Seattle’s Homeless: Building Communities

Homeless in Seattle

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Over the course of the past six months I’ve watched a homeless encampment sprout and take over a strip of land along Airport Way S., on the edge of Chinatown in Seattle.

I’d been tempted to stop and check it out, but felt wary. Unlike the nearby Nickelsville encampment, which appeared to be orderly and governed, Airport Way S., looked scarier.

On my way to work one sunny day in late summer, through my open window, I heard live music coming from the camp, and decided to pull over and park.

Three visiting pastors from S. Carolina and Kenya were leading a youth group who came to minister, distribute clothes and entertain the people living in the camp.

They were happy to talk:

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Volunteers minister to homeless

After interviewing the volunteers, I wandered between tents, parked vehicles and makeshift structures, and came upon a three-sided tent where a few people were sitting around a table. I thought they might be “in charge,” but they were inhabitants. One man was coloring in a coloring book; a woman was industriously rolling cigarettes, (which she was selling to others in the camp); and a third was a young man who had been on the road for a while and found himself in Seattle with no means to live. Here’s our conversation:

terri-nakamura-jaster-of-the-cheshire-airport-way-seattle-20160910_145659JC: I’ve been here 7 days and I’m a traveler.

TN: So how did you even find this place [homeless encampment]?

JC: It’s not hard when you’ve been on the streets as long as I have. You find places like this relatively easily.

TN: So how long have you been on the streets?

JC: Since before Katrina. I left one year before Katrina and I haven’t been back since. I was supposed to be there but I came here for a friend. If I had a forge and foundry, I wouldn’t be here.

TN: So you’re a metal worker?

JC: I’m a blacksmith, yes. I generally end up making weapons, chain mail, hell, if I had a bunch of coat hangers, I could make something right now. And I can could pack that b1tch out custom. All I need to do is get their measurements.

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TN: That’s quite an operation you have there (talking to a woman making cigarettes) they look quite professional

JC: I love those little packers. I had a small one once.

[Guy comes up to buy cigarettes and talks to the woman. There are 20 in a pack. He’ll come back for two packs.]

TN:  (to the woman) So, how long have you been here?

Woman: I’ve been here three weeks.

TN: This place wasn’t here a couple of months ago.

Woman: It’s probably because people get pushed out of certain areas. And then they get pushed into another place. This is kind of what happened.  I’ve seen it before. Make a community, make a family.

TN: Someone comes along and says, “OK you guys can’t stay here anymore,” — then what happens? How do you find a new place?

JC: Day by day we look and we see little things. Like I know of about 50 sleep spots that I could  use and no one would ever see me.

TN: You’ve been in Seattle seven days and you know of 50 sleep spots? That’s pretty amazing.

JC: It’s not hard. Walking around, you see ’em. I’ve been in this life for a while.

TN: You don’t seem very old.

JC: I know I don’t. I’m actually not that old. I’m 20.

Woman: I’m 27.

TN: You guys both look young.

JC: My name is Jaster of the Cheshire. Don’t ask me how to spell Cheshire.

TN: You sound like a Game of Thrones character. 

JC: I like to make things with my hands. I like to work on my own. I don’t work well with some people who mess with the creole boy. Oh he1l, no. I’m a crazy Louisiana boy.

TN: You don’t have a southern accent.

JC: Because that’s how long I’ve been away from home. The only time my southern comes out is when I’m angry. Or drunk. I drink on someone’s birthday or when someone dies. 

That’s a good way to grieve. I want to send my friend off and i want him to know I’m smiling and enjoying myself, knowing one day I’ll join him, wherever in the he1l we’re going.

TN: Well, I wish you the best of luck.

JC: I wish you luck, too.

TN: Thank you. Everybody needs some luck.

JC: We do. It helps us through everything we do every day. Lady Luck can sometimes be a cruel mistress.

Homelessness can be the result of many causes, including drug addiction, untreated/undiagnosed mental health issues, domestic violence, and tragic life events like death of a loved one, job loss, and family disputes.

Natural disasters or the elimination of options due to financial stress are other causes. It’s possible to be living a normal life until circumstances drastically change.

A friend found himself in several of the conditions above, and became homeless. I wanted to talk with him about his journey, but during the process of searching for him, I discovered he had died. There are people all around us who, as a result of some bad luck and lack of support, find themselves in his shoes.

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A border around a 10′ x 10′ plot of dirt was being reserved for “Redd.”

Homelessness is a concern to almost everyone in this city. On a neighborhood blog, I read a thread about homeless people camping in greenbelts, and the huge amount of trash they generate and leave behind. People had concerns about health, safety and how homeless encampments can negatively impact a neighborhood.

