Homeless haven, or hellhole?
You don't want to go down there. Not even in broad daylight, and certainly not alone. That was the warning I got from some Seattle Parks...
Seattle Times staff columnist
You don't want to go down there. Not even in broad daylight, and certainly not alone.
That was the warning I got from some Seattle Parks and Recreation employees the other day. And they were right. On a tour of several homeless encampments Thursday with a group of parks people, I could have been stabbed, raped, infected, or fallen to my death.
But for these city workers, it's all in a day's work.
In the current hue and cry over whether the city of Seattle should let the homeless inhabit its greenbelts, one voice never gets heard: the parks worker on the front lines.
"It keeps accumulating and you feel like you'll never get done," said maintenance worker Ameen Saleh, after showing me an estimated 15 tons of debris.
I felt his frustration. I went into this with an eye to the plight of the homeless. I've come out knowing that many of them are out there because they choose to be.
Take Michelle Franklin-Williams, whose camp at Sixth and Yesler was being dismantled Thursday morning.
Franklin-Williams, 39, told me her mother lives in Auburn, and that she owns a home in Rainier Beach. But she's also a crack addict who wants to use in peace. Shelters don't allow drugs.
"My husband died a couple years ago and I went off the deep end," she explained. "I should really call my mom. But it's a pride thing, you know?"
I didn't know. A pride thing, to live beside the freeway?
Here's Kenneth Leach, who lives in a tent above Elliott Avenue: "I don't function well in a controlled environment."
Leach, 46, showed me his Bank of America debit card while beside him in his tent, a friend read a book. Two men with the ability to read, speak, manage money — the currency of a functional life.
But no. Leach has been out here for 15 years.
I accept that some people choose this life, but I don't think our tax money should go to cleaning up after them.
Homeless encampments are a health hazard, not only for those who live in them, but for neighbors concerned with their safety, and the rats and campfires that threaten their homes.
"We're not here to throw people out of their homes," said parks worker Fred Schauer. "We're just trying to make it safe for anyone who comes out here, and preserve green space at the same time."
We saw rats. Mountains of beer cans. Jugs filled with urine. Feces. Tents with doormats and wind chimes. Axes and knives stuck in trees and plastic bags I wouldn't nudge with my steel-toed boot.
Workers have put out fires; walked through tunnels made of mattresses; and handled needles, condoms and more than a few dead bodies.
"No newborns or anything," one parks employee told me. "But that's probably the only thing we haven't found."
They're tired of the danger, the mess, the defiance, and the feeling that their efforts should be going to something that would benefit everyone.
"It would be nice to come to work and plant a tree," Saleh said, "instead of cleaning up syringes."
Nicole Brodeur's column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The brand? Icehouse.
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