Portraits of Homelessness

Written by Tyrone Beason • Photos by Erika Schultz • Development by Thomas Wilburn

Pacific NW magazine invited residents of several homeless encampments in Seattle to share their personal stories, life lessons, frustrations and dreams based on their experiences living without permanent shelter. The resulting journal features their handwritten remarks, accompanied by black-and-white portraits that each person helped create. Here is a selection of pages from the journal.

The people who agreed to participate in this project, in most cases, lived in settings that lacked a space to comfortably and neatly write down their thoughts. Recognizing this, we have transcribed each of the journal entries.

“THEY DON’T BUILD mansions like this in Beverly Hills,” a man named Charles says as he greets visitors to a tent city beneath a tangle of highway overpasses in Seattle’s Sodo District.

It’s a cold, damp day, and Charles warms himself by a smoldering campfire in a cluttered cul-de-sac of tents, bags of clothes, and pots and pans — everything you need when you have no place else to live.

The locals here optimistically nicknamed this triangle of earth and puddles bordered by roads on three sides “The Field of Dreams.” But a stroll through the camp’s main drag of dirty rugs, soaked blankets, shoe-sucking mud and wooden pallets reveals only a boulevard of broken ones — theirs and ours.

What photographer Erika Schultz and I don’t realize on this first visit to “The Field” is that the city is about to evict dozens of occupants of the camp due to safety concerns, including allegations of rape and prostitution, as well as the obvious public-health issues that come with people living outdoors among piles of garbage, heaps of personal possessions and intrepid rats.

On this day, the rodents scurry across the mud and under the pallets that separate many of the tents from the soggy ground.

In a matter of weeks, everyone we meet and everything we see here will be gone, swept out of sight at this location. But the gnawing crisis of homelessness will only have slogged to another patch of dirt or pavement in a perverse cycle of settling and uprooting.

At every turn, there are signs of what life must have been like before people found themselves living alongside and under Seattle’s streets.

A stuffed cow sits on a chair near one tent, a sight that wouldn’t be out of place in a child’s bedroom. People wave hello from rickety “porches” extending from the fronts of their dwellings.

One tent has been sectioned off by pallets stood on end to make a kind of yard — a figment of normalcy complete with a little potted plant that, despite the chill and seemingly in defiance of the bleak setting, bursts with yellow blossoms.

We’ve come to camps like “The Field” to profile this segment of the region’s growing homeless community, a sliver of street life stretching from Seattle’s industrial district to the Interstate 90 highway interchange to the northern tip of Rainier Valley.

Each person was invited to write whatever he or she wanted to express on a page that would be included in a journal capturing this moment in the story of homelessness in Seattle. We photographed each writer and invited many of them to help select which portrait to use.

The perseverance, pride and ambition reflected in the 22 subjects who agreed to participate, in the poses in which they chose to be photographed and in the messages and reflections they wrote, remind us of people’s capacity to wrench dignity from the seeming indecency of homelessness.

“They say I’m homeless. I say I’m a Seattle friend, so get II know me,” 38-year-old Charles writes in flamboyant script in his journal entry.

An animator, radio DJ, recording artist, actor and father, Charles says he doesn’t want pity, and he doesn’t like the word “homeless.” He prefers “displaced.”

“That word ‘homeless’ — it’s crippling,” he says.

But what to make of the situation in which we encountered these most marginalized of our neighbors, people who’ve made a life and in some cases forged community in places that lack running water, safe heating or a clear way out?

Corinne Chin, Lauren Frohne, Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times

“HOME IS A MATTER of perspective; it’s where you’re at,” a guy named Monster tells me at an encampment under the Spokane Street Viaduct that has around 50 residents living in beaten-up old RVs and tents and that boasts genius power systems involving car batteries, cables and generators.

Monster lives here with his partner and volunteers as an organizer and advocate for the community. He calls this location, which is sheltered from the rain, “the perfect spot” because it’s not close to homeowners who might complain.

One section of the camp is open to all, meaning it doesn’t matter if you’re a sex offender, have a mental disorder or carry a criminal record. But the way Monster sees it, “low-barrier” encampments are needed because everyone deserves to live somewhere. Weeks after we speak, however, the city clears this camp, too, following a fire that destroyed two motor homes.

“It’s another human life,” he tells me.

Wherever you lay your hat is your home: If only it were that simple.

If only flowers and fences could ease the constant threat of being swept from place to place.

If only the concern of reporters could give you immunity from the caprices of a gilded city with more construction cranes than any in America, and more brainpower than it knows what to do with, but that can’t figure out how to stop the mushrooming of shantytowns.

The city has been under pressure to change its approach to the issue. Earlier this year, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray proposed, then scrapped, a controversial, five-year, $275 million property-tax levy to battle homelessness on multiple fronts. The new push is for a countywide sales tax increase of 0.1 percent that could raise more money.

In late April, it was announced that billionaire Paul Allen will donate $30 million toward the development of permanent housing for the homeless under the direction of Mercy Housing, with the city kicking in an additional $5 million.

Up until now, nothing — certainly not the clearing of encampments — seems to have eased the crisis. And considering the rising cost of living in a metropolitan area, housing and homeless advocates worry that even more people will be at risk.

In 2016, there were more than 4,500 “unsheltered” people sleeping in tents; in doorways; in green spaces; on benches; in cars, trucks and RVs, etc.: a 19 percent increase over the previous year, according to the annual One Night Count survey by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness.

SEVERAL OF THE PEOPLE who speak to us as we search for subjects for this story say they’ve figured out how to live this way long-term.

