This past summer, city of Seattle officials sent a warning to about 60 of its employees: They may have been exposed to toxic chemical compounds during a January cleanup of a Sodo homeless encampment.
One police officer who worked the scene went on to file a $10 million claim against the city over his potential exposure to the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), compounds manufacturers stopped producing in 1977.
But many of the people who lived for weeks or months in tents and vehicles at the contaminated encampment heard nothing from the city.
City officials told The Seattle Times last month that outreach was ongoing to a list of people who had lived at the encampment at the time of the cleanup. The city said that at least 17 people had been camping there.
However, The Seattle Times interviewed a dozen former campers, contacted over a two-week period, who said they only learned of the contamination after talking to reporters. Most of them still lived within a half-mile of the contaminated site.
As the frequency of these removals increases amid public pressure to keep streets clean, this disconnect between the city and the campers shows the challenge in tracking down people after encampment cleanups and removals.
But it also underscores a question public officials have been asking repeatedly in recent months of Seattle’s Navigation Team, the city’s homeless outreach unit: Are increasing removals getting people into shelter, or do they merely ricochet people around the city?
“We find with increasing displacement of people from where they’re camping, it’s harder to connect them to resources like treatment and housing opportunity,” said Chloe Gale, co-director of REACH, the city’s contracted outreach partners.
Many of the former campers reached by The Seattle Times said they had multiple points of contact with the Navigation Team or other police officers tasked with helping to clear encampments in the weeks and months since the city learned about the PCBs.
In all those interactions, the campers said, they were never told about the contamination.
“I’ve given my name every time,” said Kim Stille, 41, recently interviewed sitting inside a tent half a mile away from the fenced-off lot and recalling her interactions with the Navigation Team during various removals. “Never gotten an email.”
The city said it would not confirm the identities of the people living at the encampment “given HSD’s [Human Services Department’s] practice of not providing client/resident identify [sic] to outside parties.” The city also declined to respond to questions about who was informed of the PCB contamination and how the city set about contacting them because they “relate to a pending claim against the City of Seattle.”
The city acknowledged it’s difficult to engage with people living in encampments. The practice is “inherently dangerous, difficult, fluid, and time-consuming work,” city spokesperson Will Lemke wrote in an email.
“This has always been the case and will continue to be the conditions out in the field,” Lemke wrote, adding that the team has been working to improve its data-collection practices to better tailor its outreach services to people in the camps.
The Times confirmed the identities of people who had been at the site with outreach workers and a volunteer who had been making contacts with those at the encampment leading up to the Jan. 8 cleanup.
Stille, one of the confirmed campers, said she first moved to the spot under the bridge last November with Chase Sellmer.
Tents sprung up around them, Stille said, and by January, the camp sprawled out from under the bridge and onto Denver Avenue South, where RVs and vehicles parked along a dirt and gravel lot.
Sellmer, now living in an RV just blocks away from the old site, said he also had not been contacted by the city about the possible PCB exposure, though he had come into contact with city officials multiple times since June.
“They come and sweep us every three days,” he said.
The city declined to provide data on the number of cleanups the Navigation Team has pursued between June and October.
“They should have been following up”
The city discovered the contamination in June after a Seattle Public Utilities source control inspector smelled odors at the site and took soil samples. The inspector found a PCB concentration at 40,300 parts per million. The Environmental Protection Agency says PCB levels that exceed 1 part per million are a safety concern.
The only hypothesis put forward by the EPA so far is that someone who was living at the site and salvaging metal might have disassembled an electrical transformer and drained contaminated fluids from it.
The city fenced off the site in June, and in July urged employees to contact a member of the Navigation Team if they believed they had been exposed. The Navigation Team had also prepared a list of homeless people it planned to contact, according to the city.
The evidence doesn’t suggest they did.
“None of my staff who were working with the city there at the time remember any kind of organized response or conversation about how to notify people who had been camping there,” said Gale, of REACH.
