they were ready to go. They’d lost most of their stuff when the camp they’d been in for nearly two years got swept the week before. They got here just in time to leave.
“Our last camp was hidden off a trail and no one cared we were there. The cops just showed up and said we had a half-hour before they got ‘hands on.’”
That last encounter with the Navigation Team didn’t exactly leave them wanting another. Like everyone else, they said they’d find another camp.
By the time the Nav Team moved in, Candace and Nick had walked away. Five cops in rain slickers filed into the mostly deserted camp. The only job left was trash removal. That was someone else’s problem.
I went to talk with one. His first words were, “You are being videotaped and recorded.”
I wondered how this might go over with someone actually in need of help.
The conversation ended as soon as he learned I was with Real Change. All Navigation Team members were forbidden to talk to media. I could “talk to the PIO” if I wanted.
“That would be Will?” I asked.
“Lemke,” he said. “You want his number?”
I said I had it. When I called the Nav Team’s Public Information Officer a week later, Will’s voicemail was full. I didn’t call back.
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. He can be reached at director (at) realchangenews (dot) org
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