Friends of the Trail cleans up litter and illegal dumping on public lands. Recently, it’s been tackling a new problem: homeless camps.
Auburn police officer Chris Pakney approached the illegal hovel in the woods with some caution, mindful of booby traps, considering the care that went into camouflaging this cross between a hobbit hut and a Viet Cong bunker.
Pakney announced himself and pushed open the small front door. Inside: a sleeping pad, hanging clothes, bookshelf, canned food, even cologne, all lit by a makeshift skylight. Nobody was home. Except for the cats, which were hiding.
“What I respect about this is that there isn’t a lot of garbage,” Pakney said of the shack about a half-mile north of the Auburn Golf Course on Green River Road. “Philosophically, more power to him. But you can’t do it on public land.”
Pakney left the cleanup to Friends of the Trail, a nonprofit group created 20 years ago by Wade Holden to remove trash on public land.
Holden said cleaning up homeless camps used to be a “once-in-a-blue-moon thing.” Last year it accounted for about 80 percent of his work; Friends of the Trail carted away 113 tons of litter. King County was its chief customer, he said.
This year’s “one-night count” in King County found 4,505 people sleeping outside, a 44 percent increase in two years.
Before Holden’s crew could dismantle the hut, David Taylor, a middle-aged man on a bike, appeared and started yelling at Holden for taking his stuff. Holden shouted back that Taylor’s hideout was on public land.
The argument cooled. Holden gave Taylor 48 hours to remove his belongings and offered to help Taylor cart them away in one of his trucks.
“I tried to make it last as long as I could. I guess that’s today,” Taylor said about his home for the past three years.
Though camps like Taylor’s may seem anti-social and worse, some advocates argue they should be embraced, albeit as a stopgap measure. “Sweeping” camps can be cruel and unconstitutional, according to the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University’s School of Law, as well as “ineffective and a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
“I bowed out”
“I knew it was coming,” Taylor said of his eviction. “It’s a bummer because I’m comfortable here, probably too comfortable.”
Taylor, 51, grew up with his mother in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood; his parents divorced soon after their high-school romance.
At 13, after getting into trouble for throwing rocks and hopping a train, Taylor was shipped off to Cowlitz County to live with his father, a radio-station manager.
At 21, he was convicted of taking indecent liberties with his stepsister several years earlier and served six months in jail.
He later worked a number of jobs, from greenskeeper to car salesman, he said, but never found the ideal fit. He lost a corporate sales job because he tested positive for marijuana.
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Still, in the late 1990s he was married, with a son, and a house in Kent. “Everything seemed right,” he said.
But his wife didn’t want their son raised around his beer drinking and pot smoking.
“I bowed out,” he said. “Pot represented my freedom of choice. I didn’t want to let go of my right to smoke a joint or drink a beer.”
Taylor’s second felony conviction came in 2010 when he violated a no-contact order his girlfriend had. In the third and decisive violation, a Kent police officer found the couple sleeping in a van outside a public park. According to the officer’s report, Taylor said he and his girlfriend had been living together since she got the no-contact order, which she didn’t really want.
That didn’t deter King County prosecutors, as Taylor had violated a no-contact order with a previous girlfriend. He spent more time in jail, then slid into outdoor living in the Kent-Auburn area.
He was proud of his shanty, as he called it, nestled into the side of a fallen tree. He waterproofed the roof with discarded vinyl flooring and insulated walls with chunks of Styrofoam.
He warmed it with a kerosene heater. “Once I’m in the covers it’s toasty,” he said as four kittens played at his feet, tumbling over their mom’s tail.
Nourishment comes from church dinners and food banks. A typical evening, he said, involves a church dinner, socializing afterward, then a bike ride home that might detour to a few dumpsters. “I collect more than I need,” Taylor acknowledged, surveying his surplus umbrellas and the drill bits he keeps forgetting to give a guy he thinks could use them.
At night, he’ll listen to the radio and doze off, his hut lit by flashlight.
