By the end of this week, dozens of tents that have dotted the hillside behind Broadview Thomson K-8 School will be gone, and the former campground, which borders the south side of Bitter Lake in North Seattle, abandoned except for the security guards who will ensure that no more unsheltered people move in. Many of the residents have moved into the Low Income Housing Institute’s new Friendship Heights tiny house village nearby, where 22 tiny houses are reserved for Bitter Lake residents. Another 18 have moved into the new Mary Pilgrim Inn, run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, nearby.
In a letter to parents at the end of November, school principal Tipton Blish wrote, “With active support from the City of Seattle, the people who have been living at the camp now have an opportunity to move out of the elements and onto a path to break the cycle of homelessness.”
It’s a positive outcome for dozens of people who have spent more than a year waiting for services and support that never came.
But the past year at the Bitter Lake encampment, which culminated in disturbing allegations against the nonprofit director the school district tapped to relocate encampment residents, highlights ongoing policy questions about the homelessness crisis in Seattle, including the role that local government and nonprofits play in deciding which encampments get resources, and which get ignored.
It also raises a number of questions for the school district, the city, and the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. Why did Seattle Public Schools place so much responsibility in the hands of an untested, brand-new nonprofit run primarily by a single volunteer? Should the district have done more to monitor what was going on at the encampment, including the power dynamics between the nonprofit and encampment residents? Why did the city take so long to step in and help encampment residents? And how did 14 housing vouchers end up in the hands of an unvetted nonprofit with no track record—or staff?
People began setting up tents at Bitter Lake shortly after the pandemic began, attracted by both the bucolic lakeshore location and the site’s proximity to a restroom in the city park next door. Walking to the site from the Bitter Lake soccer field, you might not realize you’ve crossed an invisible border from city property to school property; even the public boat ramp is technically on school district grounds, contributing to the sense that the lakeshore is part of the park itself.
But while the public may not have found the distinction meaningful, the city did, and when the school district asked for help picking up trash and providing services to the several dozen people living at the encampment earlier this year, Mayor Jenny Durkan said it was not the city’s problem, suggesting that perhaps the school district might want to use its “reserves” to set up its own human services department to provide outreach, case management, and housing to encampment residents.
In response to the allegations, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is in charge of distributing 1,314 emergency housing vouchers to organizations throughout the county, has “frozen” the 14 vouchers it had allocated to Anything Helps.
Casting around for allies, the school district settled on a new, but highly engaged, nonprofit called Anything Helps, led by a formerly homeless outreach worker named Mike Mathias. Within weeks, the school district had charged Mathias with the herculean task of finding shelter or housing for everyone on site. His plan, which involved enrolling every encampment resident in the state Housing and Essential Needs program, proved more challenging than either Mathias or the school district expected and ultimately didn’t pan out.
Instead, after many months of inaction, the city finally stepped in earlier this month, connecting encampment residents with shelter and housing through a very conventional avenue: The HOPE Team, a group of city employees that offers shelter and services to encampments that the city is about to sweep, started showing up and providing referrals to two new tiny house villages and a hotel-based housing project that recently opened nearby. Outreach workers from other nonprofits, who had mostly stayed away from Bitter Lake to prioritize people living in worse conditions elsewhere, showed up as well, and in the end, almost everyone on site moved into temporary shelter or housing.
Outreach workers, volunteers, and one school board member who spoke to PubliCola on background said they were relieved that encampment residents were finally able to leave, noting that the situation at the encampment had been deteriorating for some time.
Last week, volunteers for Anything Helps sent a letter to community members, the school district, and other homeless service providers making a number of disturbing allegations about Mathias. Among other charges, the letter alleges that Mathias used some of the money Anything Helps received from the school district and individual donors to pay for drugs; that he threatened and used federal Emergency Housing Vouchers as leverage over several women at the camp; and that he engaged in “verbal aggression, threats, and retaliation toward staff,” including accusing one volunteer of stealing money.
Because Mathias said he had seven full-time case managers on staff, Anything Helps probably received a score more than twice as high as it would have if Mathias had said, accurately, that the group had no paid case managers.
Mathias told PubliCola that “a lot of these allegations are false,” except for one that he declined to identify until he could talk to an attorney. He also said he would “step away from the project completely” and had appointed an interim executive director, former Lake City Partners Ending Homelessness outreach specialist Curtis Polteno, as his replacement. PubliCola was unable to reach Polteno to confirm his new role.
In response to the allegations, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which is in charge of distributing 1,314 emergency housing vouchers to organizations throughout the county, has “frozen” the 14 vouchers it had allocated to Anything Helps, according to agency spokeswoman Anne Martens. “These are very serious allegations that need to be investigated,” Martens said. Mathias had not officially assigned any of the vouchers to specific encampment residents yet when KCRHA froze the vouchers.
The city’s Human Services Department, which runs the HOPE team, did not respond to PubliCola’s questions about the allegations.
