Outreach workers set up their bins of food, harm reduction supplies and other resources near the base of what is colloquially known as the Snoqualmie Hill — “We’re on Snoqualmie Street and that’s a hill” — a longstanding camp that is believed to be safe from sweeps because of a rumored dispute over property lines under I-5.
“We’re usually all out by now,” one of the mutual aid outreach workers said as she took stock of a bin full of clothing.
The outreach group visits the encampment in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood Wednesday and Sunday afternoons. Usually 15 to 20 residents from Snoqualmie Hill come down to grab supplies. On Wednesday, Sept. 9, only four residents paid the aid station a visit. When a community member pulled up with two cases of water bottles in her passenger seat, the mutual aid workers suggested she save it for another camp they would visit later in the day. It was an unusually quiet day at Snoqualmie Hill.
The outreach group said it could be anything: the food bank being open, a change in the traffic overhead, the warm weather, or perhaps the residents were trying to isolate themselves.
There’s COVID-19 on Snoqualmie Hill. Almost three weeks ago, an encampment resident left Snoqualmie Hill to be treated for COVID-related pneumonia at Swedish Hospital. As of Sept. 13, he is currently doing fine and staying at the Kent Isolation and Quarantine Facility — designed to house up to 79 patients who cannot otherwise safely quarantine — where he says he is fed too much butternut squash soup. At least two other cases have been reported on Snoqualmie Hill, but it appears outreach workers are more concerned than the residents themselves.
Snoqualmie Hill is big. About 30 to 35 people live on the dirt hill in tents that are well beyond 6 feet apart. Outreach workers said almost none of them are vaccinated. Higher up on the hill, there are more permanent, hand-made structures, some of which are comparable to the size of a studio apartment, as the camp does not experience routine sweeps. Though this is believed to be because of property line disputes, a spokesperson for the Seattle Department of Transportation said that such a dispute would not inhibit a sweep.
Advocacy organizations Be:Seattle and the Waystation are looking for Emergen-C, hydration powder and, importantly for quarantine: tents, so no one is doubled-up in one shelter or has to leave the encampment to be isolated. Outreach workers say it’s hard to convince residents to seek treatment as it would leave their possessions vulnerable to theft: “Patient zero” had his bike stolen since he left Snoqualmie Hill. As of Sept. 7, Be:Seattle and the Waystation have collected four tents.
Derek, who is known by the encampment as “Kuntry,” has lived at Snoqualmie Hill for two or three years. He lives near the base of the hill and said he’s neighbors with the resident who is away at the hospital.
Despite the virus hitting so close to home, literally, Kuntry said he’s not worried.
“The way I see it, my time is set,” Kuntry said. “When I die, I die.”
He just hopes his neighbor “fattens up” while in the isolation center.
“To me, it’s just a flu bug,” Kuntry said. “The government is hyping it up.”
Since the beginning of the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis in March of last year, 2,207 COVID-19 cases in King County were among folks experiencing homelessness, accounting for 1.6% of all King County cases, according to an online dashboard. In the week ending July 31, there were 23 COVID-19 cases reported among Seattle’s unhoused people; the following week, that number skyrocketed to 57 as the more contagious delta variant spurred what experts refer to as a fifth wave of the virus. The most recent reports tracked 30 cases of COVID-19 among unhoused folks from Sept. 2 to Sept. 8. Also, The Olympian reported last week that there were two confirmed cases at the Union Gospel Mission in Olympia and another at Olympia’s downtown homeless mitigation site.
Misinformation can be deadly. According to research published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, in the first three months of 2020 nearly 6,000 people worldwide were hospitalized because of coronavirus misinformation, and researchers say at least 800 people may have died due to misinformation related to COVID-19.
On Sept. 9, the mutual aid workers set out a tub, several yards away from other supplies, full of donated KN95 masks, which they recommended Real Change journalists wear rather than cloth masks while visiting the encampment that had a COVID-19 outbreak. Three of the residents who came to grab supplies that day had their own face coverings. A fourth resident came down, but refused to put on a mask. He was still allowed to take supplies.
Kuntry usually pulls a black neck gaiter over his mouth and nose, a face covering many experts have said is not up to snuff. It’s about the only precaution Kuntry is taking right now, he said.
The Seattle Times found that as of the end of August, many nonprofits are reporting that only between 30% and 50% of their residents have received vaccines, according to staff at the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. For comparison, over 71% of total King County residents 16 and up have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
“They hear a lot of rumors about the vaccine — bad rumors — it’s all silly to me,” said Megan, who lives in her vehicle at an encampment near Snoqualmie Hill and describes herself as “very vaccinated.” “They don’t understand how vaccines work and what you don’t understand, you’re afraid of.”
Megan says outreach workers came to vaccinate the encampment, but many of her neighbors refused. Another resident at the vehicle encampment dismissed the question of whether or not they were vaccinated with a playful “pfft.” When an outreach worker approached a resident, the resident joked, “Don’t give me your COVID!”
Last week, the city was expected to sweep the vehicles along the street where Megan lives. The sweep was postponed and now the community is set to do their own clearing Tuesday, Sept. 14. Initially, Megan planned to move to Snoqualmie Hill until word got around that the encampment that is believed to be safe from sweeps — it’s not — had a COVID-19 outbreak.
With her encampments sweep looming and the COVID-19 outbreak at the encampment nearby, Megan says there are “no options” for her and her neighbors.
Outreach workers are still trying to encourage vaccination at Snoqualmie Hill — they’re even offering milkshakes as incentive. Kuntry, one of many unvaccinated residents of Snoqualmie Hill, said that even if the vaccine came directly to him — and came to him with a milkshake — he’s not getting it.
Kuntry said, “I don’t even take the flu shot: The only thing I shoot up are antihistamines.”
Hannah Krieg studied journalism at the University of Washington. She is especially interested in covering politics, social issues and anything that gives her an excuse to speak with activists.
Read more of the Sept. 15-21, 2021 issue.