The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Seattle Foundation and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

KENT — Drive along the Green River from Kent, headed south toward Auburn, and a pocket of unincorporated land divides the two cities.

It starts with a fork in the road. People there call it “the Y.” It splits around gravel parking lots, green soccer fields and a community garden in neat, orderly rows.

Along the fields’ border are a dozen or so banged-up RVs, cars and trucks, weighed down with people’s belongings.

Continue south past “the Y” and there are more like it, recreational vehicles and cars scattered in wide pullouts along Green River Road. One group built a fire ring and dug out stairs in a hillside to reach the river. It’s largely quiet except for the sound of traffic, and people are mostly left to themselves with trees, tall grasses and the cool, emerald-hued water.

As visible homelessness has increased throughout Seattle and the surrounding region during the pandemic, several cities in King County, like Auburn, have responded with tougher rhetoric and hard-line laws that largely ban people from pitching a tent to sleep in and require them to either accept an offer of shelter or move along.

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This tougher stance, in turn, has forced folks with nowhere to go to get more creative in finding places where they’re less likely to be approached by law enforcement. Green River Road, a patch of unincorporated King County, is one of the places they end up.

Outreach workers and homeless residents there estimate that the population here has at least doubled in the past year, with some living just yards away from the sign marking Kent’s city limits.

But now pressure is increasing to clear that area as well, with people citing concerns about drug use, crime and trash.

“Not the place for you”

King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn recently shone a spotlight on this area when he trekked down there in June, inviting journalists to join him, to announce new legislation that would create a county interagency task force to address and eventually remove people living along the Green River.

So far there is little precedent for King County to conduct encampment removals in unincorporated areas.

In a recent interview, Dunn pointed to an increase in homeless encampment removals under Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell’s administration, and a new focus on removing camps along highway rights of way as a likely reason for people moving to unincorporated King County.

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There is no publicly available evidence to support that theory, and Dunn’s office did not provide its own data.

Many who talked to The Seattle Times said they grew up in places like SeaTac, Auburn and Kent or became homeless while living in nearby cities.

At the same time, many people living down there say they don’t feel welcome in the communities they lived in for years because of anti-camping laws and regular interactions with police.

Kent was an early adopter of homeless camping laws, passing major legislation in 2000 that makes it illegal to camp or store property in public places. First offenders receive a misdemeanor, which could lead to a $1,000 fine, up to 90 days in jail or both.

Auburn passed a homeless camping law, which includes a criminal penalty for people who camp on city property, in April 2021. So far, Auburn hasn’t arrested or charged anyone with criminal trespassing under the new law, according to Kent Hay, Auburn’s anti-homelessness outreach program administrator.

But it has given them the authority to require homeless people to accept Auburn’s offer of shelter or leave, Hay said.

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“Auburn is not the place for you,” Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus said, “if you’re not willing to be part of the community and to be accountable.”

“They have needs”

Sarah Adams, of Kent, has been growing food at the community garden between the two cities for more than a decade. She said this year is the first time she’s found swaths of potatoes and yellow zucchinis taken, and the clues left behind don’t have the usual sign of critters.

“They aren’t horrible people,” Adams said of the garden’s homeless neighbors. “They have needs.”

But if things don’t change, she added, this could be her family’s last year of gardening there.

Dean Aldridge organizes soccer programs at the fields. He said he has seen an increase in theft and field vandalism over the past nine or 10 months. The fall soccer season starts practice next week, but Aldridge said he is mulling the long-term future there.

“What I don’t think is acceptable is to continue to let folks live in any open spaces and parks where young people and children play if, and only if, there is available shelter space for them within the system,” said Dunn, the council member.

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There are only five overnight single-adult shelters, including one in Auburn, to cover more than 15 cities and stretches of unincorporated county land from Burien to Enumclaw. The King County Regional Homelessness Authority said that at least six groups are providing regular outreach to the Green River area, with some traveling from Seattle to do so.