The survey Mathias submitted as part of Anything Helps’ voucher application, which suggested the fledgling organization had a case management staff similar in size to longstanding service providers such as the YWCA, the Somali Family Safety Task Force, and Africatown, did not apparently raise eyebrows at the homelessness authority.
1. The Human Services Department’s HOPE Team, a group that coordinates outreach by social-services groups like REACH, has begun showing up at a controversial encampment near Broadview Thomson K-8 School after months of deliberate inaction from the city—a sign, advocates and encampment residents fear, that the city is preparing to sweep the area.
For months, Mayor Jenny Durkan has maintained that the city bears no responsibility for helping the dozens of people living at the encampment, which is on school district-owned property along the shore of Bitter Lake in North Seattle. Earlier this year, Durkan said the school district should establish its own human services system to provide services and housing for the people living there, using district “reserves” to pay for it.
Once the district missed its self-imposed deadline of September 1 to move people off the property, however, the city changed its tune, sending HOPE Team members into the encampment to “do an assessment of the needs of the current residents of the encampment and identify the resources needed to permanently address the encampment,” according to HSD spokesman Kevin Mundt.
Mike Mathias, an outreach worker who has been on site at the encampment with his organization, Anything Helps, for months, says the sudden presence of city outreach workers has “freaked out” a lot of people at the encampment, leading to more disruptive behavior and residents giving out false information to the new, unfamiliar outreach staff. “Our whole goal was to be on site so that if outreach teams wanted to collaborate, they could come up or call us and we could give them warm introductions to people,” Mathias said. “Instead, the city keeps sending people without any notice, and it’s frightening for people.”
The city is reportedly about to stop referring new clients to the two hotels it has leased through next year, leaving rooms vacant as people leave, so the only options available to encampment residents are existing shelters and tiny house villages, which fill up quickly.
Mathias says the city has told him flatly that encampment residents will have to move into congregate shelters, rather than hotel rooms, while they wait for housing resources to come through. (Mathias is trying to sign most of the residents up for the Housing and Essential Needs program, subsidized housing for low-income people with disabilities, but it’s a slow process.) “Our priority [now] is ensuring that people can stay together and that they don’t go to congregate settings,” Mathias said. “That’s just not going to happen not here.”
Ideally, Mathias said, the city would open rooms in the two hotels it has reserved for people referred by the HOPE Team for residents of the Bitter Lake encampment. Originally, the hotels were supposed to serve as temporary housing for unsheltered people who would be moved quickly into permanent spots using “rapid rehousing” subsidies, so that each room could shelter multiple people over the life of the hotel contracts, which are supposed to start ramping down early next year.
However, not only did that optimistic scenario fall flat, the city currently plans to stop referring new clients to the hotels as soon as mid-October, PubliCola has learned, leaving rooms vacant as people leave. (HSD spokesman Kevin Mundt told PubliCola after this article was posted that the city has not picked a specific date to stop taking new referrals to the hotels.) This would mean that the only options available to encampment residents are existing shelters, which many people experiencing homelessness avoid, and tiny house villages, which fill up quickly. The contracts the city has signed with hotel service providers say that they will begin decommissioning the hotels at the end of this year.
Mundt, from HSD, says it is not true that the city has decided to stop referring people to its two hotels sooner than stipulated in the contract. If such a decision was made informally, the city could change its mind without requiring changes to the contract itself.
According to Mundt, the city now plans to offer encampment residents “resources” including “diversion, rental assistance, new and existing shelter, and permanent housing from combined resources of [Seattle Public Schools], City, and County.” In an internal presentation about the encampment, the city said it hopes to have everyone off the site by October 14.
2. Ann Davison, who ran for lieutenant governor last year on the Republican ticket (her platform: Abolish the office of the lieutenant governor), has touted her experience as an attorney and arbitrator working on “civil litigation, immigration, sports, contracts and business transactions,” according to her campaign website. But a review of court records in King and Snohomish Counties suggests Davison has represented clients in the Puget Sound region in just a handful of court cases, none of them after 2010.
Specifically, Davison (also known as Ann Sattler) has represented clients in five King County cases—four cases involving people’s wills, one business dispute that ended in a settlement, and one case involving unpaid commercial rent. Sattler’s most recent case in King County was in 2010.
The city attorney’s office does not primarily prosecute crimes (the sort of major and violent crimes Davison has talked about in her campaign literature are the province of the King County Prosecutor, not the city attorney), but it is constantly involved in litigation—defending legislation the city has passed, defending the city and city officials against lawsuits by outside parties, and enforcing civil laws like environmental regulations. Although the only strict requirement to run as city attorney is being an attorney, a lack of courtroom experience could be a serious impediment for doing the day-to-day work of running the office’s civil and criminal divisions.
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.
PUBLICOLA NEEDS YOUR HELP.
If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.
We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different: We’re funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.
So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.
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, includingmultiple encampments in Lake Citythat 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.”