UPDATE March 20 2015: According to Robin Kelly of the Greater Issaquah Chamber of Commerce, county and state officials determined Wednesday afternoon that Tent City 4 is on land deeded to King County in 1979.
A roving homeless encampment has once again found itself at the center of controversy after a permitting dispute over a county-owned campground prompted residents to relocate, unpermitted, to state lands on the north side of Tiger Mountain, east of Issaquah.
Tent City 4’s resident camp adviser and leadership for governing organization SHARE/WHEEL, in statements to the Reporter and letters to state and county officials, have painted a picture of a county government that is wantonly deaf to the plight of its homeless. County officials and a contracted homelessness consultant tell a different story: One where SHARE/WHEEL is ignorant of government process at best and openly combative at worst.
Tent City 4 is a nomadic community that sets up on lands volunteered by their owners for 90 days at a time. Typically these lands belong to religious organizations but occasionally Tent City make other arrangements, such as when its residents stayed in Lake Sammamish State Park last year. Tent City had most recently been camped on a private citizen’s property in unincorporated Bryn Mawr-Skyway until last week.
On Friday, King County officials denied Tent City 4 a permit — submitted “only three days” prior to their move-out day from Skyway, according to an email circulated within the County’s communications department — to set up camp at the Issaquah Highlands Recreational Club on the south end of Squak Mountain. The county had acquired the 200-acre site from The Trust for Public Land in December and it has remained closed to the public as county workers repair and install infrastructure.
The denial letter from the county’s Real Estate Services Section to Tent City operator SHARE/WHEEL cited liability concerns from the site’s poor infrastructure, including lack of potable water, lack of access to public transit and issues with electric facilities. Even without those issues, the use of Conservation Futures program dollars to buy the land precludes such use, according to the letter signed by county Real Property Agent Aaron Halley.
Officials at the Department of Natural Resources and Parks learned from a Tent City 4 resident that the group would try to move on the land anyway, department spokesperson Logan Harris said.
On Saturday, the department moved additional equipment onto the campground, posted a warning against trespassers as well as emergency housing information, and called in county sheriff’s deputies to guard the camp entrance.
“We did situate some of the on-property equipment to the tennis court area, as well as brought [sic] in some additional equipment, in part to discourage an encampment at an unsafe location and an active construction site,” Harris wrote the Reporter Monday. He added that construction was ramping up as Parks prepared to open up trails to the public in spring 2015.
After learning the south Squak campground was barred to them, Tent City 4 rerouted to their current location: a gated-off section of Southeast 79th Street just off exit 20 on I-90.
Residents set up camp over the weekend and into Monday afternoon, sticking to the north side of the road to keep a path open for hikers. Work was hampered on Sunday by freezing rains. Due to the risk of bears and other animals outside the state forests, camp adviser Sam Roberson taught the residents how to properly hide and dispose of their food so as not to attract wildlife, he said.
Shelley, a resident who asked not to be identified by her last name due to safety concerns, said the tarp around her tent was blown off by Sunday night’s winds. As she administered ear medicine to her pet dog Max, she recounted how she and her husband Richard woke up to find Max soaked.
“He’s like our baby,” she said.
The couple moved to the area from Casper, Wyo. just a few weeks prior with their friend Jeremy Cantleberry.
Cantleberry said he and Richard had been gainfully employed in the kitchen of a Casper tavern, but had been priced out of housing by the influx of high income tenants brought by the local oil drilling industry. Homeless resources in the area were poor, he said.
“There’s no help at all,” he said. “All the homeless shelters are beyond capacity.”
Cantleberry’s mother had recently died and, when Shelley and Richard him to join them to Washington, he decided he had no more reasons to remain in the place that had been his home for 30 years.
Kylan Howell said he had been homeless in Federal Way for about three years before arriving at Tent City 4 two months ago. A former athlete, he studied to become a personal trainer after losing his job — but he couldn’t find employment, he said.