One idea was to create an area for homeless people to stay or camp, where restrooms and facilities for washing or bathing and disposing garbage are made available. One person likened homeless people to unwanted pets that have become too burdensome to maintain, then released in the wild.

Despite studies, meetings and participation by community organizations, there has yet to be a permanent solution.

Should Seattle make itself a hostile environment for homeless people?

Are urban campgrounds the answer?

Homelessness is a vexing problem here. Our city government is spending  time and money to identify a solution, and other groups are also working toward an answer.

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Tent City Collective has an objective: To mobilize, educate and unite students and people experiencing homelessness in order to end the many inequities that perpetuate homelessness.

It’s a lofty goal. But when the warmth and sunshine of summer gives way to the cold and rain of fall and winter, the solution can’t come fast enough.

I’ve gone back to visit the Airport Way S. camp twice more. It still looks scary, but the people living there are not. They arrived for all kinds of reasons, and they are bonded by their circumstances.

Those living there hang onto the community they’ve created. And when they’re forced to move, they will start again. The cycle will repeat itself until we find an answer.

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A miserable place to exist


Domestic violence is one of the major causes of homelessness.Verizon Wireless supports Hopeline, where donated phones are then turned into valuable resources for nonprofit organizations and agencies that support domestic violence victims and survivors nationwide.

The video and photos in this post were shot using a Samsung Galaxy S7, provided by Verizon Wireless.

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One Man’s Journey to Homelessness

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How does a guy who seems to have everything end up living in a tent and dying alone?

On the far right in the photo above, alongside several high school friends, stands Will, posed like Michelangelo’s David. Showing hyper-focused inclinations since childhood, Will was born March 12, 1950, and grew up in Burien, Washington. He (and the friends in the shot) graduated from Highline High School in 1968. Will then went on to earn a B.F.A. in 1978 from the University of Washington.

Will was creative. When he was in high school he did a poster for a dance featuring Magic Fern, a rock band from Seattle in the ‘60s. He loved music. He and his friend, George, attended the first Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair. Like many who grew up in that era, he was a serious fan of the Grateful Dead, but he also liked Talking Heads, Devo, Jazz and David Guetta. He had an adventurous spirit. He traveled to far away places including Europe, India, Goa, Tibet, Turkey and Afghanistan.

Following a prolific period as a sculptor, Will got a day job as an employee of the UW as a painter in the facilities department. The job was boring, but his life was not. He loved wine and learned to make it, producing gallons of it, then moved on to making whisky. He converted part of his rental house into an aviary and began breeding hundreds of budgies of every imaginable color. He got hooked on mineral collecting because his friends Roy and John were rockhounds—and within a year, he had acquired $2,000 worth of specimens. But his true passion, which may have contributed to his downfall, started in 1990 when he began to breed red and white Siberian Huskies.

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Mike, a long-time friend since the second grade, says, “From the first day I met him, he would jump into something with both feet. The first thing was his penny collection. He was focused and would immerse himself in things.” Or as his friend Roy puts it, “When Will gets into something, he gets into it.”

He continued to work at the UW until he was injured. After that, he survived on disability and doing odd jobs, and continued creating fractal art, and largely lived what seemed to be a reasonably normal life that included new friends as well as old.

Until about 2007, Will lived in a rented home in the Bryant neighborhood of Seattle. He was a great story teller, had a friendly way about him, and hung around with an erudite group of people including other wine aficionados and brainy people who worked on Cray computers and on projects like Boeing’s Star Wars program.

Then one day, everything began to change.

The owner of Will’s rental passed away, and the heirs decided to sell the house he was renting. Will was evicted.

At first he stowed his possessions in his friend, Henry’s, basement. Henry didn’t mind keeping Will’s things, but didn’t want anyone extra living in his home. Will was able to come and go as he pleased, and all was fine until he crossed the line and surreptitiously began to sleep there. His act of defiance had a negative effect on their friendship.

Part of his income stream was a years-long project, painting Mike’s house. He would hole up in Mike’s garage and take showers in the basement. It wasn’t the greatest for Will or Mike’s wife and kids.

In trying to piece together the sequence of events, Roy looked through a pile of photos and came across a camping picture. It was taken in March, 2010. By then, Will had already been living with his dogs in his van for a couple of years.

Will knew the spots where he could wash up and where he could source food. Roy says, “He would camp in public spots in neighborhoods. For a couple of years he parked in a church parking lot. They knew he was homeless, and eventually people in the area knew him and didn’t hassle him.”

