Perhaps you've seen him, a wraith of a man along an off ramp, a cardboard sign in hand. "Homeless. Anything. Please."
The fine hawk lines of his face set in a weathered tan, he casts blue eyes downward, blond, curly hair that is gray at the temple. He will not meet your gaze.
He avoids talking to the strangers that surround him — only strangers surround him. He keeps his name to himself and walks alone. He lived two blocks from my home for most of the last five years, in a camp by a small wetland in a field in a forest Seattle has come to call "the Jungle."
Today, his camp is gone. Construction of a missing link of the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trail, displaced about 80 people who lived north of the Holgate Bridge, along I-5, up to I-90. It's not the first time he was forced out.
While it's a difficult time for him, the change may also signal a hope for better times and conditions for both people and the environment on the northwest part of Beacon Hill. To understand what is happening there and the potential for improvements, it's necessary to consider the recent history of the Jungle and other areas where outdoor encampments have sprung up in Seattle.
In 2007, after a badly executed operation on Queen Anne Hill, the City of Seattle suspended cleanups — "sweeps" — while activists challenged Greg Nickels over encampment protocol. City Councilmember Nick Licata and Peter Steinbrueck, also a council member at the time, appeared at a rally to chant, "Stop the sweeps!" They stopped.
Without public safety and social service outreach, the Jungle was abandoned to crime and violence.
Fragile souls like that man were threatened away. In August 2008, City Councilmember Sally Clark and then Department of Neighborhoods Director Stella Chao visited the Jungle with me, a few neighbors, and five police officers. In the two blocks where he had lived, we found six encampments. An encampment is not a couple of guys in a couple of tents for a couple of weeks. It is an entrenched area of interrelated sites. A thriving drug trade ran the woods. One junkie approached a cop and asked, "What are you doing here?" The SPD wouldn't let our party further south as the forest had become too dangerous.
Two years later, August 2010, Councilmembers Richard Conlin and Sally Bagshaw joined me, community members, and a police escort. We took uphill trails to avoid drug runners and lookouts, descending on "the Slab." The Slab is the foundation of a long-gone house. It is a prominent feature of the real underground Seattle.
We witnessed two dozen men doing crack, meth, heroin. They scattered when they saw us. We talked to two, neither lived in the Jungle. One was Somali, the right side of his face raised in a purple welt, a swollen scar welded half his mouth shut, a sign of war far away in the Horn of Africa. He spoke haltingly. "I have to go. They will think I'm a snitch." A cheerful young man told us, "I'm from Tacoma, everyone knows you come to the Jungle to party."
Most people doing drugs in the East Duwamish Greenbelt — the Jungle — are not homeless. The trade is run by a shifting cast of low-to-mid life characters. When one is busted, or shot by the competition, another appears. It is basic capitalism.
As the drug trade concentrated in certain other places, more homeless campers returned to hiding spots in Jungle. That quiet, scared wisp of a man came back to haunt familiar ground, pitching his site off the Washington State Department of Transportation access road, where South Massachusetts Street is an undeveloped right of way.
Across the road from that camp is where the Jungle's most infamous death occurred. On June 2, 2007, a tractor mower killed Isaac Palmer, a 62-year-old transient, while he slept in a blackberry thicket during the day. The mowing was in preparation for work on I-5. It was a horrible accident. His death would be used by activists to stir emotions against cleanups of greenbelts, and as an example of government destroying lives of homeless people. When the Mountains to Sound Greenway extension began this summer, city and state agencies — and Tri-State Construction, the contractor hired to build the trail — would mindfully avoid another terrible mistake.
Many more have died there, forgotten for the most part. Where Isaac Palmer died, two men were shot to death in separate incidents in 2009, Bernardino Maceo-Toirac and Warren Bothwell. In 2008, two blocks north, Major Lee Gay was gunned down. In 2002, beneath the nearby Dr. José Rizal Bridge, street gospel singer Sam Brown was executed by a drug dealer. Uphill, on Charles Street in 2004, Kevin Shaw's body was discovered in his car, left by his murderer. Downhill, in 2006, Tonya Smith's body was found in the Dearborn cut. In September 1997, Denise Marie Harris' body lay in the Jungle, then Olivia Smith in January 1998, and then Antoinette Jones that February, the three women murdered by a serial killer.
There have been other violent crimes, and suicides. Homeless people have been killed crossing I-5.
What is the city doing about the Jungle?
With the coming of a major pedestrian and bicycle trail through the northern tip of the East Duwamish Greenbelt, public safety weighs heavily. The trail will have streetlights, a police plan will be in effect, there will be a chance to extend forestry work begun at Dr. José Rizal Park. A rediscovered orchard may move neighbors to become active, an off-leash area may inspire, too, maybe the bicycling community will get off their seats, stop, and help.
The current strategy, led by Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith, is to turn this neck of the woods into a positive place. It will require community ownership as well as a continuing city of Seattle and WSDOT presence: The police can't do it alone. It may well become a model for Seattle's environmental restoration. If all goes relatively well, it may give the Jungle a different history, and a new name.
My neighbor's campsite is gone. It needed to go, else his safety could be at risk from building the trail, as much as from the thugs that prey on the weak and poor.
A few weeks past, I saw that neighbor again, perhaps for the last time. He walked north along Fourth Avenue in SODO, toward downtown, clutching an unfurled yellow sleeping bag, looking more lost than ever before.