Not long ago I was dropping one of my kids at middle school when I noticed some school buses had pulled up to a chain-link fenced lot across the street.
The buses weren’t unloading there; they were picking kids up. From a homeless encampment of wooden shacks and blue-tarp tents that settled onto a graveled spot across from Seattle’s Washington Middle School a few months ago.
That day, three kids stepped out from behind the fence, around wooden pallets and supplies to board buses with their lunchboxes and book bags. The camp host says the site has been home to as many as 15 kids at one time. That’s out of 35 people total.
“It’s too cold for any kids here,” says Brian Nunziato, 55, whom I met tending a roaring fire at the camp. He’s been homeless and living in an unheated wooden bunkhouse — an “icehouse,” he said — since October.
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“This is tough enough on an adult like me. No kid should be here. It’s not right.”
The camp is an offshoot of Nickelsville, the larger homeless tent city down in industrial south Seattle that city government shut down in August. Since then, predictably, new camps have sprouted around Seattle. There are three within a mile in this part of the Central Area alone.
The woman who set up the encampment on South Jackson Street, Sharon Lee of the Low Income Housing Institute, said she figured it would draw “people who don’t want to go into shelters, single adults, but hardy people who don’t mind camping out.”
“I was shocked. Instead we’ve had all these mothers with young children showing up. Night after night. We do the best we can, but it’s a tent city. They shouldn’t be there in the first place.”
When I stopped by the other day, it was sleeting. People were huddled around, burning old pallets for warmth. After a few minutes of taking notes my hand was numb.
Sarah, who declined to give her last name but said she’s the aunt of two children who live there, said there are lots of donated supplies, but nobody has heat. The kids sleep in their coats, in sleeping bags.
There is a large mess tent with electricity so the kids can see at night to do their homework.
“Someone donated a Nintendo, so they do get to play some video games,” she said.
Lee said in the past month she has gotten most of the kids into better temporary housing, such as motels. Currently the camp is down to two children.
“It’s a terrible situation,” she said. “I’ve been in housing for decades and I didn’t know the extent this was going on.”
She said Seattle’s first line of aid when a family goes homeless — the shelter system — is “dysfunctional.” For a time it was referring families with children to the camp site, she said, which is insane.
We do have a 10-year plan to end homelessness, currently in year nine. It has built lots of housing units but obviously hasn’t been up to the full scope of the challenge.
Maybe it was too ambitious. Ending homelessness for everyone is probably impossible. Maybe we could aim instead that no child will be homeless. By which I mean, no child should be living in an unheated wooden shack in a camp in the heart of such a rich city.
“How hard could that be?” Lee said.
Hard, probably. Because when school buses are making regular stops at homeless encampments, as if they are just another suburban cul-de-sac, it feels like we’ve accepted that kids living in shacks is just the way it’s going to be.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org