“To this day, that is where I’d like to work,” he said.
Now Howell acts as security in Tent City, walking the roadway and making sure residents don’t violate the sobriety policy or other camp rules.
Roberson, who said he’s volunteered for SHARE/WHEEL for several years, bristled at what he called the short notice of the county’s permit denial.
“Basically all we want is for [King County Executive] Dow Constantine to give us a public piece of county land,” he said. “We’ll pay for it. We even volunteered to clean it up.”
Instead of referring to SHARE/WHEEL’s formal permit application from March 10, Roberson referred to a Feb. 5 informal letter requesting the lands which he said was hand-delivered to Constantine’s office.
SHARE Consultant Scott Morrow provided a copy of the Feb. 5 letter signed by 18 Tent City 4 residents, to the Reporter. According to that letter, restrictive encampment regulations in Eastside cities — Sammamish and Mercer Island were specifically mentioned for background check requirements the letter called discriminatory — and competition from a second Eastside homeless camp — Camp Unity also operates on the Eastside — as reasons Tent City 4 needed public land.
Morrow and Tent City 4 residents met with Department of Community and Human Services officials about occupying county lands soon thereafter. In a March 6 response letter to Morrow from DCHS Director Adrienne Quinn, Quinn wrote that the county was not prepared to offer publicly owned property as a location for Tent City.
Quinn urged Morrow to reach out to the Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett of the Interfaith Taskforce on Homelessness to find a hosting church. The Taskforce was hired by the county Dec. 1, 2014 to facilitate locations for encampments, county spokesperson Jason Argo said.
But Kirlin-Hackett is “persona non grata” in the SHARE/WHEEL community, according to the organization’s correspondence with Constantine.
“I know him and that’s all I’m going to say,” Roberson said, though he elaborated that Kirlin-Hackett was only interested in helping Camp Unity. “To this day he has not approached us.”
But that’s simply not true, according to the reverend.
“We reached out to them at least a half-dozen times and they refused our assistance — unceremoniously, I might add,” Kirlin-Hackett said. “They’ve pretty much declined, thinking everyone is just interfering with their process.”
Morrow did not answer a question from the Reporter regarding the reasons SHARE/WHEEL did not wish to work with Kirlin-Hackett.
But the reason may lay in his association with Camp Unity. In Nov. 2012, Kirkland police arrested a child-rape suspect who had been staying in Tent City 4 while it was located at St. John Vianney Parish. Residents subsequently agreed to weekly random sex offender checks.
But SHARE/WHEEL leadership objected to the checks, creating a rift in the organization. As a result, nearly 60 Tent City residents broke off to form Camp Unity.
Tent City 4 remains at its current location for the time being, but it’s in a bit of a no man’s land. Literally — at press time, no one was sure of the ownership of the particular stretch of road, including state agencies.
Morrow said he assumes it’s owned by the state Department of Transportation after studying parcel maps. He sent a letter to Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson Monday requesting continued use of the roadway. The state Department of Natural Resources is also examining ownership of the road due to its location outside a state forest and inside a Discover Pass gate. The land’s ownership was still undetermined as of press time Wednesday, DNR spokesperson Carrie McCausland said.
“It’s difficult because that location’s at a confluence of different lands,” McCausland said. “Right by that location, there’s a single family residence and county lands as well as state lands.”
A Reporter examination of King County’s maps found no parcel number associated with Tent City 4’s current location.
Tent City 4’s move coincided with the gunshot murder of a homeless woman in Seattle’s Yesler Terrace neighborhood early Saturday morning. By Monday, every Tent City 4 resident had been briefed on the victim’s name and her location — less than half a mile from the King County Executive office.
“Homeless people need to stick together to be safe,” Roberson said.
A letter from Morrow to Constantine sent Monday likewise said the woman — whose name is not being published by the Reporter as it has not been verified by Seattle police — as “alone and isolated.”
However, Seattle police wrote in a press release that the victim was part of a homeless encampment at the location.