Pedro has been at the camp behind Halcyon Mobile Home Park since Dec. 20, 2021, when he was forced out of his previous encampment at Green Lake by a sweep. Eight months might not sound like a long time to get set up, but he’s been busy. The camp, which sits in a track between the back street behind Home Depot’s Aurora Avenue N. location and the entrance to Halcyon, is arranged in two rows with a dirt road down the middle. Pedro’s home is the most prominent.
It sits on the east side of the road, anchored by two conjoined RVs with their public-facing sides painted in a matching dark green camouflage pattern. These are surrounded by a large outdoor patio made of poles, pallets and tarps. Behind the patio, on the embankment that abuts the mobile home park, an extensive terraced garden extends upward for several rows. The front garden is also impressive, with a long row of assorted fruit trees and a few neat beds dedicated to herbs and medicinal plants.
It is a frequent haunt of Federico, Pedro’s 11-week-old puppy, who is and will remain much smaller than the pumpkins that will eventually grow there. The inside of the tarp patio, which features a large sitting area dominated by a big-screen TV and a full kitchen, is something of a gathering space for the encampment’s denizens. That’s the idea, he said.
“We try to make food for everybody. Whoever comes in to eat is okay. […] In the back, you see there are a couple mattresses back there. Some people need to sleep, and some people need to eat. Sometimes people have bags or whatever they got and they can’t be leaving those things behind. I let people store it. I try to do this — from my own time and my own sweat. I don’t plan to profit on any of this,” Pedro said.
Everyone pitches in as they’re able, be it with cash, food stamps or labor, he said. He added that, while the garden is definitely intended to supply his little community kitchen, he hopes to grow enough to donate to the local food bank. He also wants to build a bench in the front garden in hopes that housed neighbors might come by and enjoy his handiwork. However unlikely that is, his goal is clear: to demonstrate that being unhoused isn’t synonymous with being a bad neighbor.
The fruit trees, for example, are there to assuage the concerns of residents of Halcyon who feared that the clearing of the blackberry bushes on the embankment would lead to soil erosion and potentially a mudslide. He hopes the trees will replace the brambles’ root structures. He also tries to clean up around his little homestead.
“When I first came into this spot, this place right here was a swamp,” he said. “You can still see the hole. Me, myself, I was up at two in the morning; I was digging some gravel to help even it up. To dry this area. And the amount of trash. There was a huge pile of trash, and I’ve cleaned it up.”
He recently beseeched his unhoused neighbors to the south — whose camp was notable for a large, tangled cluster of shopping carts — to do the same in hopes of staving off another sweep.
“I worry about that, really. This is what I’m trying to do, trying to be permanent. I’m not trying to claim it as my place, because it’s not my land; I didn’t pay for this. But I worry that if they come over here, they’ll kick us out of here,” he said.
His setup is vastly better than any tiny home the city could offer him, he said, but he did express interest in the city’s proposed safe parking lots for RV dwellers and other vehicle residents. However, he added, that while he had spoken with Bradley Smith from the city’s HOPE team, he still felt like outreach to the camp was limited.
“I don’t want to go into a tiny house. I talked to Bradley, but really, in here, in this trail, no one comes over here. We are forgotten. We are not in the public eyes.”
While he fears a sweep, he would, of course, rather be housed. However, Pedro stressed that, for him, it’s not as simple as getting a job and applying for an apartment. A Cuban immigrant (though he’s lived in this city longer than in Cuba and now considers himself a Seattleite), he had both of those things for years after he arrived in the U.S.
“I came legally to the U.S. I got my paperwork and everything. I was working for Tully’s here in Seattle and St. Vincent de Paul. I worked in construction; I worked for a company called Rain City Landscaping. That company doesn’t exist anymore. My boss, who was my roommate at the same time, he had a contract with Tully’s, so he was the head maintenance and I was maintenance,” he said.
When Tully’s closed, he went to St. Vincent de Paul, a religious organization that operates a foodbank, thrift store and men’s shelter in Seattle. He enjoyed that, he said, and got a lot of experience. In the meantime, he also got certified as a flagger and forklift operator via South Seattle Community College. But those licenses expired in 2016, and, he said, he couldn’t figure out where to go to renew them.
“I ended up back at zero,” he said.
Without saying exactly what happened, he admitted that at some point thereafter he was convicted of a crime, which effectively derailed his life.
“I’m not trying to demonize anyone, blaming anybody for my own mistake, because it was my own mistake. It was my mistake, [and] I paid to society. But I tried to reintegrate myself and move on,” he said.
It didn’t work. At one point, he was involved in drug court, he said, and had to apply for an apartment because the living situation provided by the court was expiring. When he told a potential landlady about his conviction, he said, she told him to get off the property immediately or she’d call the sheriff. Looking for a job was just as difficult.
“I’m not looking for a job in a Bank of America or anything like that, even an office,” he said. “But if you’ve committed a crime and you put in an application, they reject you. They don’t tell you why, but you know in the end that this is why.”
He did get some help via post-release job programs — the Community Center for Alternative Programs (CCAP) specifically — but it wasn’t very helpful, he said.
“I was in CCAP myself,” he said, “And you can put this in the newspaper: The only thing you learn there is how to be a better criminal.”
What he would have preferred, Pedro said, was trade school. He was initially prevented from attending because he was restricted by his work release agreement to only the CCAP program, but he successfully petitioned his drug court judge to allow extra release time for him to go to a community college trade program.
In fact, asked what he thinks is the answer to our region’s growing homelessness problem, he suggested that unhoused people be enlisted to build something that sounds a lot like social housing.
“Here in the Seattle area, and many places, [there are] all the empty lots around. If the city were building some places, we wouldn’t be in the chaos we are. Homeless things would be eradicated, and at the same time jobs would be created. You know, homeless people are willing to work; I’m willing to work,” he said. To get people to work, he said, a sped-up version of trade school might just do the trick.
“Some people don’t have that knowledge, but they can be useful and they can be doing something,” he suggested. “Those [programs] are creating a job and keeping that person busy and trying to move them forward. Give an hour or two hours in class to those guys and give them some training.”
Instead of being invited to help solve the dire homelessness problem that he is currently living through, he said, he feels shut out.
“I know me, myself, and many people around here, they’re not asking to be given anything. I’m not asking the city to give me anything. No. What I’m asking is: give me opportunities where I can work for it. Give me opportunity; don’t cut me out,” he said.
That lack of engagement, he suspects, has a lot to do with how unhoused people are perceived.
“Since we were in Green Lake, I remember the media used to come all the time and make life impossible for us. […] No filming or documenting positive things, just negative, negative. The media [is] demonizing us so hard here in Seattle,” he said.
Those negative stereotypes, he argued, are deeply unfair.
“Yes, that is bullshit. They don’t know. People don’t know what we’re doing and all the things and projects people have. My dream was not to come to America and be homeless or do drugs or create trouble. This is not what it is,” he said.
Pedro doesn’t let the fact that his homelessness makes him something of a social pariah stop him from dreaming of a different life. He’d like to leverage his self-taught gardening skills into a landscaping business, for which he’s been gathering tools.
“Coming in the fall, there’s a lot of work blowing leaves [...]. And I have some friends; I have a couple Mexican friends, and they are with me. They know we can do it and where I used to work, and that’s why we’re trying to put it together now,” he said.
He’s also been negotiating with another camper to the south who has a truck for sale, but said, “With no job, no money, I cannot buy a truck or anything like that.”
Even if he did have enough money to buy the truck, it might all be for naught. As reported in last week’s issue of Real Change, Pedro’s camp is next in line for removal.
Read more of the July 27-Aug. 2, 2022 issue.