Under constant rain and temperatures in the 30s, city of Seattle officials came to the homeless encampment called Field of Dreams and swept it in the morning on Tuesday, March 7.
Police officers and outreach workers arrived at 7 a.m., two hours before the official start of the sweep to contact the estimated 25 people who still lived at the Field, located where South Royal Brougham Way meets Airport Way South near Interstate 90 in SoDo. They offered residents shelter spaces and access to other services on the north side of the camp while residents combed through their belongings and placed them in black trash bags either for storage or to take with them.
Workers sorted through possessions when no resident was immediately there to claim them. If the items looked disheveled, contaminated or otherwise dangerous to pick through, workers threw them away. Otherwise, workers tagged them with a letter specific to the worker and a number, took photographs and jotted down the identifying information on a 3-by-5 index card.
City officials came as they had said they would when police walked through the camp the afternoon of March 2 while group of advocates watched. Officials affixed stickers to tents and duct-taped notices to trees.
The stickers said that any property collected would be discarded, not stored and returned as had been promised.
Members of the mayor’s office, the Health and Human Services Department and city councilmembers repeatedly cited health and safety concerns at the site. The claim was reasserted by spokespeople from Finance and Administrative Services, who told protesters and journalists they could not come inside the camp many had visited before.
Certainly, the Field isn’t the idyllic picnic spot that the name implies.
A visitor to the camp steps off the sidewalk and onto a system of wooden pallets arranged to create a bridge over mud. Walking from the front to the back requires strategic hopping to find the shallow ridges and avoid the deeper sinkholes. Volunteers came through on Sunday, March 5 to lay down a composite of mulch and rubber. The material helped, but without better drainage the solution would prove temporary, a resident said.
Piles of trash, some in bags, some accumulated items, possibly from illegal dumping, sit on the opposite end of the field from the city-provided Dumpsters meant to alleviate the problem.
The presence of so many people and their food and tents brought rats, which scurry through during the daytime, entering tents through holes in the corners or disappearing in piles of debris.
Reavy Washington, a resident since July, knows that the Field isn’t perfect. He sees the garbage, the rats, the residents who need organizing and assistance. He knows about the charges against two men accused of raping young girls in the camp. He’s appeared in front of the council several times, he said, asking for help.
He went one more time the day before the sweep.
“How did the city punt the ball to us?” Washington asked. “How did you all let this happen?”
Allegations of drug use, criminality and unsanitary conditions have been leveled against many encampments, although none so much as the Jungle, swept in October 2016. The sweep dislocated hundreds, many of whom moved into the Field, a space adjacent to The Jungle but without the protection from the elements provided by the freeway nor the privacy afforded by foliage.
The encampment later became a transitional location, an official unofficial place city officials asked people to go while they waited to open the Navigation Center. That low-barrier, 24-hour shelter announced in September was meant to accept residents in December or January. It remains unopened.
With tacit recognition came resources, such as Honey Buckets for toilets and garbage receptacles. It also put a lot of people in a limited space without the benefit of forming communities of self-selection. The disparate attitudes and preferences culminated in a camp that even volunteers who came to help the residents felt was disorganized.
Residents and advocates tried to turn that around, a process that got more buzz when the city announced it would sweep the Field and media outlets descended on the camp.
Photographers snapped photos and journalists jotted notes on spiral pads as organizers and a handful of residents in a communal tent March 2 with an army surplus feel to it worked the language on principles for the Field.
Virgel Roberson, a 2.5-month resident of the Field, was not impressed. When he looks at the Field, Roberson sees a place too far gone to save with many people in it so lost in addiction that they aren’t ready to save themselves. What do people think organization or news articles will do now, he asked.
“It’s too little, too late,” Roberson said.
An official encampment has leadership and organizational assistance, defined rules and above all, resources. The Field has been building that institutional scaffolding from scratch with help from groups such as Stop the Sweeps, which opposes the city’s practice of sweeping unauthorized encampments.
That work culminated in a eight-page document delivered to the city council on March 6, the day before the sweep, along with a request that officials give them a week “stay of execution” while residents, organizers and city officials worked together to iron out the provisions of self-management. Councilmember Kshama Sawant met with the group before the meeting, and said that it brought “real clarity” to the situation on the ground.
They presented a “very reasonable and well laid out approach,” she said, and offered a letter to the mayor endorsing a delay for her councilmembers to sign.
“Please let’s not hold human beings and homeless community members hostage to the inhumane policy of sweeping,” Sawant said.
Three other members of the city council agreed that afternoon to sign the letter, including Debora Juarez, Rob Johnson and Mike O’Brien. Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, the chair of the Public Health and Human Services committee, announced that she would not sign because she believed that the conditions on the ground were too dangerous.
“I understand that everyone who is there has been offered a place to go. I understand that it’s temporary shelter,” she said, elaborating that the shelter is a “place to be until you get stabilized and you can get jobs.”
On Monday, clearly upset at the four council hold-outs who refused to support the stop of the sweep, Washington accused them of creating the situation, of ignoring the needs of those living at the Field.
“I agree with you,” Councilmember Lisa Herbold said. “We should have helped you when you asked.”
The Field supporters took the fight upstairs, demanding to speak to the mayor or a representative. They waited, eventually sending people out to purchase sandwich fixings and water to continue their protest.
Around 4:30 p.m., over an hour after the organizers arrived, the Director of Homelessness, George Scarola, emerged from the office to address the crowd. Washington handed him the letter drafted by Sawant and the organizational document, and asked for help.
“We’ve had our ups and downs,” Washington said. “We’re on the verge of getting swept.”
Scarola agreed to get the document in front of Mayor Ed Murray, to make sure that the mayor read it and to talk the matter through with him.
Scarola and Washington shook hands.
The proposal fell on deaf ears, and the sweep continued the next morning.
Many of the residents of the Field, some 70 when at full strength, left before the sweep. Some of those that remained were the most vulnerable. One young man, who had attended the council meeting the day before, threw himself at a chain link fence, bereft. A protester known for his impassioned rhetoric went to support him. He later had a confrontation with police and was arrested.
Sola Plumacher, a strategic advisor to the Human Services Department, said that although neither the Navigation Center nor low-barrier camps were yet open, every person contacted at the Field had been offered a place to stay.
But for many residents, traditional shelters are the last places they want to go.
They’d asked again and again for assistance with rats and for fire extinguishers before several tents went up in flames.
They’d insisted that they did not want to go into temporary shelters, that they’d stayed outside despite cold, wet, dangerous conditions that have resulted in several deaths in Seattle this year. They said shelters were worse.
It wasn’t enough.