For those who frequent Seattle-area homeless encampments, the tent community between Bitter Lake and the Broadview Thomson K-8 playground seems like a peaceful place: It’s fairly clean, some campers are growing flowers next to their tents, and people living there describe it as a haven from more chaotic camps.
Like all homeless encampments, its time will expire — Seattle Public Schools wants it gone by the start of school in September — but a dispute over how the camp should be dismantled has already bought its residents several months of time.
School district officials have resisted what’s known as a “sweep” — removing tents and people on short notice, without an offer of alternative shelter. But Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has refused to allocate city funds for services for the campers, saying the encampment is mostly on district property.
That’s required Seattle Public Schools to venture into unusual territory: hunting down resources for homeless adults. The district’s deputy superintendent told The Seattle Times this week that, “as a last resort,” the district will help cover the tab for shelter and services to individuals living in the tent community. No one knows exactly how much that will cost, or how the school district would pay for it.
The encampment, which began on city property last year but migrated closer to the school because of construction, garnered wider controversy this spring when the school district reopened to students in person. Staff at the school filed a complaint with the state Department of Labor and Industries, citing concerns about safety, including drugs and fights between campers; that complaint was dismissed in June.
In April, students at the school had to shelter in place because of a reported gun sighting at the encampment, which later turned out to be a pellet gun. And last month, Seattle mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell held a campaign event at the adjoining park and called on the city to use more of the incoming American Rescue Plan Act funding to house the campers. (The city plans to devote some of that money to homelessness relief.)
Encampments near or on school grounds emerged around the country during the pandemic, in places like Minneapolis, Denver and DeKalb County, Georgia. In each case, it was either the city or school district that took charge of removing the encampments. Only in Seattle, it seems, has the school district become directly involved in finding shelter or resources for campers.
“The district’s social services network is intentionally very different from the city’s. It’s for students,” said Shannon McMinimee, an education attorney who used to work for SPS’s legal team.
Camping isn’t allowed on school district or city parks property. But because Seattle has very little open shelter space, the situation is less about responsibility and more about reality, said Jim Lobsenz, an attorney who’s currently representing a homeless client in a case against the city of Seattle.
“There is a prohibition against punishing people who don’t have anywhere to live for living (in an encampment),” Lobsenz said, referring to cases such as Martin v. Boise, where the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled it was unconstitutional to enforce citywide anti-camping laws when there was no shelter available. “It doesn’t mean you have to provide them (places to go). You don’t have to. And if you don’t, you can’t punish them.”
Talks between the city and school district became tense in late March. Seattle School Board president Chandra Hampson demanded in a Facebook post that the city never conduct “sweeps” on school grounds, and instead provide “immediate” case management and outreach to the encampments near Broadview-Thomson and Meany Middle School (which has since been removed).
Durkan was disappointed by Hampson’s advocacy through social media, writing “when we have questions, issues or concerns — we pick up the phone and call each other” in an email.
The city paid for outreach workers to offer services to those living outside Meany because they were on city property, but for Broadview, Durkan was only willing to offer “technical assistance” and help with physically removing the encampment.
District officials and some living in the area take issue with Durkan drawing that distinction. SPS believes the land is under a joint-use agreement with the city parks department, but the city disputes that. To a casual observer, the district-owned property appears connected to the adjacent city-owned Bitter Lake playfield, where there are also tents.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” said Selina Carsiotis, who lives in a condo complex nearby. She pointed out the city just received millions in federal aid for homelessness. “We’ve let people come over to the condo building and shower. We’ve had people take people from the tents to doctor’s appointments.”
The school district has begun working with homelessness advocates to assess the needs of those living in the encampment, and is still in talks with the city about a strategy. While he’s optimistic a solution will emerge, the district’s deputy superintendent, Rob Gannon, said this week there are “no real pathways to a solution” yet. The district installed a privacy screen on the fence surrounding the Broadview playground and installed security cameras and card readers at the school building entrance.
“There are many … who are critical of our patient approach, but homelessness is an issue that doesn’t lend itself to quick and easy solutions,” said Gannon. “We are going to be compassionate leaders in this effort.”
Former Seattle Deputy Mayor and mayoral candidate Casey Sixkiller estimated in an email that if the district wanted to provide a hotel or tiny home village for 30 people, the cost would be at least $1 million.
While some neighbors have called the encampment a dangerous nuisance, others — like Carsiotis — say they would rather help the people living there than see a forced removal. The homeowners’ association at the condominium across the park wrote a letter to their city council members in June asking for shower and laundry facilities so campers would no longer need to use Bitter Lake as a “wash basin,” then helping them move into shelter or housing.
“The City can balance the needs of people experiencing homelessness who are staying at the Bitter Lake/Broadview-Thomson encampment and those who live in the surrounding community,” the letter said.
Cameron Hash, 18, was camping in Everett when he heard Bitter Lake was a safe place where no one would steal from him and he would have “an opportunity to better myself.” Hash has been homeless since he was 14, and since he moved to Bitter Lake in June, he hasn’t had anything stolen from his tent.
“I trust the people around me,” Hash said. “(They’re) not psychotic or out to hurt you.”
Of course, theft happens. In June, Carsiotis had her car prowled and found the manual in the grass in the middle of the camp. But she still trusts most campers: After the break-in, she walked over to ask them to keep an eye out for her workplace key card, which was gone from her car.
Carsiotis — and several of the campers — feel the camp is cleaner and safer than many neighbors or news media portray it.
“We get blamed for everything, obviously, because we’re here,” said Anthony Pieper, another camper.
Clarifications: This story was updated to reflect context about the city’s use of federal aid on homelessness. In addition, the city and school district dispute over whether the encampment is on land included in a joint-use agreement between SPS and the city; this version of the story reflects that dispute. And, a previous version of this story stated School Board President Chandra Hampson deleted her Facebook post. The post is no longer visible because Hampson temporarily deactivated her public Facebook page.