by Carolyn Bick
The mountain of trash that caught fire in South Seattle on the afternoon of May 18 has been sitting under Interstate 5 for several years, according to both residents of the encampment in which the trash pile is located, and outreach workers. But though officials from both the City of Seattle and Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) have in that time visited the encampment, and the city’s Navigation Team appears to have done a full encampment sweep in late May 2018, neither city nor state officials have taken action to remove the trash.
Encampment resident Shawn Linder has been living down the hill from the trash pile for the past year. The trash pile is at the very top of the hill on which the encampment is situated. The encampment starts at the base of the hill and goes to the top, with few people living towards the top, due to the steep climb.
Prior to living in the encampment, Linder had been visiting the encampment for several years, because he had a friend who lived there. He said the sprawling mess, composed of everything from rusted-over bike frames to coolers and lawn chairs, has been there for at least six years, and that officials have known about it for a long time.
Linder said that he has seen officials from WSDOT walk all the way up to the top of the hill to take pictures of the area beneath I-5, and has seen City of Seattle officials do walkthroughs of the whole encampment, including the top of the hill. He said the last walkthrough inspection of the whole encampment happened about a week-and-a-half ago in early May.
WSDOT Public Information Officer Bart Treece confirmed that WSDOT officials visited the encampment about five months ago, but couldn’t confirm if they went to the top of the hill where the trash pile is located, if the officials took pictures, or why they were there. The state owns the land on which the pile is located.
REACH’s SODO Business Improvement Area (BIA) Outreach Care Coordinator Rebecca Gilley said that, according to the notes REACH has on file, the Navigation Team’s last encampment sweep there appears to have been sometime in late May 2018. At that time, she said, REACH was associated with the Navigation Team, a group of officers and Human Service Department employees.
Gilley could not share everything written in the file regarding that particular sweep, but could confirm that the notes indicate the sweep team went up to the top of the hill and saw the trash pile.
“It does seem as though, particularly on top of the hill, that there was a lot of garbage,” Gilley said. “I can confirm that the trash was there pre-cleanup. I can’t guarantee that they did or didn’t clean it up, but it sounds like there has been a lot of trash in that particular spot. … We’ve got notes from [May] 21 and [May] 29[, 2018,] saying that there was trash up there on the side of the hill.”
She said there are no notes indicating whether the Navigation Team made a follow-up visit after the apparent sweep.
In an email to the Emerald, City of Seattle Director of External Affairs Will Lemke said “[i]t is fair to say the encampment in the area has not been removed by the Navigation Team since 2018.”
“The team was up there in late March of this year to remove garbage, waste, and debris from the encampment to reduce public health and safety risks. The area was last inspected (which in your terms means walking the whole area) in early May of this year,” Lemke’s email continued, which corroborates Linder’s recollection of the timing of the last walkthrough inspection.
Speaking on behalf of the Navigation Team from the Joint Information Center, Public Information Officer Kari Tupper said in an email to the Emerald that, during a sweep, “all debris, waste, and garbage is removed, and suitable items are placed into storage.”
The Emerald could not confirm before deadline why the Navigation Team would not have cleaned up the trash pile.
Though Linder isn’t worried about being swept, not everyone in the encampment or homeless outreach community feels the same way, according to nearby resident and community outreach coordinator Dee Powers, who also confirmed that the trash pile had been there for several years. Powers worries that the encampment’s residents will be blamed for the blaze and subsequently swept by the city’s Navigation Team, before an investigation into the fire’s cause can be concluded.
Public Information Officer David Cuerpo of the Seattle Fire Department said there was no damage done to the I-5 infrastructure above the trash pile. He said that the department has yet to complete its investigation into the fire. Cuerpo noted that the 50-foot-by-100-foot fire could have been caused by anything, including an errant cigarette flicked out a window from a passing vehicle on I-5, but the department doesn’t suspect any malicious activity. Because there are also no eyewitnesses or traffic cameras to aid in the investigation, Cuerpo said the cause of the fire will be difficult to determine.
According to Linder, several encampment residents said they remember seeing someone they didn’t recognize at the top of the hill the day of the fire. When Linder went to look at the aftermath of the fire, he said he saw what looked like the remains of an improperly snuffed-out campfire.
Gilley said there is mounting concern among the business owners in the area, as well as from the residents who live across the street from the encampment. She said they are worried about the gas line that runs underground at the bottom of the hill. She said this concern is underscored by still-fresh memories of a big fire that broke out in the encampment in January.
SODO BIA’s Executive Director Erin Goodman said that area businesses have been pushing for a sweep for months, and that this recent fire made pushing for a sweep that much more of a priority. She was also on the I-5 System Partnership coordinated by WSDOT last year to address vulnerabilities in the state’s transportation systems.
Goodman said she is concerned not only about the gas line, but also about the damage fire can do to concrete and cement. The decades-old highway system above the trash pile is currently one of the only routes through which Seattle can receive goods, because the West Seattle Bridge is out of commission.
Linder said that he and many other residents have been trying to make a dent in the trash pile by hauling trash away. Currently, he said, only about four people live near the pile, and that he and others trying to get rid of the trash try to ensure people living closer to the top of the hill don’t add to the already overwhelming amount of refuse.
“We are trying to clean it up so that way we are not bum rushed out of here, and we are all scrambling trying to find somewhere else to camp,” Linder said. “A lot of us know and realize that, if the area is clean and kept that way … the lower on the radar, basically, that will be, so that way we don’t have to pack up and move.”
Powers’ partner, Devin, who chose not to give his last name, also said that people who start out-of-control fires are booted out of the encampment, and barred from returning.
Though Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) Public Information Officer Sabrina Register confirmed in an email to the Emerald that SPU provides trash pickup for the encampment site at the bottom of the hill, it does not service the top of the hill, “due to several factors, including safety and accessibility challenges for outreach and trash removal vendors.”
Register said she is not aware of any requests from encampment residents to clean the area in question.
Powers said that people living in encampments usually don’t reach out to city officials to request cleanup or work crews, because “work crews lead to sweeps.”
“They want to be autonomous, other than supportive services or housing services. They don’t want the city coming in, because if the city does it, you get moved,” Powers said.
Powers said the fear of a potential sweep has been amplified in light of the City of Seattle’s decision to move forward with four large, high-profile sweeps within the last three weeks, despite not meeting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations regarding appropriate safety measures for the homeless community, during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Powers said the number of high-profile sweeps in about as many weeks is noteworthy. Though there is a bill to restrict sweeps awaiting a vote in the Seattle City Council, Powers worries it won’t come in time.
“I am concerned because of how the city has ramped up in their sweeps, since the governor started reopening the state on May 5,” Powers said. “Sweeps started to pick up in frequency that day. … Previous to the pandemic, I was only getting word about a big sweep, like, once a month or so — like, 20-plus people. They are making up for lost time, right now.”
Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You can reach them here.
Featured photo: The SODO encampment in Seattle, Washington, is quiet on a sunny May 10, 2020.