By Erica C. Barnett
The homeless encampment behind Broadview-Thomson K-8 school was supposed to be gone by September 1. Instead, as kids head back to in-person classes this week, it’s still growing—and no one knows quite what to do about it.
The city of Seattle washed its hands of the encampment earlier this summer, arguing that because the tents were technically on school property (rather than the city-owned land next door), the city had no responsibility to help the people living there. After noting (correctly) that the job of schools is educating children, not housing adults, the district stepped up, partnering with a fledgling nonprofit called Anything Helps to set up a resource tent on the property, with the goal of moving all 52 people to safer locations by this week.
With that “goal date” approaching, however, deputy school superintendent Rob Gannon acknowledged at a public meeting last week that “we did not make the goal.” In an interview, Gannon told PubliCola that although the encampment is still there, and has been growing, “I do intend to be able to demonstrate that there has been measurable progress, and that we’re on a pathway to continue to see most of those residents placed and the property cleared as soon as possible.”
The school district is under significant pressure to deliver on its promise. Neighborhood residents—egged on by wall-to-wall coverage on Sinclair-owned KOMO TV—have demanded that the district sweep the encampment as soon as possible, arguing that the presence of homeless people poses a danger to schoolchildren, contributes to crime, and is polluting Bitter Lake. (Although the encampment is unusually tidy by Seattle standards, KOMO’s coverage has focused near-obsessively on a large collection of trash and debris around a single campsite, suggesting a level of disorder that simply isn’t present).
At two recent public meetings at the school, neighbors have directed their anger at both Gannon and Anything Helps leader Mike Mathias, who’s singlehandedly trying to move people out of the camp, accusing both of “caring more about homeless people than our kids’ security,” to paraphrase comments made by several parents at the most recent meeting. “Trespass them!” several people shouted repeatedly during both meetings, suggesting Mathias or the school district should call police and have people arrested for being on the property. “They’re breaking the law!” one man yelled—a common misconception about people who sleep in public spaces.
Anthony Piper, who has lived at the encampment for more than a year, said the vitriol on social media and negative press attention has made it harder for “a lot of people that are already having problems to stabilize and not have more problems. This is the most talked-about place on Nextdoor and everywhere else. They want to feel safe—well, we want to feel safe too.”
On a recent Friday afternoon, Anything Helps’ Mathias sprawled in a camp chair under a canopy tent at the encampment, where a folding table, some chairs, and computers hooked up to a nearby generator serve as the makeshift headquarters for his impromptu organization. As we talked, several volunteers from a nearby church stopped by to drop off clipboards. Although a significant portion of the crowd at the first public meeting in July raised their hands at the end of the meeting when Mathias asked who was willing to volunteer, none of the hand-raisers followed through, although some donated money to Anything Helps. “We fear what we don’t understand, and so there’s just not a lot of on-site assistance,” Mathias said.
As Mathias was saying this, he was interrupted by a call: The police were on their way. Earlier that afternoon, someone had been causing trouble at the encampment and was now refusing to leave, so a volunteer needed to go out and intercept the officers. The previous week, two SPD cruisers showed up and drove across the lawn right up to the encampment, which freaked everybody out, Mathias said.
Mathias hasn’t shied away from calling the cops if he feels the community is being threatened. “The majority of my time has been spent keeping the influx of new campers out,” Mathias said. “If they refuse to leave, I call the police. But that creates unsettling circumstances. I say, ‘Listen, I don’t want to do that to you,’ because I don’t. I legitimately don’t. And I hate to displace people, because I’ve been displaced and I don’t want that to happen to anybody.”
Mathias has a personal connection to the issue he’s trying to address at Bitter Lake: He was homeless for eight months, living in the notorious Jungle encampment near I-5 before it was swept in 2016. He now lives in an apartment paid for through the federal Housing and Essential Needs program, which helps people living with diagnosed physical or mental disabilities.
