On any given day, you will find Shelly Vaughn journaling in one of her many notebooks. Sometimes, while she is sitting in her tent by Bitter Lake, she writes down questions: Why aren’t there more open public restrooms? Why do charity organizations have such limited hours? Why aren’t there more public charging stations for my cell phone?
Writing down anything she’s thinking about is how Vaughn copes with her social anxiety. In the past few months, she’s noticed those entries have metamorphosed from the usual checklists of things she needs to get done to descriptive stories about what it’s been like living without a permanent home.
Vaughn is one of the 40 or so people living at “Bitter Lake Camp,” the name the residents have given to their tent community, which has captured the attention of many news outlets. Located on Bitter Lake Playfield, the site is on Seattle Public School property where a hill and a chain-linked fence separate the campers from Broadview Thomson K-8 School.
Campers at Bitter Lake feel their story’s narrative has been twisted by neighborhood parents and other nearby homeowners who call KOMO News. In the past two months, KOMO has written 12 stories about the camp, which camp residents feel distorts and sensationalizes their circumstances and their environment.
The school administration has been more sympathetic to their plight by allowing them to remain until the start of a new school year in September. Vaughn doesn’t know what she will do when fall comes, but she came to the park with her partner Anthony in December, and the pair will stick together. “I’ll look to him,” she said.
This day in mid-May, Vaughn flips through the pages of her journal, landing on a page she’s re-written in hot pink cursive. “There’s misspelling in the first one, and you can tell I was irritated and upset over the newscast,” she said.
The news program described the encampment as dangerous, filled with needles and people using drugs. That image doesn’t connect with the encampment Vaughn sees everyday. She said this camp is a community, a place where everyone makes an effort to get to know each other and clean up after each other.
Vaughn wrote, “No one sets out to be homeless; it’s usually due to a series of unfortunate events. When that first night outside comes, it’s more than unsettling. It’s kind of scary and hitting rock bottom is humiliating. All of a sudden you are no longer allowed in many places you were once welcomed.”
Vaughn wishes people could look beyond stereotypes and stigmas. She is originally from Texas and has worked a long-term job in insurance; she is the mother of three children and the proud grandmother of six grandchildren, ages 1 to 13.
Vaughn was a victim of domestic abuse and could no longer live with her ex-partner in Texas. Friends in Washington offered her a place to stay, so she made the move in July 2020. Vaughn hasn’t been able to find stable work since arriving and found herself without a place to live again.
Vaughn points to another entry that she was compelled to write after a woman walked by her and said, “It must be nice not to have any responsibilities.”
“Well, from my perspective, we have more responsibilities … a lot more. We have to be on full alert,” countered Vaughn in her journal. Off the page, she continued to discuss the difficulties unhoused people face: “And when they ask why, why can’t we just get a job? Without being able to look appropriate first, how are you supposed to get hired? That’s just one day of looking nice.”
Vaughn went on to say there are endless problems associated with not having an official ID, including applying for a job and accessing social services. She hasn’t been able to find a job because of the lack of opportunities due to the COVID pandemic and has encountered endless red-tape while trying to acquire an ID without an address or her birth certificate. Vaughn can’t even get a post office box for a birth certificate to be mailed to because she doesn’t have an actual address.
“For me ... there are two top things that are humiliating and degrading,” Vaughn wrote. “One is being denied restrooms and [the other is] when someone completely ignores you as if you’re not even there. I am just like you, just without walls and a roof.”
Why not interview us?
If Bitter Lake Camp were to have a leader, it might be lifelong Washingtonian Anthony Piper, although he would deny it. Perhaps his leadership qualities came from the three-plus years he spent as an Abrams tank mechanic in the Army, or perhaps it’s because of his naturally outgoing personality.
Piper doesn't mind being reported on; motioning his hand around the camp, he said, “We have nothing to hide.” What confounds him is why news outlets like KOMO don't interview the people living the experience more, and why people experiencing this are always portrayed negatively.
Piper doesn’t shy away from saying that disputes happen at the camp. He talks about trying to break up fights before they escalate. For a couple who got into loud arguments with each other, campers set up a “dog house” tent to give the two separate spaces to cool off.
Piper believes some Seattle mayoral candidates are using encampments like Bitter Lake as talking points to help their election chances.
“This isn’t news like as much as everyone is making it out to be, so it’s got to be politically driven,” Piper said.
He gives the example of Bruce Harrell, who has publicly backed the charter amendment Compassion Seattle, which would codify plans to sweep away camp residents.
“If you go on Bruce Harrell’s Twitter and look at his ad campaign … it wouldn’t be hard to look at that and make that connection,” Piper explained. Harrell has a quick video on his Twitter page of him walking through an immaculate park while kids play and he speaks directly to the camera promising to make parks clean and safe again as mayor.
Piper says the unhoused face criticism from all corners: angry school parents, homeowners, politicians and even “advocacy” groups. He explains that certain groups or organizations might appear through name to be helping, but are actually hurting unhoused people.
For example, and relevant to the Bitter Lake Camp, the group We Heart Seattle sounds nice by name but promotes cleaning up parks at the expense of unhoused residents. Andrea Suarez created the group in September 2020.
Piper said Suarez will pop up at their encampment, walk around for roughly 30 minutes, take photos or videos and offer to pick up trash, which the campers are OK doing themselves. Shortly after her departures, a newscast with Suarez talking to a reporter about the woes of Bitter Lake or about a different encampment will appear online.
By publicizing a need for trash removal, which is not a problem at Bitter Lake, Suarez pushes a negative stereotype about the people living in parks. Piper said people like Suarez are relentless and he’s seen her and the same homeowners like Broadview parent Ryle Goodrich quoted again and again in stories. Of the 12 KOMO news stories about Bitter Lake, Goodrich appears five times.
Piper wants to know why his own voice isn’t given the same level of attention as theirs. Motivated outsiders drown out the reports of positive experiences he knows to be true about park residency. “We’re trying to do our best here to show that maybe something like this can be done in the world.”
Piper knows that it’s only a temporary location, but he wants Bitter Lake Camp to be a pilot program that shows encampments can work, for now.
Read more of the June 2-8, 2021 issue.