I’m standing next to a freeway overpass with a couple dozen strangers, milling around and chatting about what brought us here this Sunday morning while Rex Hohlbein, the head of the nonprofit group Facing Homelessness, beams and hugs each new arrival. A pile of garbage bags, a dozen hardware-store grabbers, two boxes of latex gloves, and several red sharps containers are piled up near the gate separating the overpass from a homeless encampment on a hillside overlooking I-5 and downtown Seattle. These will be our tools for picking up trash at this hillside homeless encampment overlooking downtown Seattle, one of an estimated 400 such encampments in the city.
Facing Homelessness—which started out as a Facebook page aimed at humanizing Seattle’s thousands of homeless residents by telling some of their stories, and expanded to include the BLOCK Project, which builds housing for formerly homeless people in homeowners’ backyards—has found a new avenue for its advocacy: Cleaning up encampments that are at risk of removal by the city’s Navigation Team.
A bit of backstory: The Navigation Team, a group of police officers and outreach workers who remove unauthorized encampments and inform their residents about available shelter and services, has begun focusing primarily on removing encampments that constitute “obstructions”—a term that includes any encampment that is in a public park, on a sidewalk, or where a large amount of trash has accumulated. Once an encampment is deemed an “obstruction,” the Navigation Team can remove it without notifying residents or offering them shelter or services.
“If people come down [the hillside] to engage with you, that’s your opportunity to engage with another person, and that’s way more important than picking up garbage.”
The cleanups, which Hohlbein started organizing in early June, now draw dozens of volunteers eager to help solve a vexing problem—because the city only collects trash from ten encampments at a time (a program that could expand to two more encampments this year), garbage—clothes, needles, food waste, and the detritus of everyday life—tends to pile up. (Illegal dumping by people who live elsewhere exacerbates the problem.) Eventually, the Navigation Team will either come in and pick up some of the garbage or remove the encampment entirely and clear the trash away. Removing the trash, Hohlbein hopes, will help forestall this process by removing one of the city’s justifications for “sweeps.”
Before volunteers can start piling the trash that litters the bottom of this hillside into big black plastic bags, there are some principles to go over. First principle: Have respect. “We have to remember that we’re entering people’s home right now, and it may not feel like that because it’s outside, but we have to be respectful of people’s privacy and not leave the path below the encampment,” Hohlbein tells his volunteers. Second principle: Safety. Hohlbein shows the volunteers how to safely pick up needles—with a grabber, held at a safe distance—and dispose them in the sharps containers provided by the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance.
Yes, the project is “about cleaning up the city,” Facing Homelessness’ Rex Hohlbein says. “But really, we want to stop the sweeps.”
“We’re here to have fun. That is really important. We want you to come back and tell your friends and family about this.” And finally, “and least important”: Pick up garbage. “If people come down [the hillside] to engage with you, that’s your opportunity to engage with another person, and that’s way more important than picking up garbage.”
Over the course of the morning, between marking needles on the ground with flags for the designated needle pickers and sorting through stuff to decide what’s trash and what might be useful—a dirty roll of paper towels goes in the bag, some barely damaged books are gathered and left on the ground—I talked to some of the volunteers to find out why they were there. One young woman, who works for the youth homelessness nonprofit YouthCare, told me she was from Aberdeen, where youth homelessness (and recruitment into white supremacist groups) is a major issue, and saw the cleanups as an opportunity to extend her service work. Another volunteer, whose organization builds tiny houses for people experiencing homelessness, said he was frustrated that the city hasn’t created more tiny house villages and was showing up to support Hohlbein in his effort to prevent more encampment removals.
The trash pickups end at 12:30 sharp—enough time, on this day, to collect dozens of bags of trash, and hundreds of needles, from the hillside. After the volunteers pile up the trash outside the gate, the city’s Navigation Team, which was just leaving the camp when we arrived, will come back with a truck to gather the bags so that the rats and crows won’t get to them first. Hohlbein its’ about cleaning up the city but really we want to stop the sweeps
Hohlbein checks on some encampment residents he’s gotten to know, just to see how they’re doing and if they need anything from him. He snaps photos of several of the people living in the camp, which he will post on the Facing Homelessness website along with a request on the Facing Homelessness page for donations to buy tents, sleeping bags, and tarps. On the way back down the hillside, Hohlbein stops and poses a rhetorical question. “If [the city has], like, a five-prong plan for homelessness, why wouldn’t one of them be to clean up the garbage?” He says he hopes to expand the project to have weekly cleanups across the city. Yes, the project is “about cleaning up the city,” he says. “But really, we want to stop the sweeps.”