By Linda Ball
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
To say that emotions ran high at last night’s meeting about the city’s plan for an authorized encampment on Myers Way is an understatement.
Led by George Scarola, the city’s director of homelessness, the meeting included an invited group of about 40 concerned neighborhood advocates, and escalated into raised voices and statements of clear dissatisfaction with the city, one week after Mayor Murray’s announcement of three new encampments around the city, including this one.
In an overview of the homeless problem citywide, Scarola said there were 3,000 unsheltered people on the streets of Seattle as he spoke, and even more if you counted those in shelters. Countywide, he said 10,000 are homeless, 4,500 of those unsheltered. “Something different is happening,” he said of the problem. “It’s a phenomenon that has become common.”
The city’s plan, he said, is to get homeless people only what they need as fast as possible – not a “Cadillac” but to get them sheltered. The city is working with various non-profit organizations to become more effective in solving this dilemma. In the meantime, the city needs to address those 3,000 people, without them living in parks, on school grounds or on sidewalks.
Folks living on the edge – under freeways, on the edge of parks – will be asked to move and given 72 hours to do so, Scarola said, with the offer of a warm place to stay. Camp Second Chance, which moved to the city-owned Myers Way Parcels last July, is currently unsanctioned, but is slated to be one of three new sanctioned homeless encampments within the city. 20 tents are there now; the city says 50 will be added. Rules would apply – it would be a clean and sober community, as its organizers say it is now. People would be allowed to bring partners and pets.
The first person to speak up was Gunner Scott (photo at left), chair of the Highland Park Action Committee. Formerly homeless and now a homeowner, Scott said the permit for CSC should be retroactive to when the encampment was set up last summer, since the city is saying all of the new encampments will get an initial permit for one year.
Scott wondered why, after hosting the original Nickelsville encampment for several years, Highland Park was being asked to host another encampment. He also pointed out that the area of the Myers Way Parcels where CSC has set up is contaminated with toxins, and even before the camp moved there, Myers Way had become a magnet for people living in recreational vehicles along the road, illegal dumping, and a variety of other illegal activity. “By continuing to put people in an industrial area is a hazard to their health, ” Scott said.
Area residents Carol and Pat, who did not want to share their last name for fear of retribution, have seen it all. Pat said he had to call 911 twice earlier in the day about the same man casing houses. The couple, who live right on the edge of the Seattle/unincorporated King County border, say they have spent more than 1,000 hours writing letters and making phone calls to the city, county, and law enforcement this year. Pat, a 30-year resident of Myers Way, alleges that people in the RV’s have been involved in prostitution, drugs, and chop-shops. He said the area has become dangerous, and that Seattle Police need to be there 24/7. He also said that 99 percent of the garbage strewn along Myers Way is from people living unsheltered.
The sentiment echoed by almost everyone at the meeting is that they are tired of their neighborhoods being the dumping ground for the city’s problems. Amanda Kay Helmick, who chairs the Westwood-Roxhill-Arbor Heights Community Council and is president of the Roxhill Elementary PTA, was visibly shaking as she spoke of the illegal encampment right behind the school, where drug use is rampant. “I picked up condoms yesterday – what are you going to do? I want answers!” she said.
SPD Assistant Chief Steve Wilske, a former Southwest Precinct commander, said they will be deploying more officers, and that they can make troublemakers leave. The problem is, he said, they can’t prevent them from coming back. But the city has set aside $50 million to address the homeless problem, to which Helmick responded “$50 million on 10,000 people?”
Mary Fleck with the Seattle Green Spaces Coalition – which advocated for the city to retain the Myers Way Parcels instead of selling them – also wants a commitment from the city to clean up the area around the camp, remove illegal campers deeper in the woods, and move the RVs. Scarola said that is what they intend to do. Scott said he wanted a commitment from the city to accomplish that within five days, saying that the residents are tired of lip service. Scarola said Seattle Public Utilities is committed to picking up the garbage along Myers Way faster, and in the case of needles, within 24 hours.
Mike Ashbrook, director of facility operations for the city, contended that the Myers Way site is not toxic, adding that portable toilets would be brought in, and that a graywater disposal system would be set up. Scarola said the city would provide water services, an onsite case manager, and would establish a community advisory council. Sola Plumacher of the Human Services Department said with case management services on site there would be a better chance of moving people into permanent housing.
None of this was enough for skeptical community leaders, though. One of the other two proposed authorized encampments would be in Georgetown. A South Park resident expressed concern that his neighborhood would become a “superhighway” between the two encampments, pointing out that “as the crow flies” the two sites are only a mile apart. Additionally, concern was voiced that the encampments fly in the face of racial and economic equity, since the neighborhoods are more racially and economically diverse than much of the city.
Chief Wilske said nine additional officers have been added to the Southwest precincts, and that soon there will be more dedicated bike squads. But he said that even outside camps, police are also dealing with squatters in empty homes. One big challenge with the Myers Way location is that it is bordered by unincorporated King County on multiple sides. So, in addition to more city services, SPD and King County need better coordination.
Last week’s announcement of the Myers Way and Georgetown encampments, along with a third in the north end, is part of what Mayor Murray called a strategy to “bridge the gap” until more permanent housing can be created for people who need it. The Myers Way camp is the only one of the three newly authorized encampments that will use tents; the other two are to use “tiny houses.”