Will Walker stood next to his tent smoking a cigarette as cars passed him along Airport Way South. He and a dozen other people had been camping several weeks under trees at the site just south of Seattle's International District. Now, they had to leave -- immediately.
Just an hour before, Walker said, a state trooper pulled up, along with a half-ton truck carrying a jail work crew. Men in orange safety vests hopped out of the truck and started pitching the campers' belongings into it. It was garbage, the workers told him, and it was going to the dump.
In a mad dash, Walker and his fellow campers hoisted their tents and fled across Airport Way to the opposite sidewalk and safety. A Washington State Department of Transportation worker brought the crew to clear WSDOT property. But the bus barn east of Airport Way belongs to King County. The workers didn't follow.
Walker said the campers waited until the workers loaded up and drove away, then they walked their tents back across the street to regroup and figure out what to do.
WSDOT had taped a 72-hour "Order to Remove" notice to a tree at the site the week before. Everyone had seen it. But Walker, a 36-year-old landscaper who came to Seattle from Eastern Washington after his business failed, said he'd tried four times to get into shelters and they were full.
"We have nowhere else to go," Walker said.
No place to go
Walker's problem is increasingly common, homeless advocates say.
In 2008, WSDOT created a set of homeless encampment guidelines that call for thoroughly checking a construction site before starting work and posting 72-hour notices before clearing a camp. But unlike the City of Seattle, the agency doesn't pay for outreach workers to go to the site, communicate the message face-to-face and offer shelter.
As a result, WSDOT and even city workers chase people from one freeway right-of-way to another in a game that costs taxpayers money and deprives homeless campers of gear they need to survive.
From March 2009 to March 2010, according to WSDOT documents obtained by Real Change through public disclosure, WSDOT's maintenance division cleared roughly 1,060 individual camps at 177 sites in the greater Seattle area.
Homeless campers say the Department of Corrections crews the agency uses to do the work seldom follow WSDOT's encampment guidelines.
Instead of bagging and labeling gear and personal effects for storage, as the policy states, the workers who showed up Aug. 19, the day that Walker and the others got raided, disposed of anything the campers didn't have in hand. One worker also dumped out the group's shared toilet bucket and left its solid waste in the middle of the camp.
This doesn't exactly conform to rules for the removal of biohazards laid out on page one of WSDOT's Guidelines to Address Illegal Encampments.
WSDOT adopted the guidelines two years ago, but homeless advocates say they've done little to protect people who camp outside.
No systems in place
WSDOT didn't develop the guidelines until after the second of two accidental deaths that occurred at construction sites.
Even then, the agency was reluctant to make changes, said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness. WSDOT dragged its feet on the guidelines and never agreed to send outreach workers to campsites or ensure people have a place to go during a clearing, she said.
WSDOT started work on its encampment policy after a camper, Isaac Palmer, was killed by a brush-clearing tractor in June 2007. Palmer, 62, was sleeping in some brambles under a freeway overpass at South Massachusetts Street in Seattle when the rotor blades of the tractor struck and killed him.
But Eisinger said WSDOT officials would not meet with homeless advocates to discuss protocol changes until after a second man, Ralph Vantine, was killed in February 2008.
A 60-foot manlift crushed Vantine at an Interstate 5 construction site in Everett.
In 2008, two of Palmer's three sons sued the WSDOT contractor, Kemp West, for wrongful death. In May 2010, Kemp West settled for $400,000.
To Eisinger, it's a hollow victory.
"What is terribly sad is that the circumstances that led to his death do not seem to have changed significantly," she said.
In addition to visual site searches, WSDOT and contractors working to remove the south part of the Alaskan Way Viaduct have started using heat-sensing devices that can alert users to unseen humans ["Viaduct work to displace homeless," RC, June 20-July 6].
Employees within the department want to do the right thing and have worked very hard to address concerns, WSDOT spokesperson Jamie Holter said. But there's only so much they can do.
"We fill potholes and we build roads. We're not a human services agency," she said. "We don't have the systems in place."
Breaking camp, Seattle-style
WSDOT could follow the City of Seattle's example, advocates say, and hire an outreach team on contract.
Like WSDOT's guidelines, the city's homeless encampment protocols call for city workers to post 72-hour warning notices and bag and store any unattended belongings. Unlike WSDOT, the Seattle Human Services Department contracts with Evergreen Treatment Services for two outreach workers.
The outreach workers visit campsites prior to clearings, said Al Poole, director of the city's homeless intervention program, and offer them whatever beds are available that day at shelters the city funds.
Poole said no city department, not even the Seattle police, clears a camp until he's personally signed off that outreach workers have set foot in it. And he doesn't send the outreach workers unless beds are available, he said.
That's a big change from the encampment-clearing policy of former Mayor Greg Nickels. Seattle's Human Services Department rolled out the change and other policy revisions in April 2010, shortly after the election of Mayor Mike McGinn.
The current policy is more humane, said Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith, the mayor's point person on homeless issues.
On Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2010, Raunee Hall knelt on the ground packing his belongings beneath a large sign on a fence that read "Camping is Prohibited." Around him at Sixth Avenue and Yesler Way, the lights of a police car flashed and a sea of orange vests hoisted garbage bags into a truck parked on the sidewalk.
Another camp clearing. Another Department of Corrections crew. But this time the agency in charge was the Seattle Department of Transportation. An SDOT supervisor on the scene said the truck and the possessions in it were going to the dump, not to storage.
"Wet and soiled," she said of the items. Since that's often the case with campers' belongings, WSDOT and SDOT store very few of them.
Hall, 43, said he came to Seattle last year and has been homeless most of his life. Despite a no-camping sign, Hall pitched his tent under the trees at Sixth and Yesler because it's near the Cherry Street meal program where he eats.
Hall said he never saw an outreach worker or a 72-hour warning notice. At sites where people camp constantly, the no-camping signs are it, Poole said. There's no other warning. The outreach team visits those sites every week to warn campers in person.
Hall finished stowing his things and started making his way down Sixth with his pack, blankets and a wheeled suitcase in tow, headed nowhere in particular.
"I felt fragile and inferior," Hall said.
Will Walker has since moved to Nickelsville, the tent city named for Seattle's ex-mayor. Deputy Mayor Smith is working to create a permanent encampment site for Nickelsville at the former Sunny Jim peanut butter factory site in Sodo. A citizens panel appointed by McGinn recommended the city create a permanent place for the encampment.
The panel also recommended that, in the absence of complaints, the city leave homeless campers like Raunee Hall alone.