Like A Phoenix: The Death and Revival of Camp Dearborn

by Marilee Jolin

The sun shines down in warm, inviting patches as gusts of wind sweep through, rippling the sea of blue plastic tarps, and bringing with it a bone-deep chill. Rolling clouds cast shadows and shapes on dozens of domed nylon structures, and bits of green peek out here and there, traces of the previously empty grass lot now covered in dozens of temporary homes.  On this temperamental but hopeful early spring day, I am at the newly established Camp Dearborn, a name adopted by the former residents of Nickelsville after their eviction from that location on March 11. 

I ventured out early this week to meet and talk with the residents of this fledgling houseless community, at the invitation of Polly Trout, director of Patacara Community Services, which is offering supportive services to the self-governing camp.

Much has been written about the sweep and preceding internal struggles that led to a vote of no- confidence in Scott Morrow, the liaison between Low Income Housing Institute, The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd and the camp residents.  Not as much has been written about the courageous and community-powered response of the group of people who stuck together after the eviction and, under new forms of self-governance, are rebuilding a new kind of encampment.

It wasn’t hard to spot the camp as I crept up 24th Avenue: large signs on the corner greet you first, brightly colored blue tarps peak out around the trees, and everywhere you look, you see a tent.  The word crammed doesn’t quite do it justice.  Cozied might be more like it. Tents sit back to back or side to side to maximize space, pathways are defined as the narrow aisles where tents are not. There is privacy, yes, but there’s more closeness.  Resident Jeffery Martin Johnson told me they were “stuffed together like sardines in a can.” And while I get his drift with space issues, the sardine image conveys something quite a bit squishier and smellier than what I experienced at Camp Dearborn.

The Umoja Peace Center is temporarily hosting the Camp Dearborn site, at the invitation of Omari Tahir-Garrett, Umoja’s founder and “caretaker” (his words).  Umoja is one of a number of organizations supporting Camp Dearborn’s creation.  Trout notes that, in addition to Patacara Community Services, key support comes from SAFE, SeaSol, Rising Tide and Food Not Bombs.  She also noted that Operation Sack Lunch will begin delivering lunch five days a week in the near future.

I am greeted by Gabriella Duncan, Seattle homeless advocate and advisor to Camp Dearborn, – who  gives me a tour.  Grasping my shoulders, she turns me to face north, then west, then south, then east. “There!” she proclaims with a glimmer in her eye. “You’ve seen it all!”  It’s a good joke that gets more than one laugh.  Indeed, the entirety of the camp can be seen by turning in a circle.  But in order to see deeper than structures, I have to talk to the residents – the very thing I’m anxious to do.

As I settle down in a white plastic lawn chair to chat with siblings Troy and Robin Morgan, a few folks have made coffee and are walking the French Press from open tent flap to open tent flap, offering a steaming cup.  Robin and Troy sit across from me and begin to share about their experience at Nickelsville, their frustration with a lack of attention from elected officials, and their hopes for the future.

They both mention unfair media coverage portraying camp residents in a bad light, branding them all as armed drug dealers.  They insist that these stereotypes are untrue, and a simple trip to the camp would confirm this.  “You can walk around this camp,” Robin insists.  “You don’t see needles lying around.  We’re not all toting machetes and going off!”  I agree.  This camp is clean, calm and quiet.

Troy speaks with passion about the potential Camp Dearborn has to change the way homelessness is dealt with in Seattle.  “There’s better ways of handling the homeless in this town,” he notes.  “There’s better ways of treating them.” He is interrupted mid-thought by a neighbor passing by, offering cartons of Smith Brother’s milk to everyone.  Troy accepts one for himself, and another for Robin, and waves at the milkman.  “Thank you, thank you. See!” he exclaims, pointing to the neighbor walking up the lawn.  “That’s what I mean. Helping your fellow neighbors out.  He got a donation for himself and he spreads it around.”  Troy shakes his head appreciatively and his smile grows.  “That’s what our whole goal is [at this camp].  It’s not to say, ‘yeah we have a camp [but] you’re not allowed here.’ No.  Every homeless person on the street is allowed to come here and get aid from us.”