Anne Martens, spokesperson for the authority, said that the “fewer paths” to resources add more challenges when working along the Green River and other parts of unincorporated King County.

Dunn’s proposal says it would connect homeless residents with services, but it doesn’t offer specifics.

“Where can I go?”

David Malek said that when he went to pick up the white and blue Winnebago he bought off a woman on Craigslist, he turned the key in the ignition and “it was like starting up a brand-new machine.” 

He moved into the recreational vehicle after a fire destroyed the home where he was living in Kent, according to Malek.

For a while, Malek said, he would park in places that seemed out of the way, but he regularly came in contact with Kent police. “I’ve got told to leave many times,” Malek said.

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Finally, Kent police said that if he moved beyond its city limits, out to the stretch along the Green River, that he would be left alone, Malek said.

“Once I parked my RV down here,” he said, “I never spoke to another cop.” Sgt. Andy Kelso said “that’s entirely possible” that a police officer could have listed Green River as a place for Malek to go.

Kelso works on the department’s special operations unit and interacts daily with people who are homeless in Kent.

He said that officers are trained to offer available resources to people before telling them they need to leave. “We have people routinely say, ‘If I can’t be here, where can I go?’ “

Using trash, crime as barometers

It’s hard to measure how much the Green River homeless population has grown. The most recent 2020 point-in-time count reported that more than 1,100 people were living unsheltered in southwest King County, which includes Kent and Auburn, but doesn’t identify unincorporated swaths of King County.

Possibly one of the best indicators is the amount of trash that the King County Road Services Division has collected in recent road cleanups.

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In August 2021, crews collected 6,600 pounds of trash, but less than six months later, approximately 62,000 pounds of garbage was collected along the same stretch, according to Brent Champaco, spokesperson for King County Local Services, which oversees the King County Road Services Division.

Homeless residents report that they often see nearby housed residents dumping garbage along the river, so it’s unclear if the meteoric spike is fully attributable to them.

County Councilmember Dunn has framed reports of crime as another measure.

Dunn and some homeless residents living there said that stolen cars do end up near the river at times to be sold for parts.

But according to Sgt. Corbett Ford, a spokesperson for the King County Sheriff’s Office, the cases they see along the Green River don’t stand out compared to other parts of King County.

Between July 1 and Aug. 9, the Sheriff’s Office recovered five stolen vehicles along the Green River and reported one case of a person obstructing an officer.

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“If we have criminal activity that goes on [along the Green River], it’s no different than anywhere else,” Ford said.

Since attention to the area increased in June, some homeless campers say they’ve seen an increase in threatening behavior from passersby — people throwing eggs, shooting pellet guns and even tossing fireworks at them from moving vehicles.

Tina Lewis, who has been visiting the area for years while doing outreach for The Salvation Army’s Street Level program, said that the river’s greatest appeal was that “people don’t mess with them.”

“They just want to stay out of the way,” Lewis said.

Moving away, moving back

The King County Road Services Division held its most recent cleanup along the Green River in early July. It’s done mainly for road safety reasons, Champaco said, but it also required vehicle dwellers living along the river to get out of the way five days before it was supposed to start.

Outreach workers from a handful of homeless nonprofits offered shelter, gas cards and support. While several people accepted referrals to a shelter bed, nonprofits reported that few actually went there.

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On the first day, a large red SUV rigged up a tow to help people with nonworking vehicles avoid impoundment.

Some with working vehicles drove to the Game Farm Wilderness Park in Auburn to pay for a camping site.

People camping in the woods east of the soccer fields fell out of the boundary and were largely left alone. 

Crews cleared nearly 52,000 pounds of trash and impounded five vehicles.

Malek’s Winnebago was one. It had caught fire on the Fourth of July, leaving mostly a charred metal frame and Malek to sleep in an office chair in the nearby woods.

Dunn sent out a news release about the cleanup, saying that he was “glad to see the county taking action to begin cleaning up Green River Road.”

But just a few days later, some of those same RVs, trucks weighed down with belongings and beat-up cars holding residents and their things had returned.