Oleg Shpungin usually avoids sleeping in tents. They’re creepy, he says, when he can hear someone approaching but can’t see if they’re about to rob him — and he’s been robbed enough.
“A tent is a very dangerous life,” Shpungin said.
But on Monday night, he was cold and weak, and his friend had an open tent in the shadow of T-Mobile Park in Sodo — so he spent the night there.
A neighborhood of train tracks, waterfront cranes and warehouses, Sodo used to see mostly people living in RVs, but in the last year, tent camps have outgrown them, according to Erin Goodman, who heads an alliance of Sodo businesses.
Preliminary numbers from a new study show Sodo is not alone: From Ballard downtown to North Beacon Hill, Seattle has seen a precipitous increase in tents in its urban core.
The survey, completed by researchers and students from Seattle Pacific University and University of Washington, found more than 800 tents in Seattle in spring and summer 2019, before the pandemic. The research team later resampled the highest-populated areas in winter 2019 and then summer 2020, and found the number of tents in those areas had ballooned by more than 50%.
Business groups and angry neighbors have pushed the city for months to do something to relieve the sight and symptoms of the growing encampments, but with shelters shrunk due to fears of coronavirus spread, and with limited space in hotels for people living outside, there are few places for them to go.
Between March and November 2020, the numbers in the county homelessness database of families and individuals enrolled in shelter dropped by roughly 1,400.
Meanwhile, people who put up tents deep in city greenbelts to avoid being hassled or moved have realized they no longer need to hide, because the city mostly stopped removing tents during the pandemic, following federal public health guidance.
“We’re honestly just seeing more people come out into the open,” said Dee Powers, who’s been living in an RV in Sodo for three years. “I’m seeing clusters inching closer to the methadone clinic. I’m seeing communities clustering a little closer to meal programs, to hygiene centers.”
Powers has turned the RV into a distribution center for survival supplies for homeless neighbors, and across Seattle, people have stepped up to help those living outside or clean up the large amounts of trash accumulating around the encampments.
But many are frustrated because it feels as if the city isn’t prepared for numbers to potentially rise further this summer, when the state’s eviction moratorium is set to expire and the city will likely begin ticketing and towing RVs that people are living in. Those two things, advocates warn, as well as warm weather, could push more people to pitch a tent in Seattle.
In Sodo, tents have filled up alleys, sidewalks and empty lots, according to Goodman. There is only one hygiene center for homeless people there and despite years of efforts to clean up trash around encampments, it’s still bad, Goodman said.
“The garbage is out of control,” Goodman said. “The rats — it’s just really bad. Human waste, needles … The situation, to be blunt, is pretty disgusting.”
The increase has brought the city’s mood to one of serious frustration — some with the people living outside, but most with city officials and what feels like a lack of action.
Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office has acknowledged that the prevalence of tent encampments points to a problem getting ever-growing numbers of people housing and help, but also blamed the elimination of the Navigation Team, which was focused on breaking up entrenched encampments, as one of the reasons the problem has been exacerbated over the last year.
From April 2020 through end of the year, there were only 13 encampment removals, compared to 754 removals during the same time period in 2019, according to a Durkan spokesperson.
Karen Snedker, the study’s co-author, is a sociologist who has been studying organized tent cities in Seattle for years and whose university has hosted a tent city on and off since 2012. Snedker thinks no one in the country has embarked on the particular task of trying to count tents.
Though tent-dwellers are not anywhere near a majority of Seattle’s homeless population — in 2020, they were just 10% of everyone counted in King County — they’re the most visible and, to Snedker, the most concerning aspect of the homelessness crisis.
“As someone who’s always been attuned to it and noticed it when it was kind of on the fringes 20-odd years ago, I’ve definitely seen it increase with my own eyes, in my own neighborhood,” Snedker said.
The researchers admit they could have counted empty tents or ones that later moved and were counted twice, but they say it’s more likely an undercount. Students trekked across the city counting tents everywhere from a parking lot on Harbor Island to a dock on Lake Washington, but they didn’t go too deep into greenbelts or wooded areas out of a desire to not invade campers’ space.
