It’s been a crazy week for Michael, who lived under Interstate 5 on the sidewalk of the South Dearborn Street until Monday.

On Thursday, Seattle police arrested four people in the large homeless encampment across the street. On Friday, the city of Seattle’s Navigation Team posted notices of an impending camp removal on trees and tarp structures, said Michael, who declined to give his last name.

And on Monday, police, outreach and cleanup workers in reflective vests appeared to clear the remaining 24 campers out, in perhaps the largest camp removal since one in March near the Fremont Troll. The Navigation Team has been monitoring the camp for months, visiting 18 times since Jan. 1, but they were waiting for the Seattle police’s drug investigation to finish before clearing, according to Sgt. Eric Zerr, who leads the team.

Michael stands outside his tent underneath I-5 where he lives near a big homeless tent camp located at 10th Ave S. and S. Dearborn St. in Seattle Monday, May 20, 2019. Michael is planning to move to a shelter and is going to give his tent to a friend for tonight. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
Michael stands outside his tent underneath I-5 where he lives near a big homeless tent camp located at 10th Ave S. and S. Dearborn St. in Seattle Monday, May 20, 2019. Michael is planning to move to a shelter and is going to give his tent to a friend for tonight. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

The city doesn’t usually cite “criminality” as a reason for clearing out encampments, but it did so with this camp; Zerr said it is one of the few places where warrants have been served before a cleanup. The cleanup comes at a time when the city is embroiled in a heated discussion about drugs and crime around tent camps, which hold a minority of Seattle’s overall homeless population but tend to be the focus of public ire.

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The Dearborn encampment is emblematic of the kind of camp that draws this anger: It has been cleared and then re-sprouted tents again and again in the last few years. Drugs were dealt out of one of the tents, supplied from a stash house in Beacon Hill, according to court filings related to last week’s drug bust. Officers found almost 90 grams of crack cocaine, 30 grams of meth, and 5.5 grams of heroin in that tent.

The camp is on a hill under the Dr. Jose Rizal Bridge that was being eroded by tents and feet. The city set up trash pickup for the camp twice a week and installed needle-disposal containers. Those have improved the cleanliness of other camps in the past, but at this camp, things didn’t noticeably improve, said Will Lemke, a spokesperson for the Navigation Team.

After residents of a big homeless tent camp that was targeted in a drug investigation last week are asked to move, they relocate across the street, to the south side of S. Dearborn St., Monday, May 20, 2019.  (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
After residents of a big homeless tent camp that was targeted in a drug investigation last week are asked to move, they relocate across the street, to the south side of S. Dearborn St., Monday, May 20, 2019. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

The city intends to make this the last time they clear out this camp. The city plans to put up orange mesh fencing around the perimeter, mow the grass and talk with community leaders in the Chinatown International District about how to best use the space for everyone, Lemke said.

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Starting last year, the city stepped up its number of camp removals, especially ones that give little or no notice to people living on the street.

Michael is one of the dozen or so people taking this opportunity to get into a shelter.

He’s been walking past the Blaine Center men’s shelter at First Church near Seattle Center for weeks, looking longingly in the windows. “You see those people sitting in there, and they have a peaceful aura,” he said. But when he went in and asked if he could stay, workers told him he needed a referral.

So today, he walked up to Zerr and asked if he had some spots to go to. Zerr got him a referral to Blaine Center.

As Michael cleaned out his tent and packed up, he said he felt good about the future. He’s been homeless for five years. At Blaine Center, he thought perhaps he could get clean from heroin, join a program at FareStart and become an employed cook again.

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“That’s exactly what I need,” Michael said. “With their help I could get a really good job.”