Chris Erickson started off with a rock and a stick.
That was almost three years ago. Today, anyone can see what he built by walking the Mountains to Sound trail where it meets the lower reaches of Dr. Jose Rizal Park: A cabin in the trees, made of salvaged wood, 25 feet from the front door to the back wall, with plexiglass for windows and forklift pallets for a fence, deep in a homeless encampment some call the new Jungle.
“I’m really surprised it’s worked out,” Erickson said. “The only thing I’ve bought are three dollars of nails.”
Erickson’s cabin sticks out: Since many homeless people are forced to move so often, the structures they live in can look hastily-built — tarps on poles, tents and wood. This cabin is plumb and level, with a flat porch, flush windows inside window-frames, and a gabled roof. It’s given Erickson a reputation; his story has appeared in The Guardian and in this newspaper. Police officers and volunteers recognize him as the guy who built the cabin.
Damian Monda, a volunteer who spends his free time helping people living in homeless camps, said he’s never seen anything like Erickson’s cabin in Seattle.
“And there’s really nothing quite like Chris, you know,” said Monda. “Knowing it was going to be torn down, he built it. He never had any vision of holding off the forces that were going to tear down his cabin.”
And Erickson’s time at the site is almost up. Last week, he came home to a notice from the city that he had a little over a week to move — On Tuesday, the encampment will be swept and “closed for camping.”
The tents in the longstanding camp, which can be glimpsed from interstates 5 and 90, “pose an obstruction” to upcoming installation and fence repair planned by the city and state transportation departments, the city’s Human Services Department spokesperson Meg Olberding said in an email. “Moving construction vehicles could put occupants in danger of injury,” Olberding said, adding there is also a large amount of garbage, debris and human waste at the site.
There are now fewer than two dozen structures at the site, Olberding said.
“I’ve known it was going to happen a long time,” Erickson said. He never believed he’d be in this house forever: “I didn’t stain it, I didn’t paint it. In five years, it (was) going to rot out from under me.”
Getting uprooted from an encampment is a common occurrence for many homeless people in Seattle, especially as Mayor Jenny Durkan has drastically increased the pace at which the city removes encampments. But Erickson illustrates how someone living in a camp can build a life, knowing at any point it could be swept away.
Erickson grew up in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where he struggled with anxiety and attention deficit disorder. In the third grade, he was prescribed Ritalin, which he points to as the root of his struggles with employment, housing and drug use today.
Erickson’s last job was at a call center in Coeur d’Alene in 2010; he lost it when he kept missing work. In 2011, Erickson was convicted of burglary and assault, although he said he was attacked first and was only retrieving his own things.
Erickson came to Seattle because he wanted a place more accepting of his gay lifestyle. He married his husband, Jay Jarvis, here in 2015. Both used meth and were homeless, but Jarvis eventually couldn’t handle living outside and started staying in a shelter.
It was during this lonely period that Erickson started reading home improvement books his husband found in a little free library. He began teaching himself how to build with a rusty hammer he found near a construction site and a broken saw, with a piece of fence screwed on as a handle. He picked up pallets from behind stores in Capitol Hill.
He’s never had a job in construction or any reason to learn carpentry, so Erickson had to learn along the way. He started with a tarp structure, then began adding in boards. One of his walls leans in at a 30 degree angle because he put it up before he got a level.
Today, with a bedroom, a loft and a table, the place feels like a home. Erickson uses candles to stay warm in the winter and collects rainwater for washing his clothes.
Building it has been a nice distraction from the dangers of living outside. Wanderers have walked into the house twice, one time while Erickson was asleep. He keeps a bucket of sharpened sticks on the front porch, one of which has a plastic skull on it like a head on a pike.
“They’re my grouch-beaters,” Erickson said. “When someone comes to go through my trash I call them Oscar the Grouch and I chase them off.”
Several people who know Erickson have described him as a stabilizing force in the Jose Rizal camp, regularly cleaning and dragging trash out to a place where the city contracts to pick it up. He built stairs into the hillside and leveled off the path so campers could get a cart through. On Facebook, he lists his job as “master of sanitation and transportation at the jungle.”
Erickson does things for the people in the camp, too; he made a tool shed for his best friend, a homeless woman named Brandy who asked her last name not be published, and who will also have to leave on Tuesday. She said she hopes the cabin is a pain for the city to remove.
“I kind of want to stand on the side of the freeway and watch them try to take it down,” Brandy said.
Mark Lloyd, a computer engineer whose house looks out on the encampment and has spent time there helping homeless people, is torn about the cleanup.
“There’s a lot of stability there … Chris’s cabin is a big part of it,” Lloyd said. “It’s nice there is that stability, because it allows service providers to know where people are and things like that.”
But Lloyd pointed out that this summer, there have also been several brush fires in the area, and some environmental damage from human waste.
Erickson has remained devoted to the camp. He was here, he says, before everyone around him. Even in 2017, when Jarvis got housed through the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s Keys to Home program, Erickson remained in the cabin; he rarely sleeps at Jarvis’.
Erickson has thought about trying to set up his cabin somewhere else, and Monda actually hopes for that.
“In the aggregate, there’s a big problem here, but when you look at these individuals and what they’re doing to get by,” Monda said, “Chris isn’t hurting a soul. In fact, he’s helping people.”
Erickson had never stopped working on the cabin until last week, when he saw the city’s removal notice.
“I’m just trying to enjoy the place while I can,” Erickson said.
Correction: Chris Erickson said he was diagnosed with attention deficit order as a child. A previous version of this story said he was undiagnosed.