Initially, Mathias planned to enroll about two-thirds of the people living at the encampment in HEN. But it quickly became clear that the people living at Bitter Lake needed basics like IDs, cash benefits, and Medicaid before they could even start the process of applying for housing and other long-term benefits.
“I know that for us and our clients, HEN has been really hard to access,” Karin Salinas, outreach director for the city’s primary outreach provider, REACH, said. “Even with light-touch people that you think you should be able to move quicker, it rarely works because there are so many barriers and hurdles,” including in-person appointments with state officials, ID requirements, and visits with a doctor or doctors to verify that a person has a disability. “Our clients get tired of trying because it’s such an effort to even get to the process of getting your application in,” Salinas said.
Shelly Vaughan, who has lived at the encampment for more than a year, said it took her more than six months to get a Washington state ID, because she had to track down documents, including a birth certificate, from other states where she lived in the past. Other encampment residents faced similar challenges. Now, Mathias said, “everybody here has EBT [food benefits]. Everybody here has Medicaid. Everybody here has IDs. That’s great. But that has taken up the bulk of our time so far.”
And then there are the new residents. Mathias estimates that since July, the encampment has grown from 52 residents to 66—and that’s accounting for 21 people who have moved out “through diversion, housing, or memorandums of understanding, where the campers decided [someone was] too disruptive.” These MOUs are “really informal,” Mathias said—just brief agreements on a sheet of paper—”but they do deter people from coming back.”
For example, a woman whose mental illness symptoms became too disruptive to the whole camp—she refused to wear clothes or shoes, screamed, and wandered into traffic—signed an MOU, along with her boyfriend, and moved to a different site nearby with camping gear purchased by Anything Helps. “She continued to refuse treatment,” and police wouldn’t take her to a hospital for an involuntary mental health hold, Mathias said. “Now I can’t find her. It’s just terrifying,”
As Mathias was explaining all this, a young man wandered past the tent; Mathias, who hadn’t seen him before, called out. “We’re at capacity right now,” he said. “I’m happy to help you, give you step-by-step directions on how to get housing, but I can’t have any more people stay here.”
After some back and forth, the man left. But our conversation was soon interrupted again by another conflict—another young man, swinging a crowbar, was accusing another resident of stealing his dollar. “If I give you a dollar, will that resolve it for you?” Mathias asked. “Give me ten,” the young man responded, scowling and scraping his crowbar in the grass. Eventually, Mathias and Piper convinced him to walk away.
These sort of conflicts, Mathias says, are constant—low-level stuff that takes time away from the primary work of getting people housed. To reduce the time Mathias spends doing conflict resolution, the district recently signed a contract with the WDC Safety Team, a group affiliated with the nonprofit Community Passageways, to provide a two-person deescalation at a cost of about $23,000 a month. The WDC Safety Team previously worked with Co-LEAD, a case management program run by the Public Defender Association that worked to shelter people with high-acuity needs and criminal justice involvement during COVID.
“It’s all about building relationships with the people living in encampments, being able to provide some kind of human connection,” WDC co-founder Dominique Davis said. “Our job is just being there, letting people know that we’re here to keep you guys safe. We’re not security and we’re not patrolling you. We’re not watching what you do. We’re here to make sure no violence happens and to deescalate situations as they arise.”
In late August, the district installed a fence with a locked gate on the north side of the encampment, and has since extended the fencing to separate a path that runs along the property, which could theoretically be used by children, from the camp. “The fence will not solve all issues, but it at least secures, or makes more secure, the pathway to and from the school,” Gannon said at last week’s meeting. “It may seem trivial, but that has done a lot to slow the traffic in and out of the camp.”
Although the city has refused to provide assistance to encampment residents or the school district, its own practice of removing encampments in response to neighborhood complaints appears to have exacerbated the situation at Bitter Lake. Mathias and people living at the encampment said some of the new residents arrived after the city swept nearby encampments, including multiple encampments in Lake City that have been the source of similar neighborhood battles in recent months.
