City crews started clearing one of Seattle’s largest and most visible homeless encampments Tuesday morning following a drug bust last week at the site, tucked within a cloverleaf interchange off Interstate 5.

The encampment, near South Dearborn Street, hosted 75 tents and structures, according to the city. Some estimated as many as 80 people had lived there, in full view of vehicles stuck in commuter traffic, before the city posted notice about the cleanup.

The city said about 30 people remained on site the day the removal began.

Seattle’s Navigation Team clears an encampment near the I-5 & S Dearborn St. interchange following a major crimes operation by the Seattle Police Department. (Ramon Dompor / The Seattle Times)
The Capitol dome, off in the distance, is viewed from a homeless encampment under the 4th Avenue Olympia Yashiro Friendship Bridge, just after police posted that the area would be swept, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020 in Olympia. 212722
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The cleanup was motivated, in part, by a drug bust by Seattle police at the encampment Jan. 23. Police arrested seven people from a tent they said had been used as a base of operations for selling cocaine, heroin and meth.

The city’s Navigation Team, the group of police, outreach workers and field coordinators responsible for encampment cleanups, posted a cleanup notice on tents the day after the bust.

“With this instance, people accessed the site by crossing a busy freeway ramp and living structures posed risks to infrastructure — all of which are considered public safety impacts,” Human Services Department spokesman Will Lemke said by email. “Further, our SPD partners remain concerned about active drug trafficking in both the encampment and Dearborn corridor.”

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Several of the people living at the encampment said they had been staying in the woods along I-5 for years. Some had lived in an encampment at nearby Jose Rizal Park, which the city removed in October, and before that The Jungle, which had once held more than 300 people before city officials cleared out the area.

For others, the encampment below South Dearborn Street served as a more recent place of last resort after failed stints in homeless shelters or housing.

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Tonia Brown watched from across the street as the Navigation Team’s field coordinators hauled wet bags of trash and belongings out of the encampment. Between the tents and shanties, campers traversed sodden blankets and wood planks that had been laid down in an attempt to make walkable paths through the thick mud.

A distraught woman called out for her two cats, Monkey and Lil’ Butt, who had vanished in the morning’s chaos.

“People probably think it’s all bad,” Brown said. “There is definitely drugs or things going on, but if you just stick to yourself, it’s OK.”

Brown said she had lived in the encampment for six months with her 19-year-old son after losing an apartment she initially secured through rapid-rehousing, a strategy the city has invested in to provide initial rental assistance to people experiencing homelessness. The apartment in Lynnwood cost $1,400 a month, Brown said, and she wasn’t able to continue paying rent with four kids and a part-time job.

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As she spoke, Brown’s eyes filled with tears. She lost custody of her children, she said, and became depressed.

Brown, who was born in Seattle, said her mother had struggled with homelessness in the city, too. She said she had family members in the encampment who looked out for one another — and being in a tent alone was often easier than feeling looked down upon or dealing with people in shelters, Brown said.

After the city posted notice of the cleanup, five people accepted shelter referrals, Navigation Team director Tara Beck said. The city had 12 shelter beds available Tuesday morning, four for women and eight for men.

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KNKX Public Radio and The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless spent one year in Washington state’s capital, reporting on how that city grappled with homelessness. New episodes drop every Wednesday. Hear more about what we learned from Olympia’s experience by subscribing to our new podcast “Outsiders.”

For encampment removals of this size and type, the city requires available shelter beds and at least 72-hour notice given to campers. Cleaning the encampment will take several days, however, so the city is clearing the area in three “zones.” The 12 shelter beds were set aside for those in the first zone. Once the spots are filled, the city will stop for the day, Beck said.

Kaley Gracom, a young woman known as “Redd” around the camp for the color of her bright, curly hair, wanted to get inside. Someone had stolen her heater a couple of nights back, and she had a feeling she was going to get pneumonia again, like last winter.

Gracom said she used to live in The Jungle before the fatal 2016 shooting that spurred the city to remove the encampment. She had also stayed at the city’s Navigation Center up the hill before getting kicked out for not following the rules, she said.

“It seems like this was the only place I could stay without getting posted,” Gracom said.

Lately, Gracom had been hearing what sounded like gunshots at night, too. But she didn’t feel unsafe, she said. She had street family in the encampment, people who would protect her.

Seattle has been focusing on encampments at the intersection of I-5 and I-90 since last spring, when the city, citing “criminality,” removed a different, large encampment on the hill just above South Dearborn Street after a separate drug bust. After that removal, the city filed 15 charges against people for allegedly trespassing where the tents once stood. The city also cleared a major encampment in Jose Rizal Park, where one resident had built an elaborate cabin, in the fall.

As the Navigation Team has expanded, the city has also increasingly removed smaller encampments deemed “obstructions” or “hazards.” The city more than doubled its cleanups in 2019 over 2018, most of them targeting smaller encampments.

By late Tuesday morning, many of the campers at the Dearborn site, including Brown, had plans to stick with their street family and move to another encampment in the woods where they might be less visible.

They were headed to the “tree line,” an area up near Harborview Medical Center.