Even in Queen Anne and Magnolia, neighborhoods for the middle class, people sleep outside in Uptown, in Lower Kinnear Park and under the Ballard Bridge.
Justin Pulford, 22, has been homeless for more than a year. A few months ago, he and a friend were camping in a heavily wooded area of Cowen Park, just north of the University District. Despite being discreet and out-of-sight, police officers would still find Pulford and kick him out. “We were just trying to sleep,” he said.
Pulford and another friend from Cowen Park decided to start a protest. They moved their tents to University Way Northeast (“the Ave”). More and more people joined their protests, bringing their tents until the protest stretched down the popular sidewalk, with more than 20 residents.
The protest on the Ave “helped open up my eyes a little bit that, actually, a lot of people do care,” Pulford said. A lot of people expressed their support for the protest and told the group that they were behind them.
While on the Ave, the group received an eviction notice, but the city kept extending it, week by week. Eventually, they did move to another spot, after someone spit on their tents and threatened some of the campers with a gun.
During that incident, the group came together to keep each other safe. “It’s pretty much all family here, so we pretty much help each other and protect each other,” Pulford said.
People on the street prefer to sleep in groups where there’s a sense of community, family and safety, said Sola Plumacher, an advisor on homelessness for the City of Seattle.
The unsheltered population is much more difficult to track, said Plumacher, whose role is to advise different city departments, including the mayor’s office. “We’re definitely interested in making homelessness rare, brief and one time,” she said.
Even though the shelter population changes with people moving in and out, it feels fairly static because it’s always at capacity.
“I often talk about [services] in terms of a bathtub analogy,” Plumacher said. “We have lots of water filling up the tub and a very small drain moving things though, and the tub can often overflow.”
Eventually, the Ave protest group was invited to move to the University Congregational United Church of Christ (UCUCC)’s parking lot for three months. Being in the parking lot gives the group visibility, Pulford said, and people will come over to donate items.
The church provided concrete barriers, bought firewood, built a tower that runs a cord to the roof for electricity and provided an outhouse and running water. “We’re pretty much a little home without a roof,” Pulford said of the cluster of tents.
Being in this new location gives the group a sense of freedom, Pulford said. They’re able to live out in the open, without fear that they’re going to be kicked out of their spot.
As with many homeless encampments, the UCUCC group has rules. Everyone must be 18 and older, with a way to be contacted. They then do a background check. Once the person is approved, they’re invited to join the group and add their tent.
There are also rules against drug and alcohol use. The camp’s most recent rule is “no blaming” — instead of blaming, find solutions,” Pulford explained.
Making it legal
The legal encampments, like Tent City 3, have a “history of infrastructure and self-management,” as well as a camp hierarchy, Plumacher said. This isn’t the same at illegal encampments, where they often have trash and waste strewn about because they don’t have access to removal services.
There’s also no communication with the neighborhood with illegal encampments. Before Tent City 3 moves to a new neighborhood, it files a land-use permit to use the space, which allows for public comment and appeal.
Tent City 3 formed in 2000, with the support of the SHARE/WHEEL organizations. It has settled in about 70 locations since then, usually for three-month periods. For the first time ever, the group, of about 45 people, is illegally camping on public land at 6307 Eighth Avenue N.E. in the Roosevelt neighborhood. The group couldn’t find a host before moving in October, camp adviser Roger Franz told The Seattle Times.
“This looked like the best option,” Franz told the paper. “We can sleep through the [Interstate 5] noise.”
In January, Tent City 3 will move to Seattle Pacific University (SPU), where students are actively encouraged to engage with the residents. (A permit application is in process to move the encampment to SPU in mid-December.) “That’s a real win for the communities on both ends,” Plumacher said.
For an encampment to become legally recognized, they must form a group, create infrastructure and identify how they’re going to support themselves, she said. Often, a religious group will then host the group. In the case of the U-District camp, they were able to create the nonprofit The Ave Foundation, which has donated tents, canopies, food and money.
Other Seattle camps aren’t legal, though, like Nickelsville, named after former Mayor Greg Nickels. The camp is currently in the International District, with its array of little pink buildings and tents visible from the freeway.
Camps like Nickelsville — and its neighbor in Beacon Hill, with the more dangerous reputation, the Jungle — will continue to be illegal. Last year, the Seattle City Council voted to reject a bill that legalized and regulated encampments.
A ‘catch-all for failures’
King County’s Committee to End Homelessness began in 2005, hoping to rid the area of homelessness within 10 years. As its 2015 deadline rapidly approaches, it’s continuing to re-strategize and address the goal, said director Mark Putnam.
The committee is currently working on its next strategic plan, which will be adopted and put into action in 2015. In its new plan, the committee is aligning with federal goals to house homeless veterans by 2015, house chronically homeless individuals by 2016 and youths and families by 2020.
“Each day in our community, someone who is homeless is getting housed and getting off the streets,” Putnam said. “We just need to do that with more people.”
In the last year, the committee has permanently housed 2,000 people. “The issue is that more people are becoming homeless every day,” Putnam said; about half of the 10,000 households they serve each year are newly homeless.
When someone becomes homeless, they’ve already dealt with a number of challenges like job loss, poverty or health-care issues, Plumacher said; a reduction in funding for mental health and chemical dependency care only complicates things.
The homeless sector becomes a “catch-all for other failures,” she said.
There are shortcomings in housing, too: More and more, people simply aren’t able to afford their rent, Putnam said.
“The bottom line is the solution for any homelessness is in front of us. We know what it is — it’s housing — but we need the resources to do that still,” he said. “We have to stop creating homelessness in our community.”
To get people off the streets, the city will need to create affordable housing, fund mental health and chemical dependency programs and create economic opportunities, Plumacher said. She believes these changes need to come from federal, state and local governments.
Doing so will help people like Pulford, who said help from the city is hit-and-miss. Pulford believes the city should work to put homeless people in vacant houses. There are some housing resources, and Pulford has even been offered a place, but he couldn’t afford the $100-a-month rent.
Many places also require negative drug tests, he said.
“Survival is a right, not a privilege,” Pulford said. “Housing is a right, not a privilege. We should all be able to live somewhere where we feel safe at night.”