“When dumpster diving, if you find a pair of shoes and they are not your size, or clothes, then leave them neatly by the side of the dumpster for the next diver.”
This is the first piece of advice that Tommy, a formerly homeless man, gives to others facing life on the streets. At the end of March, Tommy participated in an online chat about the true experience of homelessness. Hundreds of former homeless and even some currently homeless people accessing the chat via libraries, friends’ homes and other places contributed their thoughts to the discussion. These voices, which the more fortunate rarely hear, cast a different light on controversies surrounding the places where those without homes seek refuge in our own community, such as at the Thomas Street P-Patch.
By the most recent count by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, there has been a 14-percent increase in the number of homeless people in the county between 2013 and 2014. Seattle has the majority of this population, approximately 2,300 individuals out of more than 3,100 homeless men, women, and children. The gender of most of the individuals counted could not be determined, but of those of clear gender, there were six times as many men as women. This trend appears outside our own city, too, reflecting in the homeless counts of Los Angeles, Denver and New York City.
Because the county only does an annual, beginning-of-year homeless count, it’s difficult to get accurate population projections several months later in April. There is also the misleading perception that the homeless population in a given city rises as the weather warms up. As explained by advocate for the homeless and outreach expert James Greene of the Emergency Shelter Commission, “…we see our numbers go up in the warm weather months because people lead pretty truncated lives in fairly crowded conditions during the winter months.”
Whether or not Capitol Hill’s homeless population has risen with the temperature, Seattle’s homeless have found themselves in a season of displacement. Recently, one of the city’s longest standing tent cities for the homeless was redistributed away from its years-long station in West Seattle. Several temporary camps took root in the Central District, only to face tight deadlines for breakdown starting this month. It’s still not certain where the newest camps will emerge, but there has been talk of potential locations in Capitol Hill on or near Union Street.
Unsanctioned homeless encampments in Capitol Hill have also become more prominent, especially along the east-facing portion of the Big Red Wall of the light rail station construction site. Police cleared one such camp just last month. Cal Anderson Park remains public space that is open to all, so while camps can be evicted from the area, law-abiding people regardless of homed status are free to remain. Seattle City Councilmembers Sally Bagshaw and Bruce Harrell have also begun discussions in their committees about setting up lockers to help the city’s homeless store their possessions safely. Similar programs have been put in place as far away as Lisbon and Portugal, and as nearby as Portland, Oregon.
Outside of camps near churches and parks, there have been complaints recently of homeless people taking up space in Capitol Hill’s P-Patch gardens. The most notable of which is the Thomas Street P-Patch, which recent comments at the East Precinct Advisory Council meeting noted has been used by suspected homeless as a hangout.
“It’s a popular place. The waiting list to get in the garden is five years. People in the neighborhood really love it… but we’ve had an ongoing challenge with the number of homeless folks,” an EastPAC attender said. “We have a code of conduct that’s listed up there, and we don’t mind visitors, but what we have is camping out. They impede our ability to get into the shed and use our tools. We also are dealing with the lack of bathroom facilities, so there’s human waste. We have people trying to pick it up, but we’re concerned about our own safety.”
Police from the East Precinct are currently investigating the matter and could not be reached immediately for comment. The Thomas Street P-Patch, aka Thomas Street Gardens, has the appearance of a small park. It has a wall, a path for easy access and iron benches, all elements that make the space a safer, more inviting refuge than the street.
As it stands, Capitol Hill may see greater homeless traffic because it is a generally more homeless-friendly part of town than other areas. In addition to the large park spaces like Cal Anderson and Volunteer Park, Broadway and Union Street are both hubs for homeless outreach efforts such as the Seattle Foundation Community Lunch program at All Pilgrims Church and Central Lutheran Church. These hot meals are also some of the only places where Seattle’s homeless can get guaranteed medical care. Country Doctor Clinic regularly sends medical students to monitor the guests’ blood pressure and glucose levels, while Seattle Mental Health Chaplaincy sends representatives to the lunches for outreach and referrals for those who are on the streets because of mental health problems. The Seattle Foundation estimates that between 250 and 350 homeless individuals appear at each of the three weekly meals in Capitol Hill.
Homeless encampments may or may not be a crime, depending on where they are and how they behave. The Seattle Police Department advises people to avoid calling 911 to report a suspected encampment. Instead, the SPD urges people to report camps to the Seattle Customer Service Bureau at 206-684-2489.