If you were to ignore the semis rumbling frighteningly close to Will Ross’ immaculate space in a parking lot under an elevated roadway in Sodo, you’d swear you were in the home of a stylish neat freak.

Ross, 66, who unlike some in this story agreed to use his full name, keeps the area spotless. His comfortable-looking bed is flawlessly made.

In reality, the bed is a cocoon made up of six sleeping bags on a metal cot. “I lie on one and sleep in five,” he says.

Ross says he’s done everything from painting and roofing to selling candy and cars, and that he’s been homeless for 27 years.

“I’ve lived in a lot of automobiles and vans” in that time, he says over the scream of a train’s horn and the rumbling of diesel engines in the background.

“I stayed in one car for 30 whole months,” Ross says.

Toiletries are kept at bedside. Hats, gloves, umbrellas and socks hang from a rack against a highway support pillar. Ross keeps a Bible by his cigarette lighter and ashtray, but he hasn’t opened it yet. He says he’s afraid that if he starts to read it, the spirit might move him to reach out to his relatives back home in the Bay Area before he’s ready for that. He wants to have some dental work done and buy a car — get “situated” — before reconnecting.

Others we meet say they’ve struggled to find work and housing after serving time in prison.

We hear that some women in the camps, who make up about a fifth of the population, pair up with men simply for the physical safety they can offer.

Many in the camps struggle with chemical dependencies, and a few appear under the influence when we meet them.

But others suffer from inadequately treated mental disorders and traumas such as childhood or domestic abuse.

Some say their lives fell apart when they lost custody of their children, were evicted from a home, divorced a spouse or suffered from debilitating injuries that rendered them unable to work.

A stunning number of the people we meet are well-educated and highly skilled, and hold down jobs or receive government financial aid, but still can’t afford to clear their debts or pay rent on an apartment.

A Mexican immigrant named Blas Felix, who used to pick cherries and apples in Eastern Washington, breaks into tears when speaking in Spanish about his family’s tradition of artisan dollmaking and how he used to sell his own creations in Tijuana.

A transplant from Arizona named Martes picks at his guitar for us at the tent he took over from a friend who managed to upgrade recently to an actual apartment.

The 37-year-old works in construction but doesn’t tell his employers where he lives. He agrees to be photographed, but with his back to the camera.

He hopes to springboard into more stable accommodations himself, if he can save enough money.

“Just right here, there’s easily 25 people who are at work right now,” a woman named Suezan says of the tent and RV colony by Seattle’s port.

Suezan, who lives in an RV and commutes between Seattle and California where she grows marijuana, says she graduated from a high school in North Seattle and attended the University of Washington.

“I’ve found people here I’ve known since high school,” she says of the camp’s residents, some of whom she claims come from affluent and well-known families. Anyone can wind up in a place like this with a stroke of misfortune.

“I get goose-bumps just thinking about it,” she says.

“ARE YOU HUNGRY — do you want a sandwich?” someone calls out to us.

Veronica Jackson stands at the entrance to a camp along South Dearborn Street with a crate full of sandwiches that she and several cousins made earlier that day.

She and her group move tent to tent, asking whether anybody’s home and whether they’re hungry.

Jackson, who lives in Federal Way and is without a permanent home herself, decided one day last year she would use her own money to help feed the homeless.

For Jackson, 28, this is personal. Her mom used to live on the streets, she explains, as tears stream down her face.

Showing residents of the camps just a little generosity and humanity goes a long way, she says. So she decided to come back this year.

Jackson took $100 of her savings and turned it into 80 sandwiches. Each person who accepts a sandwich gets a prayer and maybe a hug, if needed.

At a camp along Interstate 90 east of “The Field,” a couple named Leo and Marie help lead a cleanup project to keep their area litter-free. They got an assist from a nearby homeowner, Mark Lloyd, who takes us through the camp to show the good work residents are doing to keep it tidy. Lloyd donated rakes, shovels, garbage cans and bags, and even a set of privacy tents outfitted with portable toilets that dot the property.

Marie says they don’t work so hard on the cleanup just for the residents. It’s also for their dogs, 2 Paw and Biggie, so they don’t pick up any carelessly strewn drug needles.

As they pose for pictures by their tent, Marie and Leo cradle the dogs in their arms, seemingly unfazed by the fact that this idyllic domestic scene plays out as commuters race by so close, you can feel the rush of air in their wake.

A couple of days before “The Field” is cleared of its residents, we meet Rico, whose fiancee gave birth to a boy a few days before. The proud father still wears the hospital ID badge around his neck after spending the night there with the newborn.

Walking through the camp, I hear the coos of someone else’s baby in a tent with a stroller in front of it.

Rico met his fiancee here, and as a Jack of all trades, he helps out by offering to fix bikes and repair tents for his neighbors. But he knows this is no place to raise their own child.

A transplant from Texas, Rico says he got laid off from his job as a heavy-machine operator in 2015. Enticed by the strong economy, he moved to Seattle the next year and lived in a motel for two months before moving into “The Field,” where he’d be able to save money more easily. He was making payments to a friend for a car, but when the little work he was able to get dried up, that plan stalled.

Rico says he lost steam and got lazy.

In desperate times, it’s easy to be drawn into a life of hustling and just give up on getting out, as some do. Rico says he’s resisted doing anything illegal, but the listlessness has been harder to fight.

Rico figures the birth of his son coinciding with the sweep of the camp is a sign.

“He’s the motivation I needed to get up off my butt,” he says.

Instead of staring into the abyss, Rico’s eyes are fixed on the future.