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caption: A Seattle homeless camp's eviction notice. 
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A Seattle homeless camp's eviction notice.
Credit: KUOW Photo/John Ryan

Homeless Evictions Continue; Seattle Mayor Calls For More Legal Camps

Even as Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced a plan on Wednesday to establish new tent cities for Seattle's growing homeless population, homeless people were being evicted from their camps on public property in the city.

Such evictions occur almost daily in a city where the demand for shelter outstrips the supply, especially for those who need it most.

Michael O'Neal is one of a half-dozen men who have been living in a cluster of tents beneath an Interstate 5 exit ramp in the SODO district, just east of Seattle's professional sports stadiums. A Seahawks "12th Man" flag sticks up from his tent. A small Christmas tree grows in a pot next to it.

On Tuesday, the camp got some new decorations: A maintenance crew with the Washington State Department of Transportation posted "do not enter" signs around the camp and an eviction notice giving the campers 72 hours to leave.

"I'm really scared because I don't know where the hell I'm going to go," O'Neal said.

O'Neal said he's lived in the Seattle area for eight years; in a tent, just the last five months.

"I mean, I'm a professional painter, worked on the barges, but lately, like the last five months, I can't seem to get motivated to do anything. I have very bad depression, and I can't afford my meds, and post-traumatic stress disorder, and all this mental stuff."

"I feel safe in a tent," he said.

Public health and safety make it necessary to remove these illegal camps, according to city and state officials. Garbage and sometimes human waste can build up.

For Christmas, O'Neal received a gift from Seattle's Union Gospel Mission – an item that's easy take for granted.

"They said, 'What do you wish for?'" he recalled.

"I said, 'I wish for a toilet. I wish to where I can sit in privacy, a little privacy.' So they did give me a portable potty. If everybody in a tent here had a portable potty like you just gave me, we wouldn't have this problem of the white-collar people walking by to the games and seeing us 'animals,' or whatever they want to call us, pooping, you know?"

'Compassionate Eviction'

The eviction crews bring police along just in case. Sometimes, they bring social workers to help the campers find better options. City of Seattle policies call for "compassionate" removal of the illegal camps:

"Outreach to homeless individuals is a critical component of the City's procedures to remove unauthorized encampments, ensuring a consistent and compassionate approach. Outreach workers visit the encampments to assist occupants in need of social services and shelter."

This eviction, carried out by WSDOT, did not take such a compassionate approach, according to the campers.

"They just pow, pow, pow, posted these signs all over the place," O'Neal said. "But I was out here. They just walked by, they didn't mention, or the cop, didn't mention where to go or nothing like that."

"There was nobody here to assist us," camper Mark Gonzales said.

"We coordinate with social service agencies," Dave McCormick with WSDOT said. "That's not to say they're there every time we clean because they have limited budgets too."

Gonzales said he moved to Seattle from San Bernardino, California, five weeks ago to get away from the gangs and drugs there.

"They're kicking us all out of here because of the game," he said. "They don't want people to see a bunch of homeless people."

City and state transportation officials said the homeless sweeps follow a regular schedule, as they have for years.

"It's clearly a frustration that the problem exists," said Marybeth Turner, who is with the Seattle Department of Transportation. "It's a recurring problem for us because of health issues and the road safety issues it causes."

SDOT crews have removed nine homeless camps from city rights-of-way in the past week.

"We clean out thousands of pounds of garbage a month from these same locations," McCormick of WSDOT said. "We've got a regular cleaning cycle that we do and a route that we have followed over the last several years."

McCormick said WSDOT spends about $250,000 a year removing homeless camps from the Seattle area.

Seattle currently has four sanctioned tent cities, generally with better sanitation and conditions than the illegal encampments. Murray's plan, which requires approval by Seattle City Council, calls for establishing three new tent cities on vacant lots in non-residential areas. His task force on homelessness had recommended adding seven new locations.

Thursday afternoon, Michael O'Neal and his companions were packing up their tents. They planned to cram their belongings into shopping carts and find a new place to sleep before their eviction deadline.

"It's embarrassing to go down the street pushing a basket, you know?" Mark Gonzales said. "We've got to go someplace else where we won't be bothered."