To help him make some money and put a roof over his head, other friends hired him to paint their summer home and let him live there as long as he needed. The house was empty and surrounded by land where the dogs could romp freely. There were soft beds, electricity, a kitchen and bathroom, and living room with a television. It seemed like an ideal way to get him out of his car and into a home.

But at some point, it was discovered that even though Will had access to a free, warm and comfortable home, he continued sleeping in his van with his dogs while he worked on the house. He used the kitchen to cook, and used the bathroom for bathing, but he ran an extension cord from the house to the van where he would watch movies and sleep with his dogs.

A transition had taken place: Will no longer felt comfortable living inside of a normal house.

The unraveling of Will’s life occurred gradually. Each stage of the progression, by itself, struck everyone as “weird,” but then, Will was an odd duck, so it didn’t seem entirely crazy. If anyone would choose an unorthodox path, it was he.

Unlike many homeless people, Will had some resources. One family member supplied him with a cell phone for a while. He had his disability income. He owned some valuable assets. He had friends who were living normal lives. And he was eligible for temporary housing, but only if he would give up his dogs.

Erin, a family friend says Will was approved for housing six times, but wouldn’t go because he didn’t want to give up his dogs. Rather than part with his Huskies, he chose to live in his car.

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Will was diabetic and not taking good care of himself. Even in the best of circumstances, it can be hard to stay on top of the disease. He blacked out while driving, and crashed his van. His friend, Paul, helped him buy another, and he crashed it, too. To finance the third, Roy helped him sell his mineral specimens. He crashed three vans before he began living in a tent.

Living in a tent is hard. Roy visited Will at one of the camp sites and saw insulin pens were all over — but no testing stuff. He was just taking shots and not monitoring his diabetes

Says Paul, “At the end of 2013, he was living in a tent with his two dogs in a public park in Federal Way, and had been there for a couple of months. Henry and I had a long talk with him about getting him care, and said we could help him find a place and get him set up IF he would get rid of the dogs. We even found someone who was willing to take the dogs and would have provided better care for them, but he refused.”

He was able to live for a while in Nickelsville a homeless encampment on South Dearborn at the edge of Chinatown. It didn’t last long. He bucked authority, got into an argument with the guard, and was evicted. He moved back into a tent. Once a week, Roy would pick him up and take him out for food and let him wash his clothes.

By New Year’s Day 2014, Will was in Harborview Medical Center, looking like a “crazy homeless guy with his hair all over his face.” It was a particularly cold winter. He had suffered frostbite on his fingers and toes, and didn’t lose any of them, but he was not in good shape. While at Harborview, he punched his doctor because she got too close, and didn’t recognize his long-time friends, Paul or Henry. He didn’t realize his dogs were gone. (The dogs were placed in a “No Kill” shelter in Federal Way.) Will felt he was being held prisoner. Clearly, he was not thinking clearly.

Will looked close to death, but by the time February came along, much to everyone’s surprise, he continued to survive. He was moved to St Francis Hospital in Federal Way and was placed in the Progressive Care Unit. He seemed to be coming along.

Toward the end of July of 2015, Will moved to an adult family home in Federal Way, near Roy. The proximity made it possible for Roy to visit each week and take him out for a meal.

Paul reports Will didn’t adjust well at first. In the family home, there were four children under the age of 10 also living there The TV was tuned to Sesame Street. It was a circus. So Paul got Will a laptop thinking he could watch movies and things of his own choosing. But Will would balance it precariously and would lose his balance when he used it. The landlord asked to have the laptop removed. The owners had Will’s best interests at heart, but he couldn’t follow the rules.

A month later, on August 28, 2016, Will died.

When asked about the cause of death, Roy was told “he was worn out.”

His friend, David, says, “Will was a character, sometimes following a rhythm only he could hear. He graduated from the UW with a fine arts degree and went off to India with a lovely blonde girlfriend. Came back dressed all in white—the coolest guy around. A kind and unconventional man, he didn’t always make the best choices, but he was always a loyal friend.”

Like so many homeless people who never expect it to happen to them, anyone reading this post could, at any time, find themselves teetering over the edge into the rabbit hole. Is it mental illness, the failure of a system, random bad luck, or a combination of all of the above?

Will is missed by his friends. They ask themselves if they could have done anything more to change the course of his life. But Roy sums it up perfectly: “He wanted to take care of himself, and wanted to live life in his own way.”

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Photo taken August 29, 1981

Will, March 12, 1950 — August 28, 2016


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