At around 10 a.m. on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, a light dusting of snow still coated the cars in the PNW Luxury Cars lot on Aurora Avenue North and North 128th Street. Further down 128th, behind a large Comcast facility, city workers from Parks and Recreation and the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) swarmed like ants over the remains of a large encampment. Clusters of cops stood watch.
The encampment — which stretched down the south side of North 128th Street adjacent to the Comcast building before branching out into the empty parking lot on the northwest corner of Stone Avenue North and North 128th Street — was now cordoned off by yellow caution tape.
An SDOT worker was stationed at the west side of the closed street, tasked with turning away anyone trying to enter or cross to the other side of the work area. While being relieved for a break from standing next to the tape, he complained to his coworker that homelessness advocates, visible at the far side of the work area ferrying campers’ belongings into a U-Haul, were “just standing around doing nothing.”
On the walk around, Real Change encountered Andrea, a resident of the rapidly disappearing camp who previously shared her experience of homelessness for an edition of the paper’s In Their Own Words (ITOW) column.
Andrea said that yes: She and her partner had accepted shelter at Catholic Community Services’ Bridge Shelter on Third Avenue and Stewart Street. It would be a dorm-style arrangement, with men and women in separate areas. No cuddling, snuggling or — heaven forbid — snogging on Valentine’s Day.
However, Andrea was more worried about her partner’s health. He suffers from schizophrenia, and she has learned to help him manage his emotions when he experiences symptoms. Being apart, even in the same building, could leave him scared and confused. Regardless, it was better than being out in the cold, so they’d decided to take the plunge.
As she walked toward where she was meeting her ride (the city had offered transportation, but she’d opted to go with a friend), Pedro — the owner of the matching camouflage-colored RV and trailer that had once anchored the Comcast camp and also a previous ITOW interviewee — crossed her path on his way back toward the sweep. He’d already moved to a different spot a bit further north from the small cluster of RVs that Andrea had stopped at, bringing the number of locations he’s attempted to make work up to at least three since he was swept from behind the Lincoln Towing lot in August 2022.
Also, there was Tony, who lived in a van attached to the RV cluster with his wife Michelle and their two dogs. Tony was eager to tell his story, hoping that some media attention might get him what he wanted: a stay of execution.
“I’ve already been here for three months, and all I’m asking for is a couple of weeks,” he said.
In two weeks, he said, he’d get his disability check and could afford a tow to Renton, where a friend of Michelle’s had inherited a five-bedroom house. The friend had offered them a place to live if they were willing to help take care of the place. The only catch: Tony’s van was suffering from fuel-line issues. He could take a cup of gas, dump it in the carburetor and run it for a few minutes, but he couldn’t get gas to flow consistently into the engine from the tank. If he could, he said, they’d have been gone yesterday.
As it stood, he expected to be swept on Feb. 15. Given all the activity to the south, Michelle was staying inside the van with the dogs.
“From what I’m told — I don’t know if it’s the law — they said they passed this about last summer: if it’s where you live and you’re in it, they can’t tow it,” Tony said. Whether or not that’s true, it’s definitely true that unoccupied vehicles can get towed, as both he and Michelle discovered when their personal vehicles were hauled off from their current location to the Lincoln Towing lot.
Frustratingly, he’s never spoken with any outreach workers. The last case worker he had was years ago, when he stayed at the Roy Street shelter. If he did have an outreach worker, Tony said, he’d only need one thing from them: a tow.
“Even if it’s just somebody that could tow me around the corner — somewhere where I’m not here,” he’d be thrilled, he said.
If the city was serious about getting vehicle residents off public streets, he said, it would give them somewhere else to go.
“I mean, some place where they could park. I know Ballard at one time had a parking lot,” Tony said, referencing the now-defunct safe lot run by the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI). That one didn’t work, he noted, because it didn’t allow occupants to stay warm by using propane. A new lot proposed by LIHI would provide electricity for heating, as well as robust case management and hygiene services, but it is still in the site selection process. Seattle does not currently have a safe lot that can accommodate RVs.
Back at the sweep, a group of former residents clustered around a makeshift hot beverage station set up by mutual aid workers. Two mutual aid volunteers continued helping a camper, who had rented the aforementioned U-Haul, load the last of his things, under the swinging arm of a backhoe and the watchful eyes of five cops.
Another resident, Caitlin, hadn’t been so lucky, she said. While packing, she realized she was missing two rings out of a set of three that had sentimental value to her. Around 9:30 a.m., she said, she asked a city worker if she could keep searching through her stuff to find the rings but said she was rushed out of the area almost immediately after that.
“When it hit 9:30, I was swarmed by like 15 police officers who decided that they were going to treat me as if I was literally committing a crime,” she said.
