Homeless in Seattle
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:
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:
JC: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
More about Terri:
- Visit her store Alki Surf Shop
- Terri Nakamura on Twitter
- Alki Surf Shop on Twitter
- The Horsfall House on AirBNB
- More by Terri Nakamura