By Erica C. Barnett
Sinclair-owned KOMO TV, which produced the infamous “Seattle Is Dying” segment and its followup, “The Fight for the Soul of Seattle,” has posted at least 11 pieces in recent weeks whipping up fear about a homeless encampment on the shore of Bitter Lake in North Seattle. The latest, by reporter Kara Kostanich, began: “A drug overdose at a homeless encampment on the property of a local school has parents and neighbors asking when will something be done?”
However, according to numerous encampment residents who were present when the so-called “overdose” occurred, the man didn’t have an overdose at all—he had a seizure. And the encampment is not “on the property of a local school”; it’s on school district property next door to Broadview Thomson K-8, separated from the school itself by both a tall fence and a steep hill.
The incident KOMO characterized as a “drug overdose” happened past the bottom of that hill, on the shore of the lake that forms the encampment’s northern boundary. On a recent weekday, the area was quiet and almost bucolic, more like a large recreational campground than a homeless encampment.
According to numerous encampment residents who were present when the so-called “overdose” at the center of KOMO’s story occurred, the man didn’t have an overdose at all—he had a seizure.
A man named Tony, who was there when encampment residents found the man, whom I’ll call A, lying unconscious, said several people quickly gave the man Narcan “as a precaution” before paramedics arrived. Narcan works by quickly reversing the effects of opioids, such as fentanyl or heroin, and putting a person into instant, extreme withdrawal.
“I’ve seen people get Narcan and they usually come out swinging,” Tony said. “They’re usually really sick and upset. He didn’t seem anything like that—he just jumped up and took the oxygen mask off and said he was okay. He ended up leaving and going back to his tent. It was definitely not drug-related.”
Two other encampment residents said they didn’t think A used drugs, and said that he had mentioned having infrequent seizures in the past.
But We Heart Seattle leader Andrea Suarez, whose group started as a one-person encampment cleanup effort last year, is convinced what she saw was an overdose, no matter what the people who live at the encampment say. “It certainly looked like a duck smelled, like a duck and was a duck,” Suarez said. “Now, I’m not an expert, but… if I were to give it Vegas odds, I’d say sure that seemed like a classic OD.” Suarez told me she has seen other people overdose at encampments in the past, so it was “it was extremely traumatizing for me to witness the whole process.”
“We have offered technical assistance to Seattle Public Schools, but the City is focused on addressing encampments on City property where thousands of individuals are living unsheltered—not WSDOT, private property or SPS property“—Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower
Suarez said she called 911 while “eight people were on top of [A] arguing about whether to give him a fourth dose of Narcan,” and that once paramedics showed up, “everybody took off—they all fled the scene quite quickly and I was still front and center.”
Encampment residents dispute nearly every aspect of Suarez’s account, but agree that she was “front and center”; she stood nearby shooting videos and photos on her phone as paramedics administered to the man, which she posted a couple of hours later on Facebook. Suarez said she took A to her car after he recovered and tried to convince him to go to the hospital, invoking the “Good Samaritan” law, which protects people who seek medical assistance for overdoses from criminal prosecution.
Paige, a woman who has lived at the encampment off and on with her boyfriend, Chris, for about a year, said Suarez comes around the encampment frequently offering “help” that consists mostly of offers to bus people to places they used to live or to “some kind of three-month camp [in Oregon] that you have to pay $250 for,” Paige said. “They’re not offering people places to stay.”
Suarez, along with a drug counselor named Kevin Dahlgren who instituted a “tough-love” approach to homelessness in Gresham, Oregon, acknowledges that she has offered encampment residents rides to the Bybee Lakes Hope Center, a clean-and-sober housing program located in a former jail in Oregon that charges people $250 a month and requires them to do 10 hours of unpaid “community service” work every week. She says she has also offered to take people to Uplift Northwest, a nonprofit labor agency formerly known as the Mlilionair Club.
Paige and Chris said what they really need is a permanent place to stay—somewhere where they can take a shower—”not having a shower makes you feel kind of crazy; it’s no bueno,” Chris said—wash their clothes, and do dishes without having to beg for water and haul it down to their campsite. But the city hasn’t offered services, and the only useful assistance the camp receives is weekly trash pickups—one reason the encampment, unlike others in the city, is neat and tidy.