Erin Goodman, director of Sodo’s Business Improvement Area (BIA), is a proponent of the encampment cleanups, given the effect they’ve had on the industrial neighborhood.
“It’s your business and your livelihood that is literally surrounded by growing piles of garbage,” Goodman said.
Goodman has been pushing the city to treat every cleanup of an RV camp as a hazmat cleanup because of incidents like the January exposure, where first responders — and people living at the site — could have come into contact with chemicals without knowing it. She said she pushed the city for more than a year to clean up the site near First Avenue.
“It seems to me they should have been following up,” Goodman said of the city’s responsibility toward the campers. “[Sodo BIA] was told yes, that they were.”
Jennifer Pigott, 33, who lived at the contaminated site, said she encountered city officials as recently as Sept. 17, at an encampment removal in the area. She took video of part of the encounter, during which she can be heard asking to get her things from the encampment across the street.
She had not been told about the possible PCB exposure during that encounter, she said.
Where do people go?
Questions about how the Navigation Team keeps track of homeless people it encounters have long challenged public officials.
In 2017, The Times reported the team had no way of knowing how many people who accepted shelter returned to homelessness, partly because the team could not tap into the county’s Homeless Management Information System, a database of anyone who has accessed homeless services here.
The Navigation Team has gradually built up and strengthened its data collection since then. But as recently as June, Seattle City Council members critiqued the team’s limited picture of its work and asked for more data on outcomes for the people the Navigation Team encountered.
Councilmember Mike O’Brien said without better data, it seems like the current philosophy was simply to keep removing people without a bigger plan.
“It doesn’t feel like it’s working,” he said.
In a budget meeting last week, however, Human Services Interim Director Jason Johnson told council members that the team had developed a new way to track whether encampment contacts ended up in shelter and how long they stayed.
After initially withholding the information, the city later provided The Times some data, but it is incomplete: the city still cannot tell in all cases if a person the Navigation Team refers to shelter actually makes it there.
A rough place
Today, the people who once lived at the camp are scattered. Some live in tents along train tracks and truck routes in Sodo and Georgetown.
Others have left the city. Kandy Wilson moved to Yakima soon after the removal. She’s still homeless and she’s been in and out of the hospital; her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease has been plaguing her more often since January.
The idea the soil was contaminated worried Wilson when she was notified by a reporter. Dirt and dust were inescapable in the camp, she said. It “embeds into your skin,” Wilson said.
It’s unclear what effect the contamination at the site could have had on residents, according to Dr. Ted W. Simon, who worked at the EPA for 12 years as a toxicologist.
“It depends on how much soil you eat or rub on your skin, or inhale,” Simon said. “Exposure to soil tends to be very low.”
Dr. Arnold Schecter, a professor at the University of Louisville who’s researched the effect of PCBs and dioxins, said people who camped there could face a higher risk of cancer and reproductive problems.
“If there was very heavy contamination for a short time on the ground and people were homeless and sleeping on the ground, then it’s possible they got direct intake of PCBs through their skin,” Schecter said, “or possibly food was contaminated, or their clothes.”
None of the campers contacted by The Times described new health problems similar to the diabetes diagnosis that resulted in the $10 million claim against the city.
But some described other symptoms, like enduring skin lesions on their legs and ankles that they did not attribute to drug use.
A few days after the January cleanup, camper Jack Malone left Seattle for Cleveland, Ohio. He’s since gotten housed and clean from meth, but since then said he’s developed “odd” new symptoms.
“Been having breathing problems, getting dizzy, lightheaded, falling down the stairs,” Malone said.
He doesn’t know what to attribute it to; Malone is in the process of getting set up with health care, and plans on getting tested. He still misses the group of people he knew under the First Avenue bridge, but he doesn’t miss being homeless.
“Seattle was a super rough place for me,” Malone said. “A place that almost killed me.”
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.