“It’s like a long vacation, I guess,” he said of his lifestyle.
He’s never been to a shelter, he said, because “generally you hear there’s more drug and alcohol activity.”
Avoids occupied camps
Holden started Friends of the Trail not long after moving from Texas in 1992.
“I hiked a lot,” he said. “It still breaks my heart to see all this crap” along the Green River.
His work is funded by local, state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service. Typically, they call Holden after getting a complaint from the public.
Holden said he keeps a close watch on Green River Road, which has attracted campers for years. He found Taylor’s hut after spotting a trail leading from the road’s shoulder into the woods.
According to an IRS filing, his North Bend-based nonprofit collected $158,671 in grants and contributions during 2014, the most recent year of available records. Most of his labor comes from court-ordered community service.
Holden reported a salary of $70,567 for himself and $13,227 for his wife, the group’s secretary and grant-writer.
Holden has been praised by public officials for hauling detritus that sullies the landscape and threatens water quality. He’s removed piles of tires, broken appliances, rusting vehicles, makeshift outhouses and spent shell casings.
He tries to avoid occupied camps. “It’s not my job to roust them,” he said. “If they’re occupied we bring law enforcement. If someone shows up we’ll let them take their stuff. We don’t want it.”
The camps tend to have common features, he said. “They’ve got to be close to a food bank, a place that sells liquor and beer, and civilization where they can get drugs.”
He believes heroin is a major factor in the camps he’s cleaned up.
“I see it every day. The common denominator around these camps is substance abuse.”
Taylor appears to be an exception, he said.
But even though Taylor is not now creating a mess, at some point someone has got to clean up hovels like his.
“We’ve been trying to get the Green River Road area cleaned up,” Holden said. “You can’t have some staying and some not. Guys that get dug in set a bad precedent.”
Most don’t go to shelters
There’s a good chance people like Taylor will remain outdoors despite Holden’s cleanups. Surveys in Hawaii and Seattle found that most camp residents did not go to shelters after sweeps.
Shelters may feel depressing and repressing, according to a paper by the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project (HRAP). They may split families or not allow transgender people. Pets often are prohibited. Space for storing belongings is scarce. And shelters afford little solitude.
Camps can provide greater autonomy, privacy and stability.
Sweeps can also open jurisdictions to lawsuits for violating constitutional protections against unreasonable search-and-seizures and cruel punishment.
In a case against the city of Miami, a district court found that arresting people for sleeping in public, when they didn’t have an alternative, was cruel and unusual.
The federal Department of Justice (DOJ) weighed in last year on an Idaho case challenging Boise’s law banning camping and sleeping in public places. “If a person literally has nowhere else to go,” the DOJ argued, “then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”
HRAP recommends that local authorities accommodate encampments as a temporary solution while increasing the supply of affordable housing and shelter beds.
Authorities should also provide homeless campers with services such as toilets and trash collection, and connect them with substance-abuse and mental-health treatment, HRAP says.
Holden may be the jolt that Taylor needed.
“I need to get out of the woods,” he said, after his run-in with Friends of the Trail. “I don’t want to die out here. I don’t want to end up a hermit. I don’t have an excuse not to go to work now.”
But where? It’s been four years since his last job.
“People I know who’ve gotten out meet someone who helps,” he said.
There’s not much family to lean on. His mother died 20 years ago. His half-sister was murdered in her Belltown apartment in 2010 by her alleged cocaine dealer. He hasn’t been in touch with his son or father.
“I’d like a simple job like washing dishes or pulling beer at a tavern,” he said. “And to have a little apartment, maybe some grandkids someday.”
Meanwhile, he and Holden are likely to continue their cat-and-mouse game.
Taylor got his belongings out of his hut. He gave away his cat and kittens. “I cried my eyes out,” he said.
In the short term, he’ll try to find another spot in the woods, he said. “I should be concentrating on getting out of this situation but I still have to survive,” he said. “I don’t like sleeping in doorways and shelters.”