Because the encampment is on school district property—and not, for example, on the Seattle Parks property that directly abuts the encampment site—Mayor Jenny Durkan has told the school district that sheltering, housing, and providing services to the dozens of people living there is not her problem. “We have offered technical assistance to Seattle Public Schools, but the City is focused on addressing encampments on City property where thousands of individuals are living unsheltered—not WSDOT, private property or SPS property,” Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower said. (The South Seattle Emerald covered the jurisdictional issues at play at the encampment on Friday).
In an April 20 email to Seattle School Board member Liza Rankin, who represents North Seattle, then-deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller, who is now running for mayor, provided more details on the city’s position. “Per our previous conversation [shelter and] services are the responsibility of SPS to fund and provide as this encampment falls outside the City’s jurisdiction,” Sixkiller wrote.
“Although the City is expected to spend more than $200 million and bring online new temporary and permanent shelter and housing options this year,” Sixkiller continued, “the City cannot provide shelter resources for private property owners, WSDOT property, unincorporated King County, or SPS property as thousands of unhoused individuals are on City-owned properties.”
“Obviously, we don’t have the resources to house and shelter people, and it’s a little ridiculous to expect that we do. The people living in this encampment didn’t go, ‘Oh, this is school district property, let’s put our tents here.'”—Seattle school board member Liza Rankin
On Friday, school superintendent Dr. Brent Jones sent Durkan a letter noting the long history of “rich collaboration,” including in the joint use of playfields and park space owned by the school district and the city. Similarly, Jones wrote, “the city’s support for the residents of the encampment at Miller Playfield facilitated greater access to the park by students and the community at large, and involved offering services to encampment residents living on both city and district property”—a pointed reminder that the city has been more than willing to intervene on school-owned property in the past.
Rankin says the encampment needs to go, but not unless the people living there receive services and a better place to stay. And, echoing Jones—who wrote, “it is not realistic for the district to develop on its own a comprehensive program of supports for the unsheltered community—she says it makes no sense to expect the school district to provide shelter, housing, and other resources to a large group of unsheltered people.
“Obviously, we don’t have the resources to house and shelter people, and it’s a little ridiculous to expect that we do,” Rankin said. “The people living in this encampment didn’t go, ‘Oh, this is school district property, let’s put our tents here.'”
The real problem, Rankin believes, is that Durkan “doesn’t have a place to put people” living in encampments. As we’ve reported, the city’s HOPE Team (formerly the Navigation Team) does outreach at encampments that are scheduled for removal, generally high-profile encampments that have led to a large number of complaints. If everyone at the Broadview Thomson encampment picked up and moved a few dozen feet to the east, they would be in the city’s jurisdiction. That would make them eligible for city-funded services, but it would also make them an immediate target for a sweep—a traumatizing experience that Paige and Chris said they have been through more times than they can count.
Meanwhile, the surrounding community continues to make it clear to encampment residents that they aren’t welcome. One man has come by on multiple nights to shoot fireworks at the tents; another woman who said she was “from sanitation” recently walked around filming the people living there. When I was there a few days ago, a Spandex-clad man rode a sleek road bike around the encampment a half dozen times, while another man stood at the edge of the encampment taking video on his phone.
To hear Suarez, who is a frequent visitor to the area, tell it, the apparent tidiness and calm of this encampment is an illusion. “If you’re there every day, you’re seeing crazy acts of violence, drug use, drug dealing, and people getting sick,” she said, plus “just a ton of trash that accumulates around the tents” and that volunteers like her have to haul away.
For Rankin, the encampment is a sad example of the city’s failure to take meaningful action on homelessness. Unlike the large tent city at Miller Park, near Meany Middle School, Rankin said, the Bitter Lake encampment doesn’t encroach on school property or block students’ use of nearby playfields or school grounds. “It needs to be addressed, but is not an emergency,” she said. “Kids can safely attend this school and feel comfortable.”
You won’t convince KOMO and the parents who supply its stories, though; one day after their “overdose” story, they posted another, about an “intruder” who walked into an open door at the school and stole a custodian’s backpack—”forcing a lockdown” at a school that was online-only that day. Although the story contains multiple references to the “encampment behind the school that has caused so many problems for the neighborhood and worry and concern for parents,” the Seattle Police Department said there was no way to connect the man, who was never located, to the encampment.