By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?”
That was part of a collection of quotes from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., read aloud by those in attendance on this MLK Day night at a special Westside Interfaith Network meeting, devoted to rallying support for keeping city-sanctioned Camp Second Chance in place in southeast West Seattle.
Three city reps were there to hear the testimonials that drew applause and the occasional “amen!” during the gathering that filled the Fauntleroy UCC Fellowship Hall with more than 100 people: Jackie St. Louis and Lisa Gustaveson from the city Human Services Department, and City Councilmember Lisa Herbold.
The timing is critical because the encampment is close to the end of its second sanctioned year (following nine unsanctioned months) on the city-owned Myers Way Parcels. City law currently says two years is the maximum stay allowed for an encampment. Another group, the Highland Park Action Committee, is meeting Wednesday to listen to arguments about whether it should or should not support an extension. Throughout tonight’s WIN meeting, speakers including camp residents made the case that the camp must not be forced to leave.
Cinda Stenger, a lay leader at Alki UCC who is also on the Camp Second Chance Community Advisory Committee, noted that the church has built 13 “tiny houses” at the site. (We have chronicled these reports in our coverage of most CAC meetings.) She said this is the only Seattle community that can build on site at a sanctioned encampment. “If this camp is to move, this powerful work will no longer be possible,” she said, calling the relationship between community supporters and the camp “a love affair. … Everything is about relationships … If they are to be relocated or worse, disbanded, (the city) will be breaking our hearts.”
She recapped Camp Second Chance’s backstory, with a group breaking away from a Tent City, launching on a site outside the city, then moving to the Myers Way Parcels (without authorization at first, and after a brief time on private property across the street).
Stenger said C2C, which usually has about 50 people living on the site at 9701 Myers Way S., is vital because there’s not enough low-income housing for the campers to move into. “If the camp has to move, the level of disruption to (campers’) lives is unconscionable.” Most have jobs and/or take classes, she noted.
She handed the mic to Willow Fulton, who chairs the CAC and lives near the camp, just south of the city/county line.
Fulton cited again one of the MLK quotes that had been read by WIN’s Mary Anne deVry at the meeting’s start: “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.” Fear and misunderstanding are “crippling,” Fulton said.
She recounted first hearing about the camp setting up nearby, but once she heard how organized it was, she thought “there was something different about this group,” and decided to see how she could help. The camp “may not be the answer to ending the homelessness crisis in our area, but it is meeting some of the basic needs” of its residents, she said. Fulton also suggested that the “financial cost” as well as “emotional cost” of moving the camp are both unacceptable.
Judi Carr, who also is a CAC member and is a resident of the Arrowhead Gardens senior-living complex a few blocks north of the camp, said she had visited C2C today for the first time in months. “The (campers) feel safe there. That’s important for them to put their lives together. … Without this kind of safety and comfort and feeling of community, how could they do that?” She recounted case manager Richard Horn of camp operator LIHI having talked to the CAC (as we’ve reported) about the shortage of truly affordable housing into which campers can be moved.
Another CAC member, Grace Stiller, recounted how she had become involved with the Myers Way Parcels through involvement with environmental nonprofits. She expressed admiration for the camp’s rules and how “everybody has to participate and do their fair share” of work. “It’s not just a camp, it’s a community … lives are being changed,” she reiterated. She sees C2C as a way for the community to “get behind – or get front of” a successful way to help some people out of homelessness.
The next speaker didn’t identify herself except to say she is an artist who had gone there early on to bear witness and “it turned into three years of friendships … I don’t think that the people who are against (the camp) have ever actually been there.” So, she urged people, invite visitors! February 10th, 1-4 pm, will be an opportunity, with an open house and tours. She also urged them to “fill (city leaders’) inboxes and voicemails with support for Camp Second Chance.”
DeVry took back the microphone and talked about an exchange with a friend while they were trying to find a place for an unhoused person recently. It felt hopeless, she said. But: “Camp Second Chance is one of our sources of hope.” She told the story of someone she met who had said he couldn’t take another winter on the streets – and then she found out he “finally got into Camp Second Chance” and had a chance at a job, just needed work boots (which he got through a donation from Alki UCC). Once he had that chance, he “talked and acted differently” – she met him again and didn’t recognize him.
C2C is the only safe haven in the greater West Seattle area, deVry then noted. “If there’s any way possible to change the rules (requiring an encampment to move after two years), please do.”
Another speaker said youth had toured the camp and “were inspired.” She added that a local Scout troop wants to go join volunteers at the site to spend a day building.
She was followed by C2C co-founder and resident manager Eric Davis. “One of the things that building tiny houses does is … have someone there to encourage you … that community love that you have here, we’re just an extension of it. … If you have any doubts … just come on out, see for yourself, don’t believe anybody … it’s the most unique place, because it’s built on trust, no lies, transparency … you can come in with a skeptic eye. … I just want you guys to come out and feel the love that we have.”
That brought yet another round of applause.
C2C resident Mary spoke next, saying that “as a homeless single woman … I’m very lucky to be at Camp Second Chance … there’s 24-hour security … it’s also very supportive in terms of people’s goals and hopes and dreams.” She has a job and goes to therapy, and says that when she sees others sleeping at the streets, she realizes how lucky she is. She said she had been the camp’s donation coordinator for half a year and saw how many people need something for jobs or interviews. And she said she, like other campers, is working on permanent housing. She expressed thanks to the city.