Gannon agrees that the city-led sweeps are driving unsheltered people to seek new places to live—and some of them end up at Bitter Lake.”I don’t mean anything disparaging by this, but this is a transient population,” Gannon told PubliCola. “There are people coming in, there are people going out, and it’s difficult to keep tabs on everybody’s whereabouts. It is also difficult to determine who is new and how to exclude them from the property.”
Sometimes, especially if your perspective is skewed by social media and heated public meetings, it can seem as though entire neighborhoods have turned their backs on unsheltered people and simply want them gone. But not everyone around Bitter Lake sees the encampment as a threat. In addition to the church volunteers, there’s Barbara—a neighbor who first ventured into the encampment after she heard on television that the city-owned sports field next to the encampment was covered with needles from encampment residents.
“I was like, ‘I can singularly solve this problem.'” said Barbara, who preferred that we use her first name only. “I came over here with my gloves on, my grabber, my container to put sharps in, and there were no needles there. In fact, I found no trash whatsoever.” On several recent visits, PubliCola found the encampment virtually trash-free, thanks to a cleanup system that involves collecting trash in large white bins and carrying it to the nearby park for collection by the Parks Department (which also installed a large sharps container by the restrooms).
After she showed up and found nothing to clean, Barbara started hanging out at the encampment and getting to know the people living there. “I’m out here nearly every day,” she said. “I’ve seen conflicts happen. And I’ve seen conflict resolution. And there’s been nothing that made me even feel like I needed to get up and leave.”
It would be misleading to suggest that no violence or illegal activity has occurred at the Bitter Lake encampment. People have showed up at neighborhood residents’ homes and asked them to call 911 because they were overdosing, and people have died on the property. Drug and alcohol use is common. Before my most recent visit, Mathias called the cops on a woman who was screaming at people by the nearby tennis courts. But the evidence that the encampment poses a risk to nearby school children is nonexistent. As Piper notes, unsheltered people are well aware that housed people loathe and fear them. They’ll go out of their way to avoid interacting with people’s kids.
Moreover, in a city where thousands live unsheltered, “move them somewhere else” is not a compelling solution—not for encampment residents, who will be demonized and shamed no matter where they go, nor for housed residents, who will still be confronted with visible homelessness until homelessness is solved.
In the coming weeks and months, Gannon and Mathias hope to find places for everyone living at Bitter Lake to move indoors—including, Gannon hopes, a hotel on Aurora Ave. North that King County purchased in July. “The county is working with us,” Gannon said. “They understand the pressures that we’re under, they understand that the timeline that we’re operating towards, but there also is an appreciation that the approach we’re trying to take right to find services and solutions for those experiencing homelessness, not to merely sweep them away and have that become a different problem in a different area of the community.”
Once the people living at the encampment are housed or have agreed to move elsewhere, Gannon says, the district will have to think about what to do with the property, which has historically been an open field that has served as an extension of the park next door. One option would be to keep it fenced off and use it for “school-related purposes”; another would be to sell it. “We haven’t actually entertained potential buyers, but that is on the list of considerations, Gannon said. “But that decision is a long way away.”
Piper and Vaughan, who have been at Bitter Lake since the beginning, both point to the many drawbacks of living outside, including the fact that they have to travel several hours on the bus and wait in a long line at the nearest hygiene center just to take a shower. (There’s a City of Seattle community center right next to the encampment, but it’s closed). “We definitely would like to live in our own house,” Vaughan says. “But we kind of want to stay here till the last person’s gone, because we kind of started it in a way.”
Piper, who has a housing voucher through the Veterans’ Administration and a small monthly disability check, says that even though he hasn’t lived indoors for a long time, “I’ve always kind of thought, eventually, when I was ready, I’ll be okay.” For now, though, he’s staying put. “A lot of these people are my friends. Personally, I just want everyone to have the chance. And even if they don’t take it, that’s fine. They got the chance to do something. That’s what I want. I just want to see that through.”