There's an island in the middle of the White River in Auburn.
To get there, you cross a log bridge and follow two separate trails. That’s when you see them: Semi-permanent shelters people have built. One looks like a big family tent but made of logs and sticks all woven together — whatever people could find.
“It’d be whatever they could steal or take, whether it be tarps, tires or pieces of wood. Anything that we could build with,” said Keeley McCafferty, who used to camp on the island with her young son. “I found a chewed up sleeping bag from rats. Honestly, that would be a lot of comfort right there alone.”
In suburbs like Auburn, homeless people tend to be invisible. They hide in cars or on friends’ couches. Or they live on this island.
McCafferty had lost her apartment north of Seattle – the guy she was renting it from turned out not to own it. She struggled with addiction, too, then sobered up after having a kid. She and her son moved to Auburn to be near family.
“I thought that they would help. But they haven’t been much help," she said. "They kind of judge and look at you funny. I hate judgment.”
Eventually McCafferty found herself on the island, hunting for building materials to make a shelter. “Unfortunately, we used some of the stuff from the barriers they have up here.”
“The flood barriers?” I asked.
“Yeah, yeah. It’s pretty bad. But we figured, ah, what the hey.”
She was referring to big bags of sand that form a makeshift levee along this part of the river. They’re made from sand and wire and really strong tarp material she could rip off. “It works great for putting over as a tent,” she said.
McCafferty’s situation has improved since. She has an R.V., acquired under the table through her work as a landscaper, she said. Her boyfriend’s grandma gave her a place to park it just outside of Auburn. Her 10-year-old son now lives with his dad in Tacoma. And her relationships with others in the community have helped her, which is partly why she still lives in South King County.
The island is mostly empty at this time of year. But they’re starting to move back now. It happens every year, to the frustration of officials with the City of Auburn.
“It’s an ongoing process. We might go in and ask them to leave, and then the next day we see them come back,” said Kalyn Brady with the City of Auburn.
Brady said homelessness has been hard to treat in the suburbs because there are fewer services. Small conveniences can become major obstacles when you’re homeless. Like, where to bathe?
Brady has seen creative solutions on the island. “We came across one last year where they had dug out a canal from the river, inward so that when it came, the water rose and it would fill a sort of bathtub that they had lined with a tarp.”
But the island is dangerous, which is why Brady wants people to move off. The Mud Mountain dam has been releasing more water lately into the White River because of all the rains. The island could flood, and people could die.
“It’s something that could happen in an instant,” said Brady.
Just this year, Auburn opened an overnight shelter downtown. Within a few blocks, there's a food bank, mental health counseling, job training and a place to do laundry.
This year, they’ll build a day center and a place where people can put their bags.
By clustering these services, Brady hopes people will choose this shelter over the homeless island.
That could make homelessness in Auburn more visible, which would be a big change for this suburb.
Doug Tidee lives in Auburn, in a neighborhood built on the hillside outside the old downtown. He works in Seattle, and he likes that Auburn feels different. “It doesn’t seem to me that it’s like in Seattle, which is out of control, in my opinion. Way out of control,” he said.
Tidee’s been watching Seattle Mayor Ed Murray talk about the need for more shelters and housing. Tidee said the Seattle mayor’s plan seems to be making the problem worse. “It seems like he almost,or the city in general, invite people to come.”
“You mean by offering services?” I asked.
“Exactly,” he said. “They make it maybe even more appealing. So yeah, it’s crazy."
That feeling – that investment in services and subsidized housing leads to more homelessness – is a myth, said Lia Musumeci. She’s a University of Washington student who’s working with Auburn on homeless issues. It’s part of a larger program to help Auburn as it grows.
Musumeci said if Auburn were the only community trying to improve its services, then it could attract more homeless people to move to Auburn from within the region. But Auburn is not alone in its efforts.
Homelessness is rooted in the rising cost of living and job instability, she said. We associate those problems with Seattle. They’re problems in Auburn, too, but their effects are easier to overlook there.
“It’s so hard for people to understand how grave this problem is,” said Musumeci, because in the suburbs, "a lot of homeless people, especially homeless families, try to hide themselves.”
She said that showing people the problem, and telling the stories of people who are homeless, can help.
Or it can lead to a backlash. Musucemi said that's happened in many other suburban cities.
She said it's smart for cities like Auburn to consolidate homeless services at locations convenient for many homeless people. But, she said, making the invisible problem of homelessness suddenly visible can upset people. People with money could flee Auburn, repeating the classic cycle of suburban sprawl, said Musumeci. They take their taxes with them, which leaves cities like Auburn poorer and less able to resolve its homeless crisis.
The money heads further out to a place where the problem remains out of sight, on a version of an island where homeless people live.