Volunteer Dick then described himself as a retired teacher whose involvement goes back to The Jungle under the freeway. He spoke of the dirty, dangerous conditions and how “scary” it was in The Jungle and vicinity. He’s been helping at C2C for about a year, after being “thoroughly vetted.” He said there’s no comparison between C2C and the dangers of the streets. He described C2C as a friendly, thankful neighborhood. He said that his reaction was: “Oh my God, this is the solution! … This is the model, this is what we want.” He also stressed the importance of Davis’s presence there as an on-site manager and how “you have to have that leadership in the middle of it” for the model to work.
Then, C2C resident Joshua, who said he had trouble keeping a job because of injuries, and how that led to him being denied health care, and grappling with alcohol abuse. He eventually became a C2C board member, and eventually got the surgery he needed. “If not for Camp Second Chance, this would not be remotely possible.”
Zsa Zsa from C2C told her story: She has not had secure housing for 15 years. She and her husband came back here from the Midwest to be with family – and that fell through. They found out about C2C and eventually both were able to live there, and have been there for two years. She noted that while Davis may work 40 hours a week for camp operator LIHI, “for Camp Second Chance, he works 24/7.” She too invited doubters to come see for themselves. “We are family.”
Then the kicker: She got a Section 8 voucher at year’s end and is looking to move, probably to South King County.
DeVry then asked Councilmember Herbold to come to the front of the room and clarify the city rule about encampment time limits. “The City Council a few years back … passed (legislation) to allow sanctioned encampments for a longer period of time” – it used to be 6 months – now it’s up to two years. “By making commitments to communities that an encampment won’t be there longer than the (one year, renewable for a second year), people would have some certainty that other areas of the city woud also be contributing to hosting encampments… keeping the spirit with the original encampments that were started 20 years ago, that moved for a reason historically, so all of our neighborhoods can know … the lives of neighbors who are unhoused … (with the opportunity) to love one another.”
She explained that the legislation caps the number of camps in the city as well as the duration on a site. But: “I think we are looking at it with a certain amount fo flexibiity, I don’t kow how long or how broad that flexibility will be … ” Those are conversations that need to be had with councilmembers, the mayor, city staff, and communities. The city needs to hear from people, Herbold said. She added that Wednesday night’s meeting is important for people to attend as well, especially for those like Fulton and Carr who live nearby, so they can “hear how you see (the camp) as a gift and not a burden.”
Next, deVry asked the city staffers “What do you think is one of the most effective ways we can advocate to your department?”
Jackie St. Louis of HSD said, “We are super grateful for the opportunity we’ve been afforded to listen to all the wonderful stories (tonight)… I would say this is a wonderful start, continuing to advocate … I think first and foremost we have to envision homelessness as what it is, an issue of poverty … folks are trying to transition in their lives and communicating this message as clearly as you can” is important. He agreed that extending an invitation to visit the camp is vital but also to understand that some will not be swayed. “Having people speak on their own behalf is important,” putting names and faces to the lives of unhoused people.
DeVry noted that Fauntleroy UCC is circulating a petition to ask the city to allow C2C to be extended, and she suggested other congregations and groups do the same. She also suggested that sending physical mail to decisionmakers is important.
One other issue: the future of the Myers Way Parcels. Marty Westerman of Fauntleroy is the Seattle Green Spaces Coalition‘s new president and he was there. He recapped the process of securing the parcels’ future as city parkland (it was previously earmarked to be sold as surplus). “We think Camp Second Chance is a shining light in the forest,” he declared, noting that the city had cleared out the unauthorized campers on the east side of Myers Way, and saying the GSC plans to show up at the HPAC meeting to show its support and ask the city what it would take to keep C2C there. He says they see it as a good use for public land. “There are 45 people living at (the camp), there are more than 12,000 people homeless. … This is what we’re doing to solve this problem, a little tiny step that could be a seed for everywhere else in the city. … Where else are you going to put this camp, if you move it?”
David Baum, longtime volunteer, then took the mic, taking issue with the term “tiny” – what’s being done at C2C is “not tiny,” he insisted. “There’s something special here, a spirit and a coming-together of people. … Also, this is a policy success, and that may be a surprise to everyone that two years later this is not a pit of despair … none of us want that camp to be here, but this is a time of emergency … to end this place would be a policy disaster.”
With that, another round of applause. And a few more testimonials, before the meeting broke up into small informal conversations.
WHAT’S NEXT: The Highland Park Action Committee-convened meeting on Wednesday night is at 7 pm at Highland Park Improvement Club (1116 SW Holden)- it’s billed as a facilitated conversation as HPAC decides whther to support the extension. Here’s the agenda. … Herbold and at-large Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda both have “office hours” in West Seattle this Friday (January 25th) to meet with constituents on any issues of interest, this included – Herbold, 2-7 pm Friday at the Senior Center of West Seattle (4217 SW Oregon); Mosqueda, 1-3 pm at C & P Coffee Company (5612 California SW; WSB sponsor).