Levi Brown, a live-in ally of Camp Dearborn, agrees. He says shared resources are key and notes that the residents themselves are a significant resource, offering different skills, life experiences, knowledge and abilities.  When such resources are shared, it’s a good thing. “It’s like having a neighbor in the ‘50s,” he says.  “’You want some sugar?’ ‘Sure, you can have some sugar!’”  He laughs heartily.  “So, we’re doing a good job of sharing sugar.”

Of course it’s a bit more complicated at Camp Dearborn than a cup of sugar for Mrs. Cleaver in 1957. Celia Carey, camp resident, anthropologist and veteran, calls Camp Dearborn a “work in progress,” noting that they are currently “just trying to establish what everybody brings to the table.”  They’ve only been on the Umoja site for two weeks and still have much to figure out.  But they also have a lot to offer – a sentiment expressed in one way or another from everyone I spoke to.  Levi Brown notes a number of abilities and talents present at camp: “There’s a whole lot of assets in here.  In this community we have a whole lot of diversity.”

It is never easy to build a new community in a shared living situation.  When you add the pressures of poverty and homelessness as well as complicating personal factors that often accompany homelessness the challenge of coming together in self-governance is no small task.  But the camp residents seem up to the effort as do their advisors, allies and supporters.

Polly Trout certainly believes the camp residents are up to the challenge.  She has faith in their abilities, noting that too often our homeless policy infantilizes people, “treating them like children because they are poor.”  She is confident that these adults are capable of true self-governance and she is impassioned by the opportunity to help them create a sustainable model for this and future program sites.

Camp Dearborn is certainly still a work in progress – as is Trout’s plan.  When first posted on the Patacara website, Polly called it a “rough draft” and stated: “Everyone is invited to give feedback before I create a final draft!” A more solidified version is up now and it’s a compelling rough draft: a blue-print for four sites each with a different approach designed to fit the varied needs and desires of the varied populations experiencing homelessness in Seattle.

The one thing Trout calls most important, however, is dignity and respect.  “We need to respect people,” she says, “and treat them with dignity and compassion, and give them supportive services so they can get back in charge of their own life and make their own decisions about things.” Her priorities for such services are getting every camper signed up for Coordinated Entry housing lists, health insurance, ORCA Lift cards and IDs, as well as assistance in returning to school or applying for jobs.

An essential part of this dignity that I heard repeatedly at Camp Dearborn is the need to change people’s perception of what a “homeless camp” is.  It is important to the residents at Camp Dearborn that they be seen as they truly are: people who have fallen on hard times and are trying their best to find a way out though the mutual support and relative safety of other folks in a similar position.

Cecilia Carey might even say they’re doing better than just “getting by” or looking out for themselves.  She suggested that, “in a twisted way,” the sweep of the old Nickelsville was almost a positive thing as it allowed the campers’ true colors to shine through in their care for one another.  She says it was “an example of people in crisis coming together and just doing what they could. People got sick ‘cause they were standing out in the cold rain waiting to make sure other people didn’t get stuck out in the cold rain.  It was a sh*tty experience, but that’s how you see what people are made of. And everyone stepped up.”

As they continue to step up, Camp Dearborn has lots of needs.  Their primary need is a permanent site.  The lot at Umoja Peace Center is only temporary and they are looking for a privately owned vacant lot to be leased to a nonprofit.

A GoFundMe campaign has recently been set up to help cover costs for basic needs such as portable toilets, food and camping basics.

Hot meals are greatly appreciated, and a meal train has been set up to help people sign up.

As I leave Camp Dearborn, I am filled with hope, which is not to say I expect a smooth and easy path.  As with any gathered group of people, conflict and difficulty will undoubtedly emerge.  With the added pressures of poverty, health issues, addiction, and mental illness experienced by many of the camp residents, Camp Dearborn’s path is likely to present challenge after challenge.

And yet, in every camp resident I saw and spoke to, I felt optimism and energy.  There is something powerful about a new beginning – about people joining together to make something new and better – and I felt that energy all over the beautiful camp.  There is so much opportunity for this group of people to truly create a home for each other.  As Trout put it, “even if they’re houseless they still feel like they have a home, they feel like they have a community where they’re known and seen and valued, where they have people to laugh with, people to sing with.”

Marilee Jolin is a regular contributor to the Emerald and lives in Beacon Hill with her husband and two daughters. 

Featured Image courtesy of Alex Garland