The resamples found an 85% similarity in tents with the first count.
Seattle Parks completed its own census of tents last week just in Seattle’s roughly 500 parks and found at least 760 tents across 86 parks, according to a spokesperson for the mayor.
However, complaints to the city about homeless encampments have dropped over the last four years from 16,000 a year to 11,000, which could mean fewer visible tents, or that residents think nothing will happen if they complain.
The mayor’s office did not lay out a specific plan for people living in tents as the pandemic begins to wind down and enforcement of camping could begin again. The city is largely focused on adding new hotel rooms and opening new tiny house villages.
“Mayor Durkan shares the frustration, pain and sadness as we’ve seen the increase in human suffering and the growth of encampments,” a spokesperson wrote in an email. “The scale and scope of this crisis in Seattle is enormous, requiring hundreds of millions of new resources from cities, the region, the state and the federal government — the city alone cannot solve this crisis.”
The mayor’s office says putting up the estimated 3,700 people living on the streets of Seattle in hotels would cost $174 million a year.
The city has turned to federal money to fund new shelter spaces, but the Federal Emergency Management Administration doesn’t pay for expensive things like mental health treatment — and some of that federal money might not be reimbursed for months or even years.
Rather than focus on those short-term solutions, the mayor’s office said, the city needs permanent housing for those living outside — and building 3,000 supportive homes would cost $900 million, by the city’s estimate, not counting the cost of behavioral-health services for the residents.
But some in the city say they do need immediate help. Parks have been a common source of friction; in high-profile police actions that drew protesters and homeless advocates, the city moved dozens of people out of Cal Anderson and Denny parks in the last six months, and the mayor has hinted she may do the same with school-adjacent Miller Playfield, which is where many of the people who were swept from Cal Anderson went, according to outreach workers.
When Kyle Butler moved in last July, four houses from Broadview-Thomson Elementary School, he said there were one or two tents at Bitter Lake Playfield, technically school grounds. But school is opening soon and there are now upward of 40 tents, Butler said. He suspects the occupants have entered his backyard and stolen his paddle boat, which he found adrift in Bitter Lake. Butler doesn’t let his two young children outside alone; he’s called 911 more than a dozen times, he estimates, since the camp grew.
“I don’t want to come off as unsympathetic,” Butler said. “We’re not trying to just push the homeless along; it’s the crime and the drug use that we’re concerned about.”
Tents have also spilled over onto the city’s sidewalks, especially downtown, where between summer 2019 and summer 2020, the survey counted an increase of more than 100.
Dawn Lucas can’t get from her bus stop in Pioneer Square to her apartment on the edge of the Chinatown International District because she uses a wheelchair, and the sidewalk with the least incline is covered with tents.
Those tents force Lucas — who was homeless three years ago — into the street. She’s contacted the city and Tammy Morales, her City Council representative, but the tents are still there.
“I get why they’re doing it — I really do,” Lucas said. “But when it breeds a safety hazard, something’s got to be done.”
Morales’ district director, Devin Silvernail, said he spends 50% to 70% of his time talking with South Seattle residents specifically about tents. He was at the meeting with Lucas and has walked through Sodo with Goodman and others concerned.
The survey partially explains why: More tents were counted in South Seattle, particularly the Chinatown International District, Sodo and Georgetown, than in North Seattle or downtown and central areas, where there has historically been more of an outcry from residents.
“These days it’s pretty apparent, and pretty overwhelming, and folks are, I think, understandably concerned,” Silvernail said.
Snedker feels that frustration that the city isn’t doing anything from her own neighbors and even, at times, herself.
“I’m worried,” Snedker said. “I’m worried about the men and women and children who are unsheltered in our city. But I’m also worried for my fellow residents who feel they don’t know what to do — they feel that certain places might be unsafe, or that they can’t fully utilize the city parks or have their children go somewhere on their own in their neighborhood.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story didn’t specify what type of accommodations for all unsheltered homeless people would cost the city of Seattle $174 million.