The worst part, in Caitlin’s experience, is how dehumanizing sweeps are.
“I just don’t understand why we’re treated so horribly,” she said. “They laugh through every single sweep I’ve been through. Every single police officer I hear, they look at us, and they laugh.”
She complained that being forced to stop packing and let city workers take over is unfair. They don’t handle personal items with the same care. And the city’s promise to store valuables, she said, is a hollow one.
“They’re going to put our stuff in storage, right? They just decide that all of our stuff is garbage, regardless of whether or not it is,” Caitlin said.
City workers said they would store important items for up to 70 days, she said, but refused to tell them where. To find out, they would need to call. Neither she nor her boyfriend have a working phone. No one gave them a business card, she added.
“We can’t just go there and go grab our stuff when we want it,” said Norman, her boyfriend.
For Caitlin, the city might as well have said, “All your stuff is going in the trash. Good luck.”
She and Norman would be spending their special day hauling everything they owned — which they’d stuffed into their still-erect tent and balanced atop a dolly — up Stone Avenue North in search of another site.
They, too, had been offered a spot in the Bridge Shelter but being separated was not worth it for them. Tiny homes, which per city data on offers of shelter obtained by Real Change, have the highest acceptance rate of any form of shelter available to the HOPE team, were not an option. Mutual aid volunteers said that there had been 12 offers of space at the Bridge Shelter and only two tiny homes available citywide. One person, they said, did end up at Rosie’s Tiny Home Village in the University District.
Prior to the sweep, Caitlin and Norman said, they had seen HOPE team workers once or twice but never been offered housing. They were open to a tiny home, but that was never on the table.
Chase, another resident of the encampment, reported a similar experience. He hadn’t gotten to the sweep in time to prevent his tent from being thrown out, with everything in it. He’d be fine, he said, because he had a backup tent, but he was still bummed to lose it. As for housing, he’d only been offered a spot in LIHI’s Lakefront Community Home shelter. While the Lakefront property has private rooms and semi-permanent residents, it seems he was offered a spot in the temporary cold-weather shelter they stood up to aid the city’s severe weather response.
“Just an open area, pretty much. With a cot,” Chase said, describing what he was offered. “There’s no permanent shelter options, no permanent housing options, really.”
While city workers scraped the last remnants of several makeshift shelters into open-top box trucks, a Stop the Sweeps advocate appeared on his bike to warn the other mutual aid workers that parking enforcement had swooped in on the small RV cluster to the north. Tony had, apparently, been wrong about being swept on Wednesday.
Real Change followed the volunteers up to the other site, just north of a US Foods CHEF’STORE parking lot, to find three tow trucks, two cop cars and two parking enforcement vehicles clustered around the one remaining RV and a Kia SUV parked directly behind it. A man stood on top of the RV, staring down the officers circling it, while his partner shuttled their belongings to the sidewalk.
Tony and Michelle’s van was nowhere to be seen, although Michelle was making her way north with a bag of their possessions. Parking enforcement had descended rapidly, she said, but they’d managed to move the van up to the parking lot of a nearby Sam’s Club. Not a permanent solution, to be sure, but perhaps enough for them to hold out for a tow to Renton.
Caitlin and Norman had stopped to see what was going on, and parking enforcement officers were barking at them to move their temporarily wheeled tent from behind the Kia so tow trucks could get a clear shot at it. The tow truck driver took several aggressive swings at the Kia, causing mutual aid volunteers on site to complain that he’d clipped the RV next to it. Unbothered, he proceeded to tow the Kia, as other tow trucks circled the area.
Mutual aid volunteers confirmed that the couple in the RV had, at a previous sweep, been towed away while still inside their vehicle, which might explain why they seemed more concerned at the prospect of getting swept than by the minor impact from the tow truck.
After the Kia had been towed, parking enforcement officers turned their attention to an unplated KTM dirt bike parked in a nearby lot, which they suspected the man living in the RV had stolen. When officers approached, the mutual aid volunteers said, he’d moved the dirt bike into the parking lot, hoping they wouldn’t have jurisdiction on private property. Regardless, three parking enforcement officers and a police officer searched the motorcycle for a VIN number (which is, on most motorcycles — and certainly this one — on the right side of the front tube of the frame) with apparently inconclusive results.
Their energy expended, and with no immediate action being taken to tow the RV, the remaining officers stood in a cluster around the bike, chatting. Mutual aid volunteers did the same down the street, while the RV’s owners continued to pack their valuables. The snow, by then, had been melted away by the sun, although it remained bitterly cold.
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor at Real Change.
Read more of the Feb. 22